In Politics and Media, Perception Is Apparently Reality

Chris Cillizza, a blogger/reporter for the Washington Post who appears frequently on cable news shows, recently wrote this concerning the CBO jobs reports kerfuffle:

My job is to assess not the rightness of each argument but to deal in the real world of campaign politics in which perception often (if not always) trumps reality. I deal in the world as voters believe it is, not as I (or anyone else) thinks it should be. And, I'm far from the only one.

Before I rip into Cillizza, let's put this in even greater perspective. You might remember this quote from a Bush Administration official (most Beltway-insiders attribute it to Karl Rove) speaking to a reporter:

We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

Both of these quotes should give you pause. This is what the inside of Washington looks like, to both (some) of the reporters covering it and the political operatives who run it.

As Rove said, the Bush Administration was attempting to create reality; not operating within the confines of reality, but actually making the rules of the game up, and changing them if necessary, as time proceeded. This is a will to power gone overboard. Perhaps we need to dust off our Derrida and de Mann -- this is a Republican version of deconstruction cum post-modernism. The truth is what we say it is.

Fortunately, this did not work out for Rove quite the way he planned. His boss's neoconservative-infected/infested administration's attempt to act as an "empire" in Iraq failed (we're still studying it, as Rove predicted, just not in the limpid manner he predicted). The lesson, perhaps, is even when politicians try to command reality, reality sometimes sets them straight. But Cilliza's quote is perhaps the more troubling of the two. Rove's hubristic comment bespeaks of the need for an active press corps who is not chasing after what perception politicians attempt to foist on them as "reality," but to actually decide if what we're being told is true, insofar as that is possible. Instead, Cilliza thinks that he is dealing in the more important of the two arenas: perception. Indeed, Cilliza is arrogant enough to think that voters are so ill-informed they live in a perceptual, not realistic, world:

If you think that most people make up their minds about whom to vote for by reading deeply about each candidate's positions on issues, researching those positions independently and then arriving at their own conclusions, you have never sat in a focus group or talked to an actual voter.

Cilliza's personal anecdotes about focus groups aside, actual empirical research, such as this by Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens (see Chapter 2), shows that voters use a variety of mechanisms to determine what policies they do and do not support (e.g., using cues from elites).

So not only is Cilliza arrogantly wrong, he's also lazy. And Cilliza stands in for many in the Washington press corps who are too lazy or unconcerned with the actual mechanics of policy to attempt to ferret out what exactly the CBO's jobs report meant (or the latest unemployment figures, or whether there is any real science behind "fetal pain" bills, the list could go on), but instead opt for the faux-objectivity of he said/he said reporting. Or equally bad, Cilliza and his cohorts will simply concern themselves with the "politics" of the issue: who does this benefit? who "won" the day or the news cycle? is this a "game-changer"? This is because Cilliza et al. feel comfortable that they know politics, this is their comfort zone, while policy is not.

We have entered into dangerous territory. The politicians are trying to create reality -- by definition a perceptual reality -- and a press corps that thinks it's their job to study perception and not reality. Truthiness abides.

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