Season Four of the television comedy Parks and Recreation is all about Leslie Knope, Deputy Director of the Parks Department, running for City Council. Through the comedy emerges multiple truths about the inauthenticity of the media presentation of performances during campaigns. Knope, a dedicated citizen and enthusiastic public service employee, is running against Bobby Newport, airhead and heir to the head of his father’s candy company (Sweetums) that rules the town.
Newport hires an experienced campaign manager from DC who knows exactly how to get the media to frame Newport in a positive light no matter what he does. She directs his every move and stages moments that the gullible people of Pawnee buy into without question. The show makes a running gag of the media taking moments of Knope’s campaign appearances out of context. When Knope does something great for the town, the media find some way to take a bad picture or twist a quote it into something completely opposite of what Knope meant.
Even though it is a silly show, many moments in the campaign episodes encompass what Joan Didion’s argument in Insider Baseball is about. The media portrays inauthentic performances of candidates, and these portrayals are detached from the “real world.”
Didion helps to present her argument in an anecdote from when she stood among other reporters as they took pictures of 1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis throwing ball on the tarmac with his press secretary and daughter. Didion provides as evidence an excerpt from The US News & World Report glowingly representing Dukakis as a family man who loves to throw ball around, because he is tough, and that he is just a normal guy trying to get some exercise in his busy day.
This is why we need interpretive journalism and commentary on news. Media is the remedy as well as the curse to the problem of inauthentic representation of candidates in campaigns. Kevin G. Barnhurst in NPR and The New Long Journalism explains that media has progressed from plain coverage to being more interpretative, negative and emotional over time. The role of journalists, he says to be the “sense-makers” in their reporting. Barhnart also points out that it is common for journalists to place themselves in the role of expert source. This promulgates the curse of creating a realistic façade around campaign stops. This way, we only see some events through journalists’ eyes. We were not on the tarmac to see Dukakis’ staged ball toss, so media automatically become our expert source on the event. Didion became disenchanted with this.
Many may argue that long form interpretive journalism is negative and is a dramatized view of the news. That is partially true, but it also plays watchdog and calls out fakeness. (Curious how the media could play watchdog on other media in this situation). The cure is for interpretive journalism to criticize what happened on the tarmac. It only takes a few journalists to say “It looked fake and peculiar for Dukakis to be throwing the ball on the tarmac as the media watched,” or even to take the same exact things said in the excerpt from US News & World Report and use vocabulary that calls into question the authenticity of the moment.
Even though voting citizens are fairly educated, they need a little bit of nudging when it comes to critically analyzing campaigns. The citizens of the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana in Parks and Recreation are an exaggeration of our citizens’ need to be critically nudged. In the big candidate debate for city council, Bobby Newport says “I’m against crime, and I’m not ashamed to admit it,” to a round of thunderous applause. Anyone can stitch together patriotic words that no one else would disagree with. This is why news analysis and interpretation are important, so they can be critical of empty claims such as these.
One could draw parallels between Newport’s debate comments and Dukakis’ speeches in San Jose, San Diego and his speech on the last night of the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. In his California speeches, Dukakis made comments such as “we’re going to make teaching a valued profession in this country,” and, “I want to work with you and with working people all over this country.” Didion criticized this kind of talk later, saying “A problem named seemed, for both campaigns, a problem solved.” In the DNC speech, reporters wrote radiant reviews of Dukakis, praising him for his best speech and the moment in which he finally seemed like a passionate leader. Didion, who was there, did not share the sentiment that the speech was particularly electrifying. It was just another monotonous campaign speech.
Although biased journalism is partly the cause of the problem, it seems as if it could play a role in being the solution too, with interpretive articles encouraging citizens to be critical of what they see on different media outlets. However, that would be in a perfect world and unfortunately there are no guarantees that it would actually happen.