NY Times’ Bai criticizes ‘empty’ 2012 campaigns
In front of an audience of about 70 students and community members Thursday evening, journalist and writer Matt Bai said that in this election cycle, politicians have started to overcome the media that exists to keep them in check. He concedes that some of the blame lies with the media and how it has evolved over the past few decades but insists that it is a problem that needs to be resolved moving forward.
According to Bai, his authority on political coverage is the reason so many people have come up to him asking not simply which candidate will win but what any of it means in an election that is so remarkably “empty.”
“Mitt Romney has a five-point plan,” Bai said near the opening of his speech in May Auditorium. “I don’t know if you’ve gone and looked at the five-point plan, but the five-point plan is like, we’re going to be energy independent; we’re going to have less debt; we’re going to have the best schools in the world. You know, this is sort of like me coming to you and saying, I’ve thought really hard. I’ve thought about it. I’ve meditated on this. I’ve got a plan for my life. I know exactly what I want my life to look like: I’m going to invent something miraculous; I want to get rich; I want to live until I’m 120.”
Bai said that he can count on one hand the number of interviews he has been denied as senior correspondent for the Times Magazine. As one of very few political features writers in the country, he says politicians love speaking to him because, given that his stories stick to word counts of about 8,000, they can fully explain why they are right.
“How do you get there? What difficult decisions do you ask people to make? That’s where politics becomes relevant,” Bai said.
But this year, both Romney and President Barack Obama declined to offer him interviews—Romney to explain how his business background would enable him to make a bureaucratic government more efficient, Obama to explain how his policies helped Ohio more than those of the swing state’s Republican governor.
Because people have stopped trusting the media, Bai says, politicians no longer feel impelled to answer their questions. But without answering their questions, there is nothing to stop them from spouting off lies, which various news sources have been only too pleased to fact-check live.
“Prior to this debate Tuesday night, it became apparent through some of her comments that Candy—Candy Crowley from CNN is a terrific reporter—was intending on following up on questions from the audience so that she could ensure they got answered,” Bai said. “And both campaigns, not one campaign, both campaigns immediately fired off notes of protest to the debate commission, insisting that they had not agreed to that. In fact, Candy Crowley, as a journalist, was supposed to sit there and say nothing.”
Ultimately, Bai believes voters are smart enough to see through the pretense, but he said that having the Commission on Presidential Debates take over for the League of Women Voters more than two decades ago has given political parties too much power over the process.
While Bai stressed throughout his speech and the following roundtable discussion the importance of consuming a variety of media, he also noted that he personally isolates himself from other political editorialists. That way, he can form his own opinions without specifically setting out to be contrarian.
Although his speech was held at the start of fall break and at the same time as a Cardinals’ playoff game, many students were drawn by the atmosphere surrounding the election cycle.
“I read the New York Times every day, so having someone who’s worked there for a long time and could bring perspective to that is interesting. And I’m not really that involved in politics or know too much about it, but I’d gone to [watch] the debate recently, which got me thinking more about [it],” senior Erin Humphries said.
Humphries said that one thing she got out of his speech was that, at least regarding the debates, she shouldn’t feel the need constantly to rely on the media to tell her how to react.
“We look to [the media] for who won and lost the debate, and I was kind of concerned…with the way I was watching the debate, curious who was going to win,” Humphries said. “I think it’s actually an interesting idea for me to insulate myself from the media in that way so I can kind of form my own opinion.”
Other students also said they were interested to hear more about Bai’s journalistic process and how it relates to his final pieces.
“I guess the most interesting part is just to see what happens behind the scenes,” said senior Salma Eltahir, vice president of Controversy n’ Coffee, which organized the event. “There is this show that everyone sees of politics, and then there’s the behind-the-scenes stuff. So it’s kind of the same thing with journalism. You read the piece that journalists write, but you don’t know the mindset that they were in, why did they write it, the pride they took in it, how it affected their career or not and what can we learn from the journalist rather than his piece.”