For her big announcement last week, Michele Bachmann neither convened a news conference nor waited for some other moment when she was in public, reporters and television cameras nearby. She didn’t even pick a favorably inclined journalist for the kind of one-on-one interview in which politicians have often parceled out their revelations and answered a few tame questions.
She went for something less extemporaneous than any of that, packaging the declaration that she wouldn’t seek a fifth congressional term in a lacquered online video. It could easily have been mistaken for a campaign ad, with lighting that flattered her, music to her liking and a script that she could read in as many takes as she desired. There was no risk of stammer or flop sweat, no possibility of interruption from reporters itching to challenge her self-aggrandizing version of events. Weird, no?
Anthony Weiner had taken the same controlled and controlling approach a week earlier with the announcement of his mayoral bid. Instead of venturing onto the stage, he hid behind the curtains, like the wizard of Oz, and let a Web video of his own do his talking for him. It showed him beside his wife. It showed him with their baby. It was a hologram of domesticity and devotion, and it prevented the immediate intrusion of shouted queries: Anthony, are voters ready for a mayor whose assets have been as visible as yours?
Granted, he was commencing a campaign in extraordinary circumstances. But his and Bachmann’s general strategy — find a route around the news media, so you can say your piece at your own tempo, on your own terms — was employed just a few months earlier, in less extraordinary circumstances, by Hillary Clinton. She needed to make a politically crucial pivot toward a long-awaited endorsement of gay marriage, and she, too, did so in a meticulously composed video on the Web. In that safe, unspontaneous space, she could avoid questions about why she trailed many other Democrats on the issue and whether it troubled her that her husband had signed the Defense of Marriage Act back when the two of them were in the White House.
Lately we journalists have been agitated, justifiably, by the Obama administration’s prosecution of leakers and spying on the reporters and news organizations who set up or sop up those leaks. It’s an overzealous overreach and a serious threat to our ability to police government, which has shown time and again that it needs policing.
But our role and relevance are arguably even more imperiled by politicians’ ability, in this newly wired world of ours, to go around us and present themselves in packages that we can’t simultaneously unwrap. To get a message out, they don’t have to beseech a network’s indulgence. They don’t have to rely on a newspaper’s attention. The Bachmann, Weiner and Clinton videos are especially vivid examples of that, reflections and harbingers of an era in which YouTube is the public square, and the fourth estate is a borderline obsolescent one.
Some of you are nodding and saying: “Great! You journalists have brought this on yourselves.” To a large extent, we have. With our cynicism, superficiality, susceptibility to carnival barkers and tendency to see all politics in terms of the contest rather than the content, we’ve earned a level of public esteem not much higher than the one that members of Congress bask in. The repugnant hounding the reviled: That’s the Beltway media situation in a rancid nutshell.
And there are some potentially positive consequences of a departure from the media norm. Will candidates using the unfiltered, far-reaching thoroughfare of cyberspace be able to liberate themselves from the physically grueling slog of stumping, which has almost nothing to do with their fitness for office and potential for governance? That could open up politics to talented people turned off by the endless bus tours. It could permit candidates to spend less time on the road, more time plotting what to do in the jobs they’re angling to get.
But it’s also a troubling new tool with which to construct a Potemkin identity, a facade at odds with anything behind it. Not wholly new: For a while now, candidates have used Web video for ads, biographical sketches and the like, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign announcement for the 2008 presidential election was a statement, with accompanying video, on her website. But that video was essentially an arrow among many in a robust quiver. It wasn’t an act of evasion.
If there’s a trend line at work, it’s of politicians’ being ever more orchestrated and anxious about the establishment of their own narratives (and they were plenty orchestrated from the get-go). President Barack Obama rose to national prominence literally on the power of his own storytelling, with an electrifying convention speech and a best-selling memoir, and has since been emphatic about the polish of his public appearances and the distance at which reporters are kept. He prefers teleprompters and the soft focus of “The View,” Letterman and “Entertainment Tonight” to potentially messy interactions with political reporters.
And that kind of extreme control feeds a vicious cycle. A suspicious, scandal-primed press corps yields wary politicians, whose reticence and guardedness foster greater suspicion still. “Bad behavior from both sides feeds more bad behavior,” observed Bradley Tusk, who managed Michael Bloomberg’s 2009 mayoral campaign.
The Clinton, Weiner and Bachmann videos, all different but related, simply ratchet up the effort to marginalize naysaying reporters and neutralize skeptical reporting. And as Chris Lehane, a Democratic political strategist, pointed out to me, they take a page from corporate America, whose chieftains have used that same format, as opposed to news conferences or interviews, to distribute sensitive communiqus. Lehane mentioned, for example, the 2007 video in which David Neeleman, then the CEO of JetBlue, explained the airline’s brand-quaking operations meltdown.
But corporations answer only to shareholders and customers. Politicians answer to all of us, and have a scarier kind of power, easily abused. So we must see them in environments that aren’t necessarily tailored to their advantage. We must be able to poke and meddle. It may not be a pretty sight, and we journalists may not be doing it in a pretty way, but eliminate that and you wind up with something even less pretty: Bachmann, robotically composed, telling you that she’s quitting for purely high-minded reasons, with the vigor of the republic foremost in her heart.
That’s a whole lot further from the truth than anything we wretched scribes put out.
Contact Mr. Bruni or find out more about him at http://topics.nytimes.com/top/opinion/editorialsandoped/oped/columnists/frankbruni/index.html.