Friday, May 09, 2008

Negative Attracts Negative

The great Chris “Mad Dog” Russo recently appeared on an HBO show hosted by the almost equally great Bob Costas to talk about the phenomenon of sports talk radio. Chris essentially plays as a character a louder, more combative version of himself on his talk radio show on WFAN in New York. But on Costas’ show, as I suspect in real life, Chris is a bright and insightful guy.

Russo made the point that sports talk tends to emphasize the negative. IF a NY sports team messes up, or a player messes up, his show will go on and on, beating a dead horse, analyzing the failure. On the other hand, of course, positive achievements are mentioned, analyzed and discussed, but far more rarely and far more briefly. Russo observed that negativity was simply inherent in the medium. It reminded me of Michael Moore’s observation about local news – the old “if it bleeds it leads.”

Whether there is something inherently negative in the non-fiction media, or whether the people who control it make it negative for other reasons, there can be no real doubt that such media does tend to emphasize and gravitate toward negative stories. I don’t think that this phenomenon began as a product of any kind of political bias.

However, of the two political parties, one has a similarly inherent negative bias. The Republican party, especially under the modern reign of the Reagan-Bush crowd, is inherently negative. Their political position is often summed up by friend and foe alike as “smaller government, lower taxes, less government intervention.” This is a critique – a negative reaction. Their whole movement is a nothing more than a sustained complaint.

In thinking about the way in which the media seems obsessed with giving Republicans positive coverage and the Democrats negative coverage, there are several important factors to consider. (Two current examples to consider: Obama’s pastor is nearly wall-to-wall, while McCain’s spiritual endorsers are barely covered, and McCain’s independently wealthy wife isn’t going to release her tax returns (no big deal), while John Kerry’s independently wealthy wife didn’t release her tax returns (scandal!).) Certainly the fact that Republicans hold reporters accountable for their stories in a way that the Democrats do not is such a factor. The fact that the media is controlled by people who are sympathetic to Republicans for business reasons is another. The fact that most beat reporters are in fact liberal and therefore end to overcompensate for their personal bias is another.

But I do think one such factor is this inherent negativity of the medium. The press likes to emphasize negative stories. It’s what they’re focused on. The Republicans are the party of Negative Stories. There’s a natural affinity between the media and the Republicans, a sort of symbiosis: the press needs negativity, the Republicans need air time. This is particularly true since their views are held by a stubbornly small minority, they need to whip up support more strenuously. Plus, their way of whipping up support is not to tout their own ideas (of which they have none), but rather to demonize and attack the Democrats – a perfect topic for the press, just as demonizing the hapless goalie or unlucky quarterback makes for compelling sports talk radio.

The press is likely to have an affinity for the Republicans as long as the Republicans remain addicted to their aggressively negative ways. Of course, this addiction may last forever, but there is always a chance that in their search for votes, the Republicans of the future may conclude that they need to develop some ideas of their own. As Judy Temuda (sp?) used to say “it could happen.” Right?

Update: A clear example of this is in this morning’s Washington Post. A story is prominently featured about a federal arts commission objecting to a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. as excessively confrontational and vaguely totalitarian. (It is being sculpted in China, to boot.) This negative story will receive far more play than the earlier positive story announcing the statue’s design in the first place.

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