My point in the last post, and one I rarely tire of making, is to highlight the taboo against intruding too far into the private lives of public figures that we still see in (especially northern) European public discourse. Kohl’s criticism of Thierse’s performance in office — however nasty — is fair game, because it relates to his performance in office. But when he went into Kohl’s private life, he went to far, as even he recognized (and I assume he did apologize personally to Kohl in the letter).
There are many reasons for this discretion, likely including a cultural tradition of respect for the private sphere, and a sense of decorum between journalists and politicians, who are generally both members of elite groups. But another important factor is the belief that the public needs much more information about what politicians stand for in their public lives than what they do in their private lives. Most journalists here have an ethos which recognizes that "bad news" — in the sense of trivial speculation about politicians’ private lives — will tend to drive out "good news" — in the sense of reporting about public policy and substantive differences between the political parties. Why will bad news drive out good news? Because it’s easier for journalists to write, and because lots of ordinary people are interested in gossip about public figures. You can sell lots of newspapers with trivial gossip about politicians’ and officials’ private lives.
Let’s look at the United States, where virtually all media outlets are privately-owned. Among the subjects covered intensely in the past few years in the mainstream media have been John Edwards’ haircut, whether Hillary Clinton prefers diamonds or pearls, what kind of underwear her husband wears, the state of the marriages of all presidential candidates, including whether they’ve committed adultery or been divorced, the clothes Al Gore picks, or whether he is too fat, or what his beard looks like (it "has become the subject of intense analysis"), George W. Bush’s taste for mountain biking, or whether former Presidential Candidate Howard Dean’s wife should have played more of a role in his campaign. Trust me, I could go on, and on, and on. (Want hundreds more examples, and I mean literally hundreds? Troll the archives here.) Let us not forget that in the summer of 2001, the American media was obsessed with
the warning signs of a potential terror attack whether an obscure Congressman might have had something to do with the disappearance of an attractive female aide (turns out he didn’t).
I hear plenty of readers already: "Lighten up. There’s still some reporting about substantive policy issues in the American media. What’s the problem with a bit of fun once in a while? Can’t you have some tasty soup after eating your broccoli?" Sorry to be so curmudgeonly, but no, no soup for you! There has to be an active taboo against gossip reporting (as in the German elite media), because it drives out substance. Once the substance is driven out, viewers, like most Americans, will end up ignorant about basic political information, and about the rest of the world. American’s aren’t getting, or eating, enough broccoli. And speaking of broccoli, the two facts most Americans remembered the most clearly about the first George Bush presidency were the fact that his dog was named Millie and that he didn’t like broccoli. In fact, studies consistently reveal that the most widely-known facts about politicians in America are trivial personal tidbits. (I’m drawing these examples from a book by two political scientists: Michael X. Delli Carpini & Scott Keeter, What Americans Know About Politics and Why it Matters (1996)).
Judging by polls of younger Americans, this ignorance will only get worse. A recent survey, in line with so many others: Two-thirds of Americans between 18 and 24 couldn’t locate Iraq on the map in 2006, half of them couldn’t locate the Indian subcontinent on a map of Asia, only thirty percent thought it was important to know the locations of countries in the news, and a miserable fourteen percent thought speaking another language is a necessary skill. Of course, one shouldn’t put too much stock in these kinds of surveys, since Americans arguably need less knowledge of the rest of the world than people who live in smaller countries surrounded by larger neighbors. But look at the lack of curiosity this poll reveals. Not only are young Americans ignorant of other countries, they don’t care that they’re ignorant. Even after three years of war, only 1/3 of them have bothered to try to find out where Iraq is, which seems like a fair enough proxy for some important forms of geopolitical knowledge.
Delli Carpini and Keeter also report studies showing Western European voters are better-informed than Americans. The difference isn’t huge, but it’s there. Now, nobody expects ordinary people to sit down and read complicated books about public policy. Most people never do so, either in Europe or in the U.S. They get their information from newspapers and, especially, television. So it matters who’s providing them the television. And there’s the rub: a strong, publicly-funded press which takes its mission seriously delivers more useful information about actual policies to ordinary people. This, in turn, creates a better-informed electorate.
I hardly need to add that the ignorance of many Americans is a problem for the whole world, because (1) it makes them easily manipulable; and (2) their government has a powerful military, and the will to use it. I’ll end with a statistic that says it all: after hearing years of threatening rhetoric about Iran, 52% of Americans now support a military strike against that country. If you think that most of these people support bombing a country that isn’t at war with the United States because they have carefully reviewed Iran’s history, alliances, political system, culture, and military chain of command — and have analyzed the effect on oil prices and the possibility of a backlash — then I’ve got a bridge to sell you.
To sum up, even if you believe that not knowing much about other countries (1) is an unavoidable aspect of human nature (2) an appropriate choice for most people (who don’t need this information); and (3) and nothing to be concerned about, that’s only true unless and until your country starts planning military action against those other countries. That’s why I hope you’ll forgive me if I harp on this theme once in a while.