The following is an example based on a real-world situation. Some details and names have been obscured:
It’s 4:23 p.m. on a Thursday and I get a call from a reporter.
“What’s your candidate’s position on the Medicaid shortfall and how would she seek to close the gap which could be as much as $300 million in the coming fiscal years. My deadline is 6 p.m.”
OK, mister reporter, do you want a thoughtful plan or do you want empty campaign rhetoric? Because, if you were truly interested in a thoughtful plan, you’d maybe give us a day or so to respond with something, oh I don’t know, thoughtful.
But, since you are giving us an hour and 37 minutes, we will endeavor to provide passable pablum that hopefully will not bite us in the ass should we win this election.
See where I’m going with this?
That day I took my hour and 37 minutes, I huddled with our research team, I tried to get experts on the horn, I consulted in depth and detail with the boss who was on the road with spotty cell service.
We came up with a principled statement. We oppose cuts to health-care for the poor, but recognize that the benefit package can be revisited and savings could be realized through a less robust package of benefits. We would also prioritize efforts to root out waste, fraud and abuse; and seek to negotiate better deals with the insurance companies that manage the program.
Does that get us to $300 million? Not hardly. But it’s not bad for an hour and 37 minutes.
Now, some of you may say we should have that plan already roughed out and the public has a right to know the plan.
But campaigns don’t work that way. Our campaign had an extremely robust and detailed policy agenda, but we didn’t have answers for every single contingency or policy area. No campaigns do.
So regardless of what we said, it was an easy excuse for a certain paper that shall remain nameless to opine something along the lines of: Campaigns light on details about how they’d solve Medicaid crisis.
Well, no, you set up the hour-and-37-minute fire drill – you got what you wanted. If you really wanted thoughtful answers, you’d have provided more time.
So, just what does the public want or deserve?
The reporters and editors will say we need to put you on the spot to get unvarnished answers.
But all that does is drive campaigns and interview subjects to develop finely honed stock messages – words and sentences that mix and match easily but ultimately reveal little.
Well, for a number of reasons.
- This message will be filtered through a reporter, editor and headline writer – so we need to keep it simple so it can’t get screwed up. “No new taxes.” “No cuts to education.”
- In a world of talking heads and gotcha, you must avoid saying anything where you will later be called a flip-flopper by your opponent or media talking heads.
- The public is generally half paying attention (they’re busy, remember) so you need something that resonates. Hence the term: “sound bite.”
Therein is the death of deliberation.
Reporters want answers now and subjects are often all too aware that absolutely everything they say can and will be used against them in the future.
That mix leads to no meaningful information entering the public discourse. Just more empty fodder for faces on TV to yak about.
And this is how we get our information to make our electoral decisions.