The so-called silly season
The term silly season is often used to describe the lead-up to a general election and the ensuing election campaign. It is a favorite of some journalists who apply it dismissively in discounting what they view as boilerplate rhetoric from politicians.
Unsurprisingly, the term has a history, obscured by its indiscriminate application by the self-same journalists who wield it to chide and caricature the political class.
Originally, the silly season referred to the period of the late summer when news was scarce. In response to this slow period, newspapers utilized attention-getting headlines and graphics, and printed exaggerated stories on frivolous and “silly” topics to boost circulation and advertising.
Silly seasons are a human phenomenon and not the provenance of any professional group, be they politicians or members of the press and media personalities.
There is a group of celebrity journalists who work in the print and broadcast media and also play pundit on talk shows. Some of these media figures look in the mirror and beam: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the best journalist of them all?”
Perhaps more editors, producers and senior journalists may look in that proverbial mirror and ask how they can more comprehensively, intelligently and creatively cover the 2012 election cycle.
The little secret many journalists won’t admit to publicly is that they enjoy the entertaining elements of politics and general elections as much as their readers and viewers. Good for them. Still, they have an obligation to inform and educate the public beyond what is said by the speakers at various political events.
The defining outline of the 2012 general election is clear. In making their choices of party and leader, voters will assess and compare the records of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) and its leader, Perry Christie, from 2002 to 2007 and that of the Free National Movement (FNM) and its leader, Hubert Ingraham, from 2007 to 2012. This comparison and assessment will serve as the basis for who voters believe may best lead the country for the next five years.
It is essential for journalists to be objective. In the interest of objectivity many journalists operate under the rubric of “fair and balanced”, an important principle. Still, it is a principle with a goal in mind, namely to get to the facts.
The misapplication of the notion of fair and balanced has been lampooned by the fictional example of a television anchor promoting a news segment. The segment includes a politician who believes that the earth is round. Of course, in the interest of fairness and balance, there will be a politician who believes that the earth is flat.
The veteran and now deceased American political journalist Tim Russert served for 16 years as the moderator of the highly-respected NBC Sunday morning news program, “Meet the Press”.
Russert was legendary for being generally “fair and balanced”. He was respected by Republicans, Democrats and independents, liberals, moderates and conservatives.
His “Meet the Press” table was a must-stop for those who sought and won the presidential nominations of their respective parties. Presidential aspirants, powerful Congressional leaders, governors, Cabinet secretaries and business moguls were interrogated by Russert.
Getting through a Russert interview without a major fumble was a badge of honor. Before going on “Meet the Press”, interviewees did serious preparation, which often included mock interviews and combing through briefing books.
Tim Russert’s method was as simple as it was compelling. He did his research and held politicians accountable for their words. The Russert method was simply good journalism. Perhaps the media can better employ such journalistic methods during this election cycle.
As a start, one of the dailies may consider making a master list of the promises made by the PLP and the FNM in their election manifestos and speeches from the throne, and see how well or poorly they kept their promises.
The period in question for the PLP would be 2002 to 2007 and for the FNM, the period from 2007 to 2012. The reporting would simply hold each party accountable for their own words. This would be of considerable service to voters who do not have the time to do such research.
The press may also hold political leaders accountable for their new promises. For example, Ingraham has promised to expand the National Prescription Drug Benefit. A newspaper like The Nassau Guardian may ask how much such an expansion would cost. Similarly, Leader of the Opposition Perry Christie may be asked how he will pay for his promise to double the national budget for education.
This is the kind of good research journalism that is sorely lacking. Quite often nowadays, many editors and reporters are so caught up in getting the juiciest headlines that they fail to do the important research pieces that are necessary, and sometimes they miss important aspects of a story.
This journal has done work of this nature in reporting on how MPs spent their constituency allowances. More such work would be welcome and a good way to improve the quality of political journalism in the country.
Feb 21, 2012