Belmont Club

Time Waits For No One

One commenter on a Huffington Post story about the second case of Ebola in the US argued that the president should begin the air travel ban with a quarantine of Texas.  The suggestion is not as crazy as you think. The Business Insider cites Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as saying “August was Ebola. It was ISIS. It was Ukraine, Global issues dominated. And in September, those issues continued to dominate. And so, part of the headwind was it did make it a little more difficult for us to break through on those middle-class economic contrasts when people were so focused on global issues.”

If there were only some way of quarantining memes it would be very much appreciated right now. Carrie Dann of NBC News laments “If you’re even a casual news consumer, you know that the spread of Ebola, the U.S. airstrikes against ISIS and major security breaches within the Secret Service have dominated media coverage over the last week as Americans mull the safety of their families, U.S. soldiers, and the president himself.”

One thing that Americans are collectively rolling their eyes at, though: the upcoming midterm elections, now just 27 days away.

A new survey from the Pew Research Center shows that Americans just aren’t particularly interested in the midterms, with only 15 percent saying they’re following election news “very closely,” and nearly one-in-four saying they’re not paying attention at all. Compare that to 36 percent who are paying close attention to the Ebola story, 31 percent concerned about the ISIS strikes, and 21 percent closely following the mistakes of the Secret Service.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way: the news has hijacked the news cycle.

To appreciate how much this hurts it’s important to remember that the media’s greatest power is its ability to set the public agenda. Ever since 1968 it has jealously guarded the power to both determine what the public talks about (the agenda) and how it is discussed (framing). Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) is complaining that they can’t do that in these elections because ISIS, Ebola, Ukraine, etc. are taking over the headlines in the way that disease is overrunning West Africa.

By this time in the election cycle, the public should have been awash with stories about how a poor, minimum wage worker at Walmart has lost her health insurance due to corporate greed and why that greed has is leading America closer to single payer. Everyone should now be focusing on how the resurgent economy would be trending on Twitter were it not for the sabotage of conservative news outlets — paid for by the Koch brothers.

Instead what is trending are stories like ‘War against Isis: US strategy in tatters as militants march on‘ or ‘Despite airstrikes, ISIS forces draw nearer to Baghdad‘. Or ‘Texas health worker becomes first person to contract Ebola in U.S.‘  The horror, the horror.

As MSNBC noted, the public instead of talking about the real issues, is talking about Ebola, ISIS, al-Qaeda, Ukraine, etc. It’s a fine kettle of fish when media consultants find the news revolting.  An uprising of the facts is making the management of the news cycle impossible.

Glenn Reynolds conjectured that the president would do only just enough against ISIS to tide him over the elections. This is classic news cycle management. Unfortunately, his calculations are being upset by a race condition, which as programmers who read this site already know, is what happens when events do not happen in the order intended. An unexpected development ‘races’ ahead to upset the apple-cart. It grabs the news cycle by the nose-ring and leads it around.

Suicide bombers targeting police officers have killed 60 in Baghdad. The president of Anbar’s provincial council “has issued a plea for US ground forces to head off total collapse in the country’s largest province, a swathe of territory that could serve as a springboard for an assault on Baghdad by forces of the so-called Islamic State.” Neither Ebola nor ISIS were supposed to act this way, according to the plan, but the plan is in the wind.

One of the weaknesses of the current administration is its over-reliance on the management of perception.  Leon Panetta in his memoir noted the extraordinary importance the president put on managing image and optics by elevating input from people like Plouffe and Axelrod to unnatural levels.

Panetta … found Obama to be too insular, often limiting decision-making to his inner circle and forgoing the advice of senior officials. He believed this diminished the cabinet’s importance and usefulness. Obama also restricted who was able to represent the government in public speeches and settings to his political advisers—David Plouffe or David Axelrod. Panetta felt failing to use specialists hurt the administration’s ability to explain the problems it faced to the public, or properly represent its policies. He argued it often skewed the conversation and gave non-political problems a political face.

The charge that “he … often skewed the conversation and gave non-political problems a political face” is just another way of saying the president all too often let the spin replace the fact. Too bad Ebola wasn’t listening and neither was ISIS.  Reality ain’t playing along like it’s supposed to.

Time waits for no one,
It passes you by.
It rolls on forever,
Like the clouds in the sky.

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