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Lincoln, Obama, Blair and the 24 hour media culture

Posted on 11 February 2009 | 10:02am

I have already
vlogged about my (and Barack Obama’s’) favourite book on politics, Team of
Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Her brilliant account of the political genius
of Abraham Lincoln was already a hugely successful book even before  Obama’s endorsement, which will take it
into a whole new league, marked genuine contribution to history.

As the paperback
is released
, Doris Kearns Goodwin has a piece in The Guardian today which
echoes a point I was making yesterday when promoting the Time to Change report
on great figures of history
, including Lincoln, who had mental health problems
from time to time.

The point
relates to the difference between the era of Lincoln, and today’s 24 hour media
culture. ‘Lincoln’s cabinet meetings were fiery affairs,’ she writes. ‘Members
openly feuded with one another and with the President. They castigated each
other as liars and scoundrels. Yet this information rarely appeared in the
newspapers; we know about it through diaries and letters. In contrast, one
24-hour news cycle significantly lessens the possibility of containing
dissenting opinions within the president’s official circle. If internal feuds
are reported by the nightly news, magnified day by day by the cable shows,
dissected by countless political blogs, made fodder for late-night comedy, a
modern team of rivals would collapse.’

We may have more
media than ever, in terms of volume, but its impact on good politics has been
broadly negative. I doubt very much that Lincoln in his era, or Churchill in
his, would have been able to achieve as they did in the modern age. 

The team of rivals refers to the fact that Lincoln gave the top jobs to his
biggest rivals. Obama has followed his lead, in this as in so much else.

On Monday I was
speaking to history students at Queen Mary, University of London, who are doing
a course on the Blair government. It is led by journalist John Rentoul, who
made the point that Tony Blair was in many ways fortunate in being both a
master of the modern media and a strong decision maker.

Obama may well
turn out to be the same. But already it is possible to see a slight shift in
tone as the media gets bored with Obama the hero as the only narrative
surrounding him.

What is without
doubt in my view is that the ability to deal with the 24 hour media having
become a prerequisite for leadership, we are cutting down the pool of real
talent that ought to be thinking of going into politics.

  • David Stuart

    24 hr news not only cuts down on the real talent, but promotes those with style but no substance (pick your leader of choice from the other two parties).

    Personally I always felt about sorry for former President Bush (the last one), and the media’s constant stream of news about Bush-gaffs. Whilst I am by no means claiming the man was a genius, I couldn’t care less about his ability to perform in public. All but the smoothest can be made to look stupid with cameras watching their moves 24hrs a day…I doubt I would be able to get out of bed without some slip-up making it onto breakfast television.

  • Liam Murray

    Good observation but isn’t it erroneous to describe this as some sort of random or tangential consequence of a 24hr news cycle that we just have to live with? Isn’t the real thing that drives out talent the way that news cycle is used & abused by politicians (and their supporters) rather than the cycle itself?

    If we strip the party politics away most sensible people acknowledge that vigorous debate & disagreement is a necessary and healthy part of governing – and we all know it exists and always will in whichever party we support. It might be more extreme in the ‘team of rival’ scenarios a la FDR & Obama but it’s always present. The problem is few politicians (and particularly bloggers) can pass up an opportunity to exploit any dissent or disagreement in their opponents and characterise it completely differently.

    You see this all the time from both Labour & the Tories – if under attack for anything dismiss the attacks as ‘process stories’ or ‘gossip’ or about ‘personalities’ etc. but when you’re doing the attacking and there are points to score you cast identical issues as all about ‘substance’ & ‘principle’ etc. People with half a brain see through this which in turns drives disaffection etc.

    I remember feeling the same thing in response to your Cudlipp Lecture so thanks for giving me the opportunity to rant on it! Enjoying the blog…..

  • Rodrigo García

    Dear Alastair,

    I agree with you but for me, there’s another consequence of 24 hour media. And this one is a little bit sad. I think that the media has won the battle to the politics and now more than ever decisions are taken according to the treatment that this decision will have in the media.

    Policy making nowadays is less about its impact on people that about its impact on people’s opinion.

  • Joanne Sheppard

    @ Liam

    With regards to politicians and their supporters ‘using and abusing’ the media, I encounter this view a lot. But I would say that so-called ‘spin’ is driven more by the media than by politicians and PR. The 24 hour news culture is partly responsible for this, not least because the press are often scrabbling fairly desperately for material to fill pages/airtime. They are also looking to engage more readers/viewers and trying to attract consumers to political news coverage in a climate of vacuous celebrity-obsessed culture. Cue pointless stories about prime ministers’ hair cuts, the shocking revelation that Tony Blair sweats like any other human being in a warm room under hot stage lights and double-page spreads in the Daily Mail about Samantha Cameron’s wardrobe. By making image-related trivia a story, the media force a PR team’s hand somewhat, giving them little choice but to react and adjust to that style of media coverage. And then the media make a story out of that, too, deriding the use of image consultants and so on and dismissing the whole concern – *the very concern they have created* – as empty and shallow.

    The same applies to political stories based on unfounded gossip, petty bickering, throwaway remarks made controversial by removing them from their context, etc.

    The press have created a need in politics for successful politicians to be adept at media-handling. It is definitely, no matter how much we all might like to claim that we personally don’t care about image or personality in politics, a prerequisite.

    I understand your point about the use and abuse of the media, but frankly, the media has opened itself up to that by the way it covers politics, and it’s wholly unsurprising that political parties take the opportunity to exploit it. They don’t have a great deal of choice.

  • Alina Palimaru

    Media and politics have always had a symbiotic relationship, so it is difficult to discern causality here. But I agree that the impact of 24-hour (often meaningless) coverage on policy-making has been detrimental to say the least.

    Recently I watched a roundtable discussion of former White House Press Secretaries (spanning from Nixon’s all the way to Clinton’s Dee Dee Myers) and they were generating all these intriguing what-if scenarios: how would have Kennedy handled the Cuban missile crisis had he had microphones and cameras swarming around the Oval office? Would Carter have been able to strike the deal between Israel and Egypt if the media had found out he was shuttling with the Bible in his hand from one group to the other? The consensus at the discussion was that the media in these instances would have had a significant negative impact, because they would have left little time for Presidents to think through carefully, consult and make a decision. The constant bloviating about non-issues would have suffocated all these political and policy processes.

    I worked in a few Congressional offices here in Washington and can tell you that policy-making with real-time pressure from instigators who pose as journalists is no good.

    The 24-hour ranting, and churning out of irresponsible statements and wrong facts encourage many constituents to pick up the phone and generate unnecessary pressure on lawmakers, who then dismiss sound policy arguments in favor of the more visceral and unsubstantiated demands from their districts. It’s just sick!

  • Brian Hughes

    Without doubt many able people are put off going into politics nowadays by our intrusive media. I know of at least one former CEO who chose to go instead into the boardroom even though he had a passion for politics and would have been a splendid minister (he’s a lot richer as the result of his choice but the country may be a lot poorer).

    But we are where we are; didn’t Tony Blair say something about politicians who complain about the press being like sailors who complain about the weather?

    What is clear is that we need people with your skills and experience to help our politicians through the minefield, but won’t people like you also think many more times than just once before getting involved in public life?

    The current Tory tactic of attacking anyone and anyone who has ever been appointed by or given advice to Gordon Brown is further poisoning the well. It’s a sign of their policy weakness that they’re going for the men rather than the policies. A pity there’s no referee to show them the yellow card – they’re certainly going for the players rather than the ball!


    Mr Campbell,

    Nice piece of blogging, kudos.

    I’m sure I’m not the only one who reads the final paragraph as an indictment of Mr Brown (in view of the reality of contemporary politics rather than any substantive shortcoming (if I can use the word ‘substantive’ here to make the distinction)).

    The issue of the rights and wrongs of the 24 hour media’s impact on the way the country is run aside, how can anyone with Mr Brown’s (apparent- and if it wasn’t so it wouldn’t be apparent) lack of capacity in this regard hope to direct a government?

    This makes me wonder whatever happened to the whole “binary politician…” line of attack. One would think it would fit well for the Conservatives to use alongside the idea that Mr Brown doesn’t know how to run a modern economy. I wonder why they binned that angle.

    Also, history students are studying 1997? In the words of Josiah Bartlett “modern history is just another name for television”.

  • J M Richards

    The “24 hour news cycle” is both cause and effect of politicians’ loss of trust among the electorate. “Cause” because the accusation of “spin” is so often fair. “Effect” because politicians’ “safety first” and “on message” approach, leads the media to feel that the “real truth” has to be hunted down, often in the form of a sensational or inaccurate story. Perhaps the Gilligan row was a symptom of this.

    Politicians need to reconnect with the electorate and start addressing them directly again.The public respond well to thisL witness the positive response to Boris Johnson, Ken Clarke and even Gordon Brown in his honeymoon period.

    Perhaps Barack Obama, Peter Mandelson and others have shown the way by interacting with voters on Twitter and such like.

  • stewartfinn

    Following from my twitter comment:-

    I am interested in any elaboration you could give on the last paragraph of ‘Lincoln, Obama…’.

    Are you saying that an inability to perform for a 24 hour media is losing us gifted people? Who is at fault, the potential front line politician, or those of us in the electorate?

    In my experience the people who are most acutely aware of the 24 hour media and are self promoters (to the required degree) are not the type of people we need. In contrast the people who do not need or require the publicity but do the work are not rewarded by the electorate.

    Obviously there are exceptions, but for Northern Ireland in particular I subscribe to the philosophy that ‘the desire to be a politician should be a disqualifying factor’.

    Then we have the phenomenon of ‘candidates’ using the 24hr media to show how unpolitician like they are. Twitter is an example, used by many to not only humanise but to break the barriers that ‘politician’ or ‘politics’ create for many – talk about blurring lines!

    I suppose Obama is the highest profile example. Not only a master of 24hr hour media, new media, internet phenomenology etc but he used the space created by these to say ‘I am not the establishment, I am not Bush, I have not been compromised by Washington – I/we are the change’ – almost ad nauseam – but he even balanced that -as you say until now.

    But he was not ‘cut down’ what of those that are or may be?

    I realise that may be a little jumbled because its jumbled in my head, thats why I ask.

  • alastair campbell

    if I can pick up on some of the comments — Stewartfinn, of course in elective politics politicians have to ‘self promote’, otherwise those asked to vote for them will not know who they are; and once elected politicians have a duty to explain their views and decisions. My point is that the modern media has created the need for a whole new skills set, and far more important than media management is policy understanding and decision making and there are people who would be good at that who will not make it because they are not good at the media stuff. Brian, I too know of people from other walks of life who decided against a political career because they feared what the media would do to them and their families. I agree too that the way the Tories attack and undermine anyone who works closely with the government – civil servants, top soldiers, the head of MI6, police, advisers, anyone and everyone who give Dave a cheap easy hit – is wrong. it also shows why Cameron is not really PM material. JMR, I agree politicians should break out a bit more. it is interesting that on the Labour side of things it is three people – JP, Peter M and I – very closely associated with old style command and control politics and communications – who seem to be trying to encourage colleagues to open up a bit more and engage in a different way. Thanks to everyone who responded. Thanks too to the guy I met today who told me he thought Paul Dacre, editor of the Mail, was the true ‘scumdog millionaire’

  • stewartfinn

    I realise that everyone has to self promote. My point was that for many (usually those whose priority is the outcome rather than their reward for it) this does not come naturally. This often means our best leaders are either put off from trying or fail at the polls.

    We also have the age old problem of those doing the right thing no matter the consequences vs those taking a usually more moralistic position that is 9.9/10 also the populist and easy choice.

    What effect does the 24hr media have on that sitution?

    Previously it was too easy for the moralist/populist to win that argument – simply shout a soundbite sentence and they win. While the other needs time to explain their position.

    Now there is so much media , that the loudest shout still often wins. While the more visionary politician continues their perpetual herding of constituents. Convincing in small numbers, using ever more imaginative contact methods, while the wolf continues to take chunks out when their back is turned.

    Then there are more extreme examples – Tom Daschle 2004?

    I realise that coming from a ‘conflict situation’ (NI) complicates matters. As the 24 hour media struggles to come to grips with a lack of conflict – and as they view it – content. They readily fill their time with shouting and disagreement when it is available (which many will happily oblige), this combined with more entrenched political views and a general prejudice against change makes for a different dynamic to the 24 hr media.

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