By Catalina Righter
If you’re looking to avoid all mention of Donald Trump, political journalist Matt Bai’s talk was the place to avoid on Sept. 28 in Hynson Lounge. Trump, the reality TV star and 2016 presidential hopeful, was a popular topic of analysis during both the talk and the Q&A session following because he straddles the line between politician and entertainment figure in a way that illustrated many of Bai’s points about coverage of media figures.
Bai is the national political columnist for Yahoo! News, and according to a Washington College press release, was previously the chief political correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and a national correspondent for “Newsweek,” making him “one of the most prominent voices in American political journalism and analysis for more than a decade.” “House of Cards” fans may recognize him from his cameo on the show in which he plays a fictionalized version of himself.
He came to WC as a guest of the Louis L. Goldstein Program in Public Affairs to talk about the effect of the media on presidential elections. He drew from his book “All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics went Tabloid.” Preceding the talk, there was a dinner where he interacted with students and faculty.
Dr. Christine Wade, associate professor of political science and international studies and curator of the Louis L. Goldstein ’35 Program in Public Affairs, introduced the talk. She said, “If you were teenage politics junkies in the 1980s…” There was a pause and laughter as several of the political science professors in the room raised their hands. “…1987 was a pretty good year to learn about politics and the occasional scandal… 1987 was also the beginning of the 1988 presidential campaign.” During this campaign, presidential hopeful Gary Hart’s campaign was infamously ruined when journalists revealed his personal history of adultery. In the talk, Bai explained how this event was milestone in the changed relationship between the media and politicians.
Bai began is talk by complimenting WC. “When Jennifer Hopper asked me to come out here today, I almost instantly said yes…The campus is full of really smart people who care about politics, which I’m always really impressed with every time I come here with how thoughtful people are and how kind they are.”
He gave context to the difficulties of political office by sharing an anecdote about his son who enjoys playing the video game “Sim City.” His son told Bai, “Dad, the sims aren’t going to pay more taxes if I don’t give them more stuff,” Bai said. “Don’t let anyone tell you that video games aren’t valuable.”
Bai talked about Neil Postman’s theory that “every technology has an ideology.” Prior to the Gary Hart scandal, “In 1985 we had left the age of print media and entered the age of entertainment,” because television’s primary ideology was entertainment. As a result of being covered on television, presidential campaigns became more and more about entertainment.
Here, Bai cited the modern day campaign of Trump as an example. “I think you can draw a direct line from what Postman foresaw… to Donald Trump,” Bai said. “Donald Trump is not running a campaign for president… This is a show. It’s a reality TV show.“
From Bai’s point of view, the Hart scandal was a tipping point for candidate coverage that focused on the personal. After the Watergate scandal, Bai said that journalists felt the need to “protect the world from immorality” by looking into the personal lives of candidates. At one point in the 1988 election, Hart was leading the polls. After a single press conference, where journalists revealed that he was having an affair with Donna Rice, his entire campaign crumbled. To the present day, politicians have felt overwhelming pressure to either avoid personal scandal or cover it up because the American public has been told that personal indiscretions will directly translate to political ones.
“What we do is we create a process where you will always be judged without context for the worst moment. Without context, your life is washed away. Before this era, the character of a person has always been determined by a whole range of factors- Did you lie? Did you lie to your constituents? Are you taking bribes? After the era following Hart, the character is reduced to this one thing, whatever it is you’ve done,” said Bai.
The media focus on political scandal and the “entertainment ideology” of television campaign coverage are both factors to be considered for voters when they consider 2016 presidential hopefuls.