Tabloidization: How Our Endless Desire for Sensational News is Crowding Out Great Leaders

October 16 main image

A google search of articles relating President Obama turned up over 163,000 articles in the last day alone.  Is the overexposure of public officials crowding out future great leaders?

I read a fascinating article today by Aaron David Miller about how greatness in American presidencies is likely drawing to a close.  He argues, quite accurately in my opinion, that exceptional presidents are governed as much by the personalities as the circumstances and that great Presidents are increasingly more difficult to come about.  Miller lists a series of factors to justify this claim, but one of them stuck out: “an intrusive, omnipresent, and nonstop media.”

To be sure, the explosion of the media is a double edged sword: on one hand it has given an outlet for people such as myself to discuss, become more knowledge, and contribute in a meaningful way to the public policy discourse.  On the other hand, it has also given rise to a greater quantity of lesser quality journalism, including an annoying tendency to focus on mundane personal details and, more worrisome still, to disqualify leaders for their pasts.

Obviously I’m not saying that we should just elect anyone to any position, but some of the greatest leaders in history often dabbled in unsavory activities.  Franklin Roosevelt was disabled and had numerous mistresses, JFK was a notorious womanizer, Churchill’s affinity for alcohol is well document.  This list doesn’t even count the statements that historic leaders undoubtedly made in private that today would be cause for a media eruption the likes of which would make Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comment seem minuscule.

Obviously I’m not condoning the nefarious behavior or unwise comments made by these leaders, rather I think they shouldn’t be exclusive grounds for dismissal.  In today’s media environment, sensationalist news often trumps the finer details of policy (just look at the front page of CNN.com!).  Society is so focused on the personalities of politicians that commentators actually “decipher” policy based on the perceived state of mind of our leaders.

It takes a very dedicated person to wish to seek public office as a growing prerequisite is having your entire life scanned, examined, deconstructed, and analyzed.  Even for the most immaculate person, this public unveiling is hardly a pleasant task.  At the same time, this overexposure is doubtlessly dissuading countless talented individuals from seeking public office out of concern for their privacy.  Scrutinizing public officials is a good thing in a democracy, and that’s why a free media is vital, yet does the contents of the President’s brunch last weekend really matter to voters?  I would argue that it doesn’t.  Rather we should focus on what the President (or any leader for that matter) is doing for his or her country and judge him and his ideas accordingly.

It’s a sad indictment of Western Politics that we, the electorate, are more interested in the latest sex scandal or personal detail than the intricacies of decision making and policies.  As an example, the French tabloid magazine Closer saw its weekly sales explode after it published a headline-grabbing story about the President’s sex life.  Why does this even matter?  Our democracies would be much better off if we focused on critically analyzing the decisions of our leaders rather than where (or whom) they spend their nights with.

I don’t blame the public for this sad state of affairs.  We are all, in truth, subject to an endless stream sub-par journalism that enhances sensationalism in an attempt to boost sales.  The reality is, we live in a world where the Buzzfeedesque model (which isn’t all bad) is far more profitable than the in-depth journalism of the New York Times.  Media sources that were once focused on bringing in depth analysis have sunk into the tasteless, yet profitable, field of yellow journalism.  As consumers, it is our responsibility to make clear that, although tabloid journalism has a place in the market, it should not be branded as or take the place of news or analysis.  We should strive to hold our leaders accountable but recognize that, just like us, they are imperfect human beings.  If we stand around waiting for an immaculate leader with new and fresh ideas who will change everything without ever being involved in the slightest scandal, we are just setting ourselves up to be disappointed.  Let us strive instead to focus on what, rather than who, our leaders do!

For more on this topic:

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/10/14/peak_president_american_leadership