Matt Bai discusses tabloidization of political journalism

Author and political columnist for Yahoo News Matt Bai speaks about the nature of modern politics' relationship with the media. Sofie Hecht / The Tufts Daily

National Political Columnist for Yahoo News and former Chief Political Correspondent for The New York Times Magazine Matt Bai (LA ’90) hosted a lecture for Tufts community members yesterday evening in Alumnae Lounge. The dinner discussion was centered around his latest book, “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid,” which looks at the tabloidization of political journalism that arose from the 24-hour news cycle.

The lecture, co-sponsored by the Communications and Media Studies Program and the Department of Political Science, was the third event in the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series.

In his book, Bai points to the Gary Hart scandal as the critical turning point in the ethos of political journalism. In 1987, Hart was the leading democratic presidential candidate, ahead of sitting Vice President George H. W. Bush by double digits in the polls. Then, in an unprecedented manner, tabloids broke news about his infidelity, and within one week, the first political sex scandal had shattered the candidate’s campaign, according to Bai.

He recounted one particular press conference as a watershed moment in the ethos of political media, when The Washington Post’s Paul Taylor had been given a lead about one of Hart’s affairs and confronted him directly at the conference.

Taylor says quietly, ‘Senator, I have a series of questions I’d like to go through with you,’” Bai narrated. “He says, ‘Do you consider yourself a moral person?’ Hart says, ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you consider adultery to be immoral?’ Hart says, ‘I suppose it is.’ ‘Senator have you ever committed adultery?’ There’s no candidate that had ever heard this.”

Bai criticized the media’s treatment of politicians as celebrities, explaining that by defining politicians by their flaws and scandals, rather than their relevant political views, truly visionary politicians like Hart are lost to sensationalism.

“[Hart] was a rare visionary in politics,” he said. “In the mid 1980s, he was talking about the rise of extremist Islamic terror, he’s talking about the transition from a manufacturing-based economy to an information-based economy, he’s talking about energy independence as a matter of national security that will eventually lead to wars in the middle east, he’s talking abut climate — he’s so far out ahead of his moment that most of what he’s saying is completely new.”

The Hart scandal changed not only the media’s approach to political stories, but politicians’ approach too. Bai explained that politicians are hesitant to speak with the media out of fear of their words being used against them.

“I covered a few more presidential campaigns, and I sat across from these candidates who looked at me like I was a hired assassin,” he said. “They didn’t want to say anything, they didn’t want to offer any ideas — they were scared to death, they were cautious, they were timid — and I thought to myself, ‘What have we created?’”

Bai explained that the Hart scandal forever changed the ethos of political media.

“In the years after the Hart scandal, the prime director, the guiding ethos in political journalism, shifts from trying to understand your world views and your ideas and your agendas, where you come from intellectually, to try and find out where the flaw is, the character flaw,” he said. “The idea is … ‘We know you’re a liar, we know you’re a hypocrite. It’s our job to figure out how and present that to the voters.’”

The sensationalism of the existing political media culture not only ostracizes politicians like Hart, but enables less qualified politicians who flourish in the media to gain power, Bai noted.

“We have created a culture that reduces people to the worst things we’ve ever done,” he said. “We have created a culture without context, without the totality of a person’s public service or life or devotion or honesty and basically defines you as the worst thing you’ve ever done. In doing so, we create a process in which we drum good people out of public life, but you make it awfully easy for people to go through the process on character and celebrity without … telling you what they believe, and they may have no business running the country.”