The lead for today’s installment of Meet the Press included the tease: “Is President Obama already a ‘lame duck’?”
In 1933, the passage of the 20th Amendment shortened the period between the presidential election and the inauguration of the president so that if a sitting president were a “lame duck”—that is, either lost the election or chose not to run for re-election– the transition period would be shortened and the new president could assume office and attempt to address pressing issues in January, rather than in March. In 1933, as the nation sank ever more precipitously into the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression, expediting the transfer of power made a great deal of sense to just about everyone—except, of course, for those relative few who thought that Herbert Hoover was doing a fine job.
So how is it that anyone is asking whether President Obama is a “lame duck” in just the fifth month of his second term?
Although I am certain that it suits the GOP to have him already regarded as a “lame duck,” I think that this absurdity is much more media-driven than media-reported.
The 24/7 cable news stations (something of a misnomer for MSNBC since for half of each weekend, it runs reality-television programming starring inmates in high-security prisons) have accelerated the trend toward emphasizing news bytes over in-depth exposes. You would think that the opposite would be true—that having 24 hours to fill would provide an opportunity for more extensive and substantive investigative reporting. But 60 Minutes and PBS are now anomalies, not models.
The cable news stations are corporate-owned and ratings-driven. So just as most current situation comedies focus not on character development and the comic possibilities of actual situations but, instead, provide forced set-ups for forced one-liners that seem as though they ought to be funnier than they actually are, so, too, the cable news stations provide reporting on events that always seems superficial and less meaningful than it ought to be.
Think of how many times you have watched coverage of a “breaking” news event and have noticed the following: the anchors repeat the same basic facts again and again, each time as if all of their viewers might be the viewer who is just tuning in, but as soon as a “guest” commentator starts to say something interesting that requires more than thirty seconds to articulate, the anchor cuts off the commentary by apologizing that “we have run out of time.” I often find myself saying to the television, “Really? Take a look at the clock behind you? You’ve endless hours to fill, you will be talking about this one event for the next five days, and over most of those five days, you won’t know much more than you know now.”
So, you might be asking, what does all of this have to do with the issue of when a president or another politician becomes a “lame duck”?
I think that it is fairly obvious that in this current environment, the media is more interested in covering political campaigns than in covering government. Beyond the establishment of a platform, a political campaign is almost wholly a collection of sound bytes. A candidate moves quickly from one location to another, from one topic to another, and frequently given the difficulties in sustaining such campaigning error-free, from one gaffe to another. If an issue cannot be reduced to a pithy or controversy-causing sound byte, there isn’t time to discuss it. Or at least that seems to be the most fundamental ground rule on which the politicians and the media seem to have agreed.
How else to explain that, during the most recent and extraordinarily extended presidential campaign, almost nothing was said about the longest—and still ongoing—war in American history, almost nothing was said about the expanding numbers of those in poverty and near-poverty because of the Great Recession, and almost nothing was said about the whole host of pressing environmental issues that just about everyone else in the world is discussing. Instead of any serious, substantive discussion of climate change and energy policies, all we heard were campaign catchphrases about the Keystone XL Pipeline and Solyndra.
Perhaps that is the nature of political campaigns. But it is not the nature of government.
Major pieces of legislation may be written across hundreds or thousands of pages for all sorts of reasons, but what is in those hundreds and thousands of pages will almost certainly have a very direct impact on some American lives, if not all of our lives. Beyond, of course, the legislators who vote on legislation that they almost never read and, instead, fashion an opinion about based on conversational sound bytes, someone should be reading all of that fine print and letting us know what’s in it and what it means—or at least what they think that it means.
If the media isn’t going to tell us something more than we can get in a sound byte, then why should we continue to listen? Or to read?
Over the past two decades, the daily newspapers and weekly news magazines have moved increasingly toward a “tabloid” coverage of events, increasingly trying to imitate what someone can get online. But most of what is online is free, and newspapers and news magazines aren’t free. That, in a nutshell, is why most newspapers and news magazines that try to look like web sites are doomed.
There is a lesson here that is applicable for higher education. We have gotten into a mode in which we respond to external challenges by trying to accommodate them rather than to resist them. So, even though the for-profit bubble has burst, online courses have, in less than a decade, gone from being very suspect to being so widely accepted that even MOOCs, which are the least pedagogically defensible form of online course, are being suggested as acceptable substitutes for courses in our core curricula.
MOOCs aren’t education. They’re digitally enhanced television. And even educational television isn’t education. If it were, it would be called “televised education.”