Only Politics as News?

I spent half my 40 years or so in academia teaching and researching Politics. The other (second) half was spent doing the same in Communications, mainly Journalism. Scholars tend to focus on rather narrow topics for their research, and I was usually not an exception. But this “reflective memoir” offers me a chance to ask a BIG question.

Imagine an alien coming down to Earth for some “anthropological” study. Among the places it visits is academia, where it finds among the larger universities approximately 40-50 departments, each specializing in a different subject or field of life. One of these is Political Science; perhaps another is International Relations. It then opens the Bureau of Labor Statistics annual reports and discovers year after year that approximately 5% of the work force is employed in government at all levels.

After a hard day’s work, the alien sits down to read a few newspapers (print or screen). “Very strange,” it muses out loud after scanning several of them. “All these news report media seem to spend almost half their time and energy on only one field: politics. I wonder why – after all, far fewer work in politics and even fewer study the subject.”

Indeed! Open any newspaper (not counting the National Enquirer and its ilk) and that’s what you will find: politics, politics, education, politics, sports, politics, science, politics, politics, politics, technology, politics…

Why is this so? One obvious reason is that other than war – itself a continuation of politics by other means, as Clausewitz opined – there is no other area of life with as much “Action & Drama” as the political world. By its very nature it is based on, and suffused with, conflict. And as we are well aware, we are evolutionarily primed to “notice” human conflict as opposed to other forms of human interaction. In short, the news media are simply “playing to the crowd”.

A second reason for the dominance of political news is the influence of politics on our lives: taxes, health policy, environmental regulation, macro-economic policy, etc etc – all obviously have a significant impact on our lives. Moreover, in a democracy the elected leaders are doing what we (supposedly) (s)elected them to do for us. Political news is not just what “they are doing to/for us” but also – or rather – whether they are doing what we agreed that they would do. In short, it is a public mirror of our (un)met desires.

So it is not surprising that politics takes up more space and time on the news than any other field of human endeavor. And yet…

When one looks at what truly affects us, it turns out that a huge amount of influential goings-on aren’t in the political sphere at all. There are almost countless scientific and technological advances reported each day in professional journals and other non-“news” venues that will change our lives down the road: pharmaceuticals & health (new vaccines, drugs, and bio-tech); transportation (drones, flying cars, autonomous vehicles); economics (cyber-currency, cybercrime, online banking, telework); environment (rising sea levels, catastrophic weather, global warming, bio-extinction); and so on. Of course, these are covered by the news, but with a frequency nowhere near the impact that they (will) have on our lives. So what’s the problem?

I think that there are a few explanations. First – as Tevya the Milkman once said: “tradition”. Newspapers, as we broadly understand the term, commenced about 400 years ago; the profession of journalism started about 200 years ago (earlier than that the publisher/printer doubled as “reporter”). Back then, “politics” was just about all that was happening! Modern science was barely getting started; there were almost no macro-economics to talk about (or understand, until Adam Smith’s 1776 Wealth of Nations); the lives of common folk interested no one (most couldn’t even afford to buy a newspaper); not even team sports existed to fill news space!

In that news black hole, politics – war, diplomacy, rulers’ machinations – was all there was to report on (other than announcing which ship just docked with what imports for local sale). This “tradition” then self-reproduced itself even when more non-politics did emerge in the 1900s, and continues to this day. In fact, there is a general term for the generational continuation of an original practice: “path dependence”.

The most famous example of this is the QWERTY keyboard – completely illogical, as its layout has no connection whatsoever to the frequency of letters typed or even letter contiguity in the English language. How, then, did that get started? The first typewriters had an “arm” for each letter that struck the ink ribbon on top of the blank paper. But as that early typewriter was quite primitive, if one typed too fast the arms would get stuck together – so the keyboard was designed to make typing MORE difficult (and slower)!!! By the time this physical problem was fixed on ensuing versions the secretaries had already learned “touch-typing” on that QWERTY keyboard and refused to change to a more sensible layout. So look at your advanced computer keyboard – still back in the mid-19th century!

One can add to the “tradition” of political journalism the fact that reporters and editors are like almost all other humans – they follow the herd. Indeed, one could argue that news is merely “I herd it through the grapevine”, with each journalist reporting on those matters that other reporters are covering. What about their constant quest for the “scoop”? That’s new news within the same general subject area, i.e. politics!

A second (or third, if the “herd” counts as separate) factor turns the mirror from journalists to each of us, the news consumer. Human beings are invariably “here and now” creatures. From an evolutionary standpoint (until the modern age), there were too many present obstacles and dangers to contend with; thinking about “the future” was a luxury that almost none could afford (which is why Pharaoh was so taken aback by, and taken with, Joseph’s highly unusual plan to save grain for 7-14 years hence). And on top of that, predicting the future was such an “iffy” affair that other than professional “predictors” (oracles, prophets, seers etc), no one even tried it.

Given this built-in human myopia, it is hardly surprising that journalists too would focus on the immediate present – not only because most understand the “iffiness” of future prognostication, but because their readers, listeners, and viewers just can’t get too worked up over the “future”. A perfect example: it has taken decades for journalism to really start focusing on global warming and other serious environmental issues – in large part due to the “ho-hum” response of its audience to bad things that will take place “decades from now”. When did the “environment” finally get serious public and journalistic traction? When the politicians started fighting over it!

In short, getting journalists to consistently focus on any serious or significant topic is a lost cause – unless someone (economists, scientists, pressure groups etc) can turn it into a “political issue”. This “topic myopia” is certainly short-sighted (by definition), but it’s what we – journalists and public alike – have been trained and accustomed to.

I guess by focusing most of my academic work on political science and mass communications I made the correct professional decision – which doesn’t mean that in practice, combining the two should be the be-all and end-all of our news production and consumption practices.


My father Arthur Wilzig was born in 1910 in the tiny Polish-German (the nationality depended on the era) town Krojanke; my mother Jenny Weinreb (1925), in Hamburg, Germany, moving to Berlin at age 2. From there the “wandering Jew” syndrome took over for both: he moved to Cuba in 1936 (where there was a large Polish-Jewish expat community, fleeing the Polish pogroms in the mid-20’s), and she escaped from Nazi Germany in 1939 to Lisbon, and from there to a British-run refugee camp in Jamaica, and from there to Cuba in 1944, where she met my father who by then was Vice Chairman of the Joint Distribution Committee, greeting Jewish refugees in his official capacity. They married in 1946 and I was conceived in Cuba in late 1948, when they immigrated to the U.S. with me in utero – making me a truly “international baby” (1949). No surprise, then, that 28 years later I too moved halfway round the world to Israel. But more on all this later… 

This is not a memoir. I might have lived a fairly interesting life – interesting, that is, to me and perhaps a few loved ones – but certainly not enough to entice a wider audience than that. Rather, I am using certain aspects of my life as a diving board to jump into some deeper ruminative waters that I trust will be of interest to many people. Each “chapter” starts with (or includes) a short personal event or happenstance – and from there I delve into what I believe is the “larger, more universal meaning” that others can learn from these. Thus, you need not read these in order – it’s altogether fine to cherry-pick the ones whose title and topic catch your fancy.

Obviously, I have no pretensions to completeness or comprehensiveness. A person can live only a very small number of the life possibilities afforded by modern society. But within that circumscribed life, each of us comes up against many of the same problems, issues, dilemmas, and other choices that make living in our era so challenging (and interesting). It is to these aspects that I devote my attention here – indirectly suggesting some of what made, and makes, me who I (S)am.

Which leads to my first warning: I love puns, and am known in my circle of friends as being a real groan-up. I’ll try not to overdo it here, but as I really do not have any addictions, let this be my worst vice.

Indeed, if you didn’t notice, the title of this series is a pun (I just did this twice: the first and also the last time I explain a pun of mine). As suggested earlier, I am trying to do two things here: reflect on life in general through specific mirror reflections of things that I have done or that happened to me. These are not necessarily the most important things in my life, but rather events that set me thinking about important issues of living in general.

The reader will very quickly discover that I have very wide-ranging knowledge in quite a number of disparate disciplines. To use Isaiah Berlin’s terminology, I am not a hedgehog (digging deep in one field) but rather a fox (moving hither and thither to gather food – for thought, in my case – among several fields).

“Wide-ranging knowledge”? Doesn’t that sound somewhat conceited? Forthrightly, I have tried my very best in this book to be completely honest about myself for better and for worse. You will read about several of my “accomplishments” but also discover a not inconsiderable number of “failures”. Temperamentally, I am very averse to telling anyone what I really think about them; but I have no problem doing the same about myself. As we grow older, we prefer less and less to look at the mirror image of our physical visage, understandably so; however, maturity demands of us to metaphorically look into the mirror about who we really are. If I have succeeded in anything, it is this willingness to see my character warts and try to smooth them over, if not eliminate them altogether. Why and how – I leave that for later elucidation.

And now for a few “apologies”:

1) Everything here will be the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth. We all have “dark secrets” – some very significant and evil, others minor and simply non-normative. Although “letting it all hang out” seems to be the new zeitgeist in our social-network-driven world, I come from the old school believing that there should be clear limits to self-baring selfies. Indeed, it would be better if we spelled the word “sell-fees” because in trying to sell ourselves there is usually a heavy price to pay down the road.

Moreover, many things in our life involve others – spouse, children etc – so that their privacy and feelings have to be taken into account, even if the memoirist was willing to “bare all”. This is not a “bug” of any (auto)biography but rather part of the code. Just as a newspaper editor will not let the reporter write a 5000-word description of yesterday’s event that includes every minute detail (and even some, not so minute), so too the (auto)biographer has to be selective in what to display. But again, this book is not an autobiography in the classic sense; rather, it’s a vehicle for significant life ruminations based on selected elements of my far less significant life.

2) Some people tell me I have an annoying habit of writing with too many parenthetical asides (the ones inside parentheses, just like this one). This could be annoying, but there are two good reasons for this.

a- I have been trained to think “associatively” (or maybe I was simply born that way?), and coupled with my wide range of knowledge, I see (too?) many connections between seemingly disparate facts and phenomena. I could put these into footnotes – but as an academic I have had more than my fill of that!

b- Details, details: too often readers misconstrue or misunderstand (or are simply confused by) a comment without sufficient context or explanation; I prefer to err on the side of “over-explanation” so that you don’t err in understanding what I write.

3) As an academic, I know full well the importance of “sourcing”: where does this fact come from? who said it or verified it? is it speculative or proven? On the other hand, as a reader of much academic work I am also aware of how all this can complicate and even undermine comprehension, especially for (even highly educated) lay readers. So I shall forego citations, sourcing and other academic paraphernalia. In the age of Prof. Google (Scholar), it is quite easy to find relevant sources for any idea, argument, theory, factoid and the like. If any idea among my ruminations strikes your curiosity bone, feel free to do some intellectual detective work by yourself. What I reflect, you are welcome to refract….