Entry from September 24, 2012

On the radio where I live, local Ford dealers are advertising a sale of their “certified pre-owned vehicles” — that is to say, the items formerly known as used cars. Used car dealers, as some younger readers may not know, were once as much a metonymic by-word for dishonesty as the media are today. According to a new Gallup survey “Americans’ distrust in the media hit a new high this year, with 60 per cent saying they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.” But if, when we think of duplicity today, it is some blow-dried anchorman who first comes to mind rather than a used car salesman, it’s not because we trust used car salesmen any more than we used to; it’s because we trust media folk less. That, at any rate, would seem to be the logical conclusion from my Ford dealers’ commercials.

An old and rather feeble joke at the car salesman’s expense in the long, long ago imagined him — it always was a him back in those days — trying to sell somebody a car by saying that it had been previously owned by a little old lady who only used it to drive to church on Sunday. Whom did he think he was kidding, insulting our intelligence like that? And yet, there doubtless were some cars that really had been owned by little old ladies, and probably some of them rarely drove anywhere but to church. The lie, you see, was not completely implausible and may even, in some cases, have been not entirely unrelated to the truth. Today’s sellers of Ford pre-owned vehicles, however, don’t bother with plausibility even to this limited degree. They tell us that their used cars were “not just pre-owned, but pre-adored, pre-worshiped and pre-babied by their owners.” Sure they were.

Car salesmen, that is, now play up to their reputation for untrustworthiness. They turn what is essentially the same joke back on us, their sometime detractors. We know that you know that we are lying to you, they seem to say. What are you going to do about it? What can you do but laugh at the preposterousness of the idea of someone’s adoring and worshiping a car? The lie is now so heavily discounted that it doesn’t even count as a lie anymore. It’s just a joke: part of the way we expect cars to be sold. I think there is a similar process going on in the media when they all join in to call Paul Ryan a liar or Mitt Romney out of touch and unsympathetic to the middle class. The charge is so extreme, so out-of-proportion to its ostensible occasion that one almost has to suspect that they, too, are simply playing up to their reputation for bias and untrustworthiness. We expect them shamelessly to exaggerate the virtues of Democrats and the faults of Republicans, so that is what they feel themselves entitled to do.

Not too surprisingly, politicians are now availing themselves of the same rhetorical license. Not to belabor the car analogy, but President Obama’s touting of General Motors as one of the only two administration success stories (along with the killing of Osama bin Laden) he cares to trumpet would not be possible without a tacit agreement on all sides not to mention the fact that GM’s bankruptcy was only disguised by a massive infusion of taxpayer dollars, most of which are never likely to be recovered. GM is not “alive” but zombiefied. The media themselves acknowledge that what is said during political campaigns has no relation to the political realities which the successful candidates are presumably going to have to deal with some day. That’s why the would-be gaffe of President Obama’s open mike assurance to Dmitri Medvedev that “after my election I have more flexibility” to make more concessions to the Russians on missile defense (“I will transmit this information to Vladimir,” replied Boris Badenov), turned out to be a no-big-deal non-gaffe. What do you expect? That he’s going to be frank about what he’s planning to do? Don’t make me laugh.

The other day, Walter Pincus of The Washington Post quoted the former Defense Secretary Robert Gates approvingly: “My hope is that following the presidential election, whatever adults remain in the two political parties will make the compromises necessary to put this country back in order.” The unstated assumption here is that the “adults” — if there are any, apart from Mr Gates — are expected to go into hiding during election season in order to leave the field clear for the children to throw mud at one another. Boys will be boys! But if this is the case, then what is actually said during the campaign is, by the corollary assumption, being routinely treated as just for show and nothing to do with the business of governing. Isn’t that and not Mitt Romney’s clumsy and ill-considered remarks about the 47 per cent who don’t pay taxes the real scandal of the campaign?

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