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Why I never want to cover politicians

Politicians will say almost anything to get elected.

Thirty-three years ago I was hired to work at WCCO-TV. The man doing the hiring was one of the great journalists turned out by the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism. Ron Handberg is an imposing figure today. The veins in his forehead still bulge when he sees bad journalism. It was love at first sight.

At the conclusion of our interview, Ron said: “Is there any area of news you won’t cover?”

“Yes,” I said.

His brow knit. He raised an eyebrow. The vein in his forehead turned blue and seemed to throb.

“I won’t cover politics,” I said.

He was aghast. He shot back, “Why, in the hell, not?” 

I began to wriggle in my seat. I could see the possibility of working for the vaunted WCCO-TV and sitting near the legendary Dave Moore slipping away. I tried the truth. Handberg, as the legend went, loved the truth more than anything.

“Because,” I said, “they are too conceited.”

If you are playing this scene in your head, this is where you place the very loud audience laugh track. Handberg stifled his own laugh, but he broke into a smile. I know what he was thinking. Handberg was thinking: “I have known you for one hour, and you strike me as the most conceited man I ever met.”

“I know that must seem odd,” I said. “But when a politician and I get near each other, our combined egos suck all the oxygen from the room.”

Handberg laughed. Handberg hired me on the spot.

The only time he assigned me a story involving a politician it was to try to put the politician in jail. Shortly after that, the I-Team was born.

The great politicians

Since those early days, I’ve come to admire some great politicians. I like politicians who stick to the facts. I was never a member of the cynics club who accepted as axiomatic that politicians would lie when the truth sounded better, just to get elected. I’m one of the few who read the latest polls showing little confidence in our elected leaders and feel the visceral urge to weep. A republic doesn’t stand long, history shows, when the governed think the government is a bunch of nitwits. Historians put the thought in better words.

Handberg came to understand that my cockiness didn’t stem from an inflated sense of myself, but from an ardent love of the truth, and its cousin, the fact. I usually feel like the stupidest guy in the room. That’s why I arm myself with facts. I believe in them, more than I believe in what I could come up with on my own. Like this: 2 + 2 = 4, and it really doesn’t matter how desperately we need it to be otherwise.

But I’ve seen politicians who would go before a community of people who believed 2 + 2 = 9, and tell them, with a straight face, that he supported their conclusion, and would, if elected, change all the math books to reflect their wishes. Tell the people what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. Journalists, in the drive to be popular, sometimes stoop to the same practice.

Which, at long last, brings me to my point. I dislike hubris. So did the ancient Greeks. It was, in fact, a crime. Roughly defined as extreme pride, hubris also has come to mean an absolute, unshakeable confidence in one’s own opinion, without regard to the facts.

(Side note: I don’t care about anyone’s opinion. I’m with Jefferson on this. An opinion is meaningless. What the framers were trying to protect was not just your opinion, but “the informed opinion.” If you have an informed opinion, you have my attention.)

So, I’ve been watching the politicians in this run up to the presidential elections. The hubris makes me dizzy. There are candidates who will tell you that the Earth is 6,000 years old. The only source for that revealed “truth” is a guy named James Ussher, who, in 1650 was the bishop of Armagh. He did the math and arrived at the conclusion that the world was created in 4004 BC.

That notion stuck around for a two centuries because, primarily, no one had a better idea. Then the science of geology was born, and now we have the unassailable evidence that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Never mind the facts. If there are voters who want the Earth to be 6,000 years old, there are plenty of politicians who will say: “I agree with you. Now, please vote for me.”

Global warming

But as you may have suspected, I am most saddened and angered by the hubris of candidates who say they know that global warming is a hoax. They know there are voters — and big-money contributors — who want to hear those words, so the politicians say them.

What is most puzzling is people fall for it. How can a person who spent his life making money and running for office or being a lawyer and running for office take on the body of knowledge we know as science? How can a personal opinion trump the laws of physics? How can a politician know more than 98 percent of all the climate scientists in the world? How can people buy it?

I am cocky, but this display makes me look meek. It makes the republic look silly to outside eyes. “Really?” they ask. “You voted for a guy who would promise to overturn the law of gravity — if you wanted him to?”

I don’t know if it is hubris. I can’t believe that one person who has no training can declare his opinion more important than the scientific world’s collected knowledge. My faith in humanity urges me to believe that if you wake one of these politicians from a sound sleep and asked the question, he would say: “Uh, of course I am making this up. How else am I going to get elected?”  

My hope is this: I actually hope the politicians are lying. And if they get elected, they can stop lying and govern based on known fact. Short of that, voters could decide that it is better to hear the truth than to be told what we want to be told. We could shake ourselves out of this political Stockholm Syndrome and come to realize that it is always bad to put a liar in a position of power over us.

It has taken three decades to make it clear to Ron Handberg why I never wanted to cover politicians. And in the end, I didn’t have to explain anything. The candidates have made my case exactly.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/13/2012 - 09:40 am.

    It’s the “Controversy”

    Few modern politicians are brazen enough to announce they believe that 2+2=9. They are a lot smoother than that. Instead, they will proclaim their support for “teaching all sides of the numbers controversy.” It’s a way of placating the ignorant without appearing to join their ranks. There is also the added benefit of getting in a good jab at the elitists who would force you to give up your cherished beliefs just because they’re so educated and everything (this appears to have been the origin of William Jennings Bryan’s opposition to evolution. The biblical literalism came later).

    To my mind, this is far worse than saying one agree swith the falsity. This is a tacit admission that the politician knows that the Niners are wrong, knows what they are asking him to proclaim is false, but doesn’t have the courage to come out and say it. Politicians are known for avoiding good, hard truths, and refusing to tell a potentially powerful special interest group they are wrong on the facts is part of that cowardice.

  2. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 03/13/2012 - 10:15 am.

    That did make me laugh

    But I agree with you on so many points, Don. I find it more than frustrating that many can point in the general direction of St. Paul or Washington, D.C., and say “there be liars.” Of course, I find it particularly astounding when those same people will then spout the same BS that certain politicians fabricate to get elected and to spread the general political hate around. Wait…what? You just said all politicians are liars, and now you’re trying to fill me up with bull I’ve only ever heard in political conversations originating from one of those lying politicians?!? The hypocrisy, it burns.

    Unfortunately, in my small experience, all politicians may not be liars, but they certainly aren’t very forthright with the truth. Truth and fact can be bendy sometimes, and it seems to be a characteristic that successful politicians take advantage of. I, personally, can buy that sometimes the end justifies the means…but within limits. When a bendy fact becomes a lie, you’ve crossed the line.

    I met up with my state senator a few weeks ago who told me that the DNR manages school trust lands (fact). He told me that that relationship resulted in a conflict of interest (possibly true, but must be borne out by facts). He told me that Minnesota’s school trust lands don’t make a lot of money (relative, but not a lie). He told me that Minnesota’s management of school trust lands is probably (bendy word) the worst of any state in the nation (getting pretty bendy, here, even without having to do much research–probably pushing a lie). He told me that 95% of the income from school trust lands goes back into management of those lands (lie!). He told me that he introduced a bill (fact) that fixes this (bendy!). And it should be passed (opinion) because the land doesn’t belong to us (REALLY bendy), but the children (oh geez, you’re playing the emotions game with the wrong person, buddy *eyeroll*).

    You see, the situation above really only has one outright lie. But the rest is awfully bendy truth, opinions, and emotional manipulation. The resulting message is a lie. While he might believe it, I’m not dumb enough to. I see this for what it is: an attempt to scratch some backs by putting people who might profit into a position to take advantage of state resources for development.

    I also almost wish they were lying. But the truth is, I can forgive a person for organically deficient, but not so much for being deliberately ignorant. After all, the challenged person can be willing to learn.

  3. Submitted by John Edwards on 03/13/2012 - 11:37 am.

    Correcting impressions

    Don’s former liberal colleague Paul Douglas continues to hint that Minnesota’s unseasonably warm weather is due to something strange that is happening (for the dullards that is climate change.)
    The problem with his anecdotal references is news like this CNN report Feb 12, 2012: Eastern Europe remained in the grip of brutal cold and deep snows Tuesday, with authorities in Ukraine, the hardest-hit country, scrambling to help thousands of people whose lives are at risk due to the weather. At least 250 people have already died across the region during the cold snap, with 135 of the dead in Ukraine.

    Dave Moore was the best news reader the Twin Cities has had. He made no pretense at being a journalist. I remember him moderating a televised discussion in which it became clear that he did not understand the distinction between comparable worth and equal pay. That did not stop me from listening to him, however. He was very likeable.

    Don: don’t take yourself so seriously. I know a former Twin Cities resident who, after seeing a recent photo of you, cracked “I see that the Minneapolis newscaster who used to sound like Ted Baxter now looks like him with that white hair.”

  4. Submitted by Dave Thul on 03/13/2012 - 12:19 pm.

    Hubris

    I thought the job of a reporter or journalist was to cover the news, to report on what is happening. Silly me.

    ‘The only time he assigned me a story involving a politician it was to try to put the politician in jail.’

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 03/13/2012 - 02:13 pm.

      Not exactly

      Journalism isn’t just about “reporting on what is happening.” It’s about getting behind what is happening to the cause, the source, or the problem involved in “what is happening.” If we just wanted to know what is happening, all we’d have to do is wait till it was over and then read the history books. Journalists are biased humans. What makes them professionals is the ability to report the story without tainting it with their own bias. That isn’t the same as being impartial, nor is it the same as being “fair and balanced” (not that that baloney exists). Sometimes the story naturally leans one way or the other. To hide that fact is to ruin the story. There are plenty of journalists (and probably even more “journalists”) clambering to cover politicians. But, if you’re good, you can choose what you don’t want to cover and leave it up to someone who enjoys it, or at least is able to hold their nose. It’s easier to do a good job at your job if you enjoy it.

      • Submitted by Dave Thul on 03/13/2012 - 10:15 pm.

        Proving my point

        Reporting the story without tainting it and approaching a story with the intention of getting someone arrested are not even remotely compatible.

  5. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 03/13/2012 - 03:19 pm.

    On climate change

    The extreme cold in Europe is in fact an indication of global warming. Perhaps right-wingers have trouble understanding this because it’s not the kind of simple, yes-or-no matter that they like to deal with.

    Computer models of global temperature increases made years ago predicted colder winters in Europe, warmer winters in North American and the Arctic, melting ice caps and glaciers, rising sea levels, and disruptions of normal precipitation patterns, leading to drought in some areas and unusually severe rain and snow storms in others. That’s exactly what has developed.

    Just because it was cold and snowy in Minnesota last winter doesn’t mean that there’s no overall global warming. Think of seasonal transitions in a typical year. We don’t usually have definite winter one day and definite spring the next. There’s always a tug of war during the transitional period. The same thing is true of climate change. There is no on and off switch.

    I moved back to Minnesota in 2003 after being away for 19 years. I bought snow boots and a heavy down coat in anticipation of the knee-deep snow and long-term subzero temperatures that I had known until the early 1980s. I didn’t use the boots for three years, and I used the heavy coat at most for one week each winter. Over eight years back in Minnesota, and we’ve had exactly one of those winters that Minnesotans have always thought of as typical.

    Skeptics need to read something besides right-wing media and the publications of “think” tanks funded by the oil companies. There are two facts to keep in mind.

    1) The focus should be on long-term trends, not short-term events. “Where’s your global warming now?” is a silly response to a blizzard.

    2) Global warming does not mean uniform warming throughout the world. But it does mean weird weather throughout the world.

  6. Submitted by Tom Lynch on 03/13/2012 - 05:56 pm.

    Watch out

    There was a show on CBC radio in Canada last night that was unbelievable. It was called “Demon Coal”. It was an hour long infomercial for the AGW crew. They had portions of testimony before the Canadian senate from 4 AGW professors from Canada and the other half of the show interviewing someone named Judith Curry from Georgia Tech.

    First she said the models were too complicated to predict GW and she wasn’t on board. Later she said GW would be a good thing. For places like Canada, etc. Then she said we’re actually experiencing Global Cooling.

    She was totally trying to confuse the issue and there was no pushback from the host. Like a said, an hour long infomercial for AGW. Part II is next Monday. The Conservatives in power in Canada have been threatening to defund the CBC. like the GOPers and NPR here, for being too “liberal”. Looks like CBC is caving to the “drill, baby, drill” Harper government.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/13/2012 - 06:49 pm.

    Covering politicians?

    How about uncovering them?

  8. Submitted by Lance Groth on 03/13/2012 - 11:19 pm.

    Many Are Complicit

    Great article, Don. You have the right values. I grew up, thanks in large part to the influence of my Mom (a teacher), to develop an enormous appreciation for the truth; for absorbing and communicating fact based information accurately, without passing through a bias filter (easier to say than to do, it turns out, for all of us). Verity as the basis of good decision making. This came in part from spending my summer vacations as a lad reading every book in the local library’s science section, six books a week because that’s the most they’d let me check out at one time, though my chums generally couldn’t imagine why. This is why the denialist crowd drives me wild. The lack of respect for the truth, and the willingness of many (particularly politicians) to cynically promulgate all manner of drivel as long as it serves their purposes, is something I can neither understand nor abide.

    Thus I spend little time listening to politicians, and none listening to political talk show hosts.

    But, I must note, there is plenty of blame to go around, and that includes the mainstream media. Just today I heard a CNN anchor remark, in response to a report on the severe weather outbreaks to the east and the bizarre “winter”, that “well, there will always be a debate about whether it’s global warming or just happenstance.” Yes, there certainly will always be such a debate, so long as the media continues its “report both sides of the story equally” madness. You, Don, have noted repeatedly that there is no serious scientific debate about AGW, with a consensus among climatologists of about 98%. Yet the media – mainstream media, not just political and crackpot sites – persist in giving the denialist view point equal time with the scientific one. It is long past time to call b.s., but you are one of the few who do. Thank you for that.

    BTW, don’t hold your breath waiting for politicians to do the right thing after being elected. There is always the next election, and the base must be fed its red meat.

    As for John Edwards’ comment, I would have replied at length but there is no need, as Karen Sandness’ reply covers it nicely. Please read her comments at least twice, Mr. Edwards. Both the severe winter in Europe and the mild one here are symptomatic of climate *destabilization* induced by warming. Google can point you to articles discussing the underlying mechanism that appeared during the outbreak of the severe weather in Europe.

  9. Submitted by Richard Lee Dechert on 03/14/2012 - 06:38 am.

    “Hubris” and My 2012 Precinct Caucus Resolution

    In Greek tragedy “hubris” is characterized as an excess of ambition, pride, etc., ultimately causing the transgressor’s ruin. In an American tragedy the “hubris” of politicians who are denying the reality of human-induced global warming and undermining efforts to address it is causing our planet’s ruin. Hence my 2012 Precinct Caucus Resolution:

    A Resolution for a Livable, Peaceful Planet

    *Whereas* human agriculture and the human burning of fossil fuels release large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases into our planet’s atmosphere and oceans.

    *Whereas* human population has increased from about 730 million at the onset of the fossil-fueled Industrial Revolution in the 1730’s to over 7 billion in 2012, and is still increasing.

    *Whereas* atmospheric CO2 has increased from a nearly stable 280 parts-per-million (ppm) at the outset of the fossil-fueled Industrial Revolution to 392 ppm in 2012, and is still increasing.

    *Whereas* the inertia of our climate system in reacting to CO2 and other greenhouse gases has already locked our planet into decades of global warming and adverse climate changes.

    *Whereas* those changes include melting polar ice sheets and mountain snow packs, flooding island nations and seashores, spreading heat waves and droughts, and dying plant and animal species.

    *Whereas* those changes are fomenting conflicts within and between nations for food, fuel and other resources, and the U.S. military has recognized global warming as a major threat to national security.

    *Whereas* the GOP is the only major political party on our planet denying the scientific validity of global warming and blocking international, national, state and local efforts to cope with it.

    *Whereas* the GOP is collaborating with fossil-fuel and other interests to flood the media with misinformation on global warming and its environmental, social and economic effects.

    *Whereas* the U.S., other nations, and international organizations like the U.N. have failed time and again to adopt agreements that would effectively reverse global warming and adapt to its effects.

    *Be it resolved* that the DFL Party of Minnesota only support candidates for national, state and local offices who are firmly committed to effectively reversing global warming, adapting to its effects, and enabling our heirs to live and prosper in peace.

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