ON THE MEDIA

ON THE MEDIA

Posted by Brent Taylor on Fri, Dec 19, 2003 at 4:00 AM

FEED THE MACHINE

By William Powers, National Journal © National Journal Group Inc. Friday, Dec. 19, 2003 Remember that awkward moment at Paul Bremer's We-Got-Him news conference, when images of the captive Saddam Hussein came up on the screen and a few men suddenly jumped up and started shouting wildly in Arabic?

Presidential politics is a perpetual-motion machine that runs on news, and any news will do. Ê
At first, it seemed that something dangerous might be happening. Had bloodthirsty supporters of Saddam broken into the room? Who were these people, and what the heck were they saying?

They were Iraqi journalists, we later learned, and no pals of the disheveled despot. What they were saying was, "Death to Saddam" and "Kill him!" among other unambiguous suggestions. Given what they and their country have been through, it was a perfectly understandable outburst. This was a powerful historic moment, and they were just being human beings.

Most American reporters watching Bremer's announcement, whether in person or on TV, didn't whoop it up in Arabic or any other language. This makes sense, too. Because they had not personally been tortured or silenced by Saddam, their reaction to the news was less visceral, more muted. Besides, the Americans had work to do, important new thoughts to process. Thoughts such as: Hmmm, I wonder what this Saddam thing means for Howard Dean? Does this give Joe Lieberman a new edge?

The Saddam story was huge, of course, and it dominated the news for much of this week. But, as with most big national and international stories these days, no sooner had the breathtaking events in Adwar, Iraq, hit the street in Washington and New York City than journalists were studying them, like gypsies with a tarot deck, for new answers to the question that matters most in America' newsrooms: Who's on top in the White House race?

Saddam's capture arrived with breakfast, and by lunch the political inflection was well under way, helped along by a presidential candidate who looked at the story and saw a brand-new vision of his own future. "This news makes clear the choice the Democrats face next year," Lieberman said. "If Howard Dean had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power today, not in prison, and the world would be a much more dangerous place."

That's a juicy journo-burger, Joe. Thanks! In no time, it was all over the wires and on television. Dean had his own statement, and John Kerry was on Fox, and on and on. By the next morning, when the newspapers hit the street, the transformation was complete. Sure, Saddam's hairy face was spread across the front of USA Today, under the huge red headline "Captured." Bah, that was ancient history! Savvy readers knew it was one of the smaller black headlines stacked just next to the face that really mattered: "Bush Savors Day: Howard Dean in Crosshairs." All the other major outlets had their own Saddam-and-politics stories.

Why does this happen? I suppose it's the inevitable result of presidential politics becoming a full-time, year-round calling. There are always people running for president now, and there are always journalists following them. When one of the former says something hot about the news of the hour, the latter have little choice but to put it out there for public consumption. Presidential politics is a perpetual-motion machine that runs on news, and any news will do.

There's another reason that the political story line can't be suppressed. Facts -- the who, what, and where of a story -- used to be the prime commodity of journalism, the measure of achievement. But thanks to technology and the instant delivery of news, facts have lost a lot of their competitive value. Once the capture was all over television, much of this story's factual riches had been depleted. So the game moved naturally to the place where ambitious news outlets know they can still win points: the unknowable future. Big news that has already happened might have implications for big news that hasn't yet happened. And there's no bigger news that hasn't yet happened than the presidential race.

The other eternal unknown is the economy. Within hours after it broke, the Saddam story had been converted into a likely stimulator of the stock market, not to mention the broader economy. "Saddam Capture Could Boost Holiday Sales," said the headline over an Associated Press story that I saw on the ABC News Web site. "With 11 days until Christmas," it began, "shoppers crowded the nation's malls and stores over the weekend, their spirits buoyed by news of Saddam Hussein's capture. But it was unclear whether stores met their sales goals." (Funny, isn't it, how the spiritual trend can be so clear, while the numbers are murky?)

Meanwhile, a Reuters story headlined "Stocks and Dollar to Get Saddam Lift" popped up on several news Web sites on Sunday. Alas, the Saddam lift was brief, indeed: After a little rally early Monday, the markets were down for the day.

In a way, I suppose it's good and useful that the American media have become so adept at seeing every story through the prism of politics and money. Basically, journalists have learned to think like the powerful people they cover. We hear that a brutal tyrant is finally captured and, click click click, our minds are instantly reworking the odds in the various contests we cover. If the pols' brains work that way -- and they certainly do -- why can't ours?

Sometimes, though, I wish there was a little space, maybe just 48 hours, in which a big story like this one could exist on its own terms. When journalists could process the news not as if they were politicians or stock market analysts, but as if they were people.

William Powers is a staff correspondent for National Journal magazine, where "On The Media" appears.

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