If there is one thing I’ve learned over years of being involved in politics it’s that most of the news we get — whether from unbiased sources or through the colored lens of right- or left-leaning partisan media — is a superficial collection of gossip and nonsense.
I have more love and respect for journalism than just about any member of the Republican Party, but I think even the most talented and hard-working reporters would admit that the public discourse, driven by the news, is pretty shallow.
But it is hard to blame this entirely on the media when we the news consumers help shape their behavior. How else can you describe Miley Cyrus getting 12 times more Web traffic for stories about her dancing with giant bears and grinding up against Beetlejuice than stories relating to Syria, which involved gas attacks against civilians and children, and a national debate about whether to go to war?
Those in the news business understand what sells papers, drives clicks on websites and gets viewers on television. So it is hard to blame them for focusing on the most absurd stories that attract consumption of news instead of delivering important news. So, really, this is our fault, not theirs.
In Maine, as it relates to the administration of the current governor and his political party, we have seen this up close and personal for three years now. The Portland Press Herald writing a story about the governor making an obvious (if macabre) joke about blowing up some electrons in a flight simulator game whips up outrage among the governor’s opponents, while generating anger and defensiveness among his supporters. The result? Jackpot for the news organization.
Rinse, wash, repeat. This is the modus operandi when it comes to just about any story involving the governor.
Were that same paper to write a story about Maine’s falling unemployment rate, or the savings produced by government reform, the collective sound of crickets would likely result.
So instead of stories about what a person or party is actually doing with the power they were entrusted with, we get stories about this remark and who is angry about it, or that gaffe and who makes fun of it, or that person who throws that person under the bus, or why this person secretly hates that person.
So what are we missing?
Well to start, we are missing what is actually happening in government. Outside of a few sensational cases (budget veto, et al), what laws are passed, and what actions are taken by the people elected to go to Augusta are simply not covered.
For instance, the recently ousted Republican majority in the Legislature, together with the governor, made significant changes to Maine’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
For years, moderates and liberals in the state — not the chattering class of politicians, mind you, but actual, real people — would complain almost as loudly as conservatives about waste in the welfare system. I have family members who spent some time in low-income housing, and were on welfare, and one of the things that always struck me was that the complaints about the system were loudest when I would spend time there.
People would see their neighbors take what was supposed to be a helping hand to get back on ones’ feet and turn it into a lifestyle. Prior to the Republican takeover in Augusta, Maine was one of only seven states to have no lifetime limit on these cash welfare benefits. Everyone knew it, and everyone felt it was ridiculous, yet nothing changed.
Until 2011, of course, when Republicans in the Legislature capped TANF eligibility at five years. A portion of the savings from that small change went into funding job programs across several government departments, helping Mainers move from welfare to work.
We’ve also missed entirely that Maine’s unemployment rate has dropped from 8 percent when the governor and Republican Legislature were sworn in, to 6.8 percent today.
Those are just a couple small examples. There is more, and most people are entirely unaware. I hope that changes.
Everyone in the Augusta political machine will be up for election again in 2014, from the governor on down. The optimist in me would like to think that voters will respond to actual facts about what our leaders do (and do not do) in office and make their judgments accordingly.
A real examination would show four decades of business as usual by the Democrats, and a real record of accomplishment by the Republicans, followed up by more of the same from current Democratic power brokers once again.
If only those were the criteria upon which we decided elections. Alas.