14 October 2005

Questions of Character

Paul Krugman knocks it out of the park in today’s Times.

Right now, with the Bush administration in meltdown
on multiple issues, we're hearing a lot about President
Bush's personal failings. But what happened to the
commanding figure of yore, the heroic leader in the
war on terror? The answer, of course, is that the
commanding figure never existed: Mr. Bush is the
same man he always was. All the character flaws that
are now fodder for late-night humor were fully visible,
for those willing to see them, during the 2000

 And President Bush the great leader is far from the
only fictional character, bearing no resemblance to the
real man, created by media images.

Read the speeches Howard Dean gave before the Iraq
war, and compare them with Colin Powell's pro-war
presentation to the U.N. Knowing what we know now,
it's clear that one man was judicious and realistic,
while the other was spinning crazy conspiracy
theories. But somehow their labels got switched in the
way they were presented to the public by the news

Why does this happen? A large part of the answer is
that the news business places great weight on "up
close and personal" interviews with important people,
largely because they're hard to get but also because
they play well with the public. But such interviews are
rarely revealing. The fact is that most people - myself
included - are pretty bad at using personal
impressions to judge character. Psychologists find, for
example, that most people do little better than chance
in distinguishing liars from truth-tellers.

More broadly, the big problem with political reporting
based on character portraits is that there are no rules,
no way for a reporter to be proved wrong. If a
reporter tells you about the steely resolve of a
politician who turns out to be ineffectual and unwilling
to make hard choices, you've been misled, but not in a
way that requires a formal correction.

And that makes it all too easy for coverage to be
shaped by what reporters feel they can safely say,
rather than what they actually think or know. Now
that Mr. Bush's approval ratings are in the 30's, we're
hearing about his coldness and bad temper, about how
aides are afraid to tell him bad news. Does anyone
think that journalists have only just discovered these
personal characteristics?

Read the entire column, here.