I’ve been reading this speech by media critic Jay Rosen on the dysfunctional nature of political journalism, and one of his criticisms is of the ‘cult of savviness:
In the United States, most of the people who report on politics aren’t trying to advance an ideology. But I think they have an ideology, a belief system that holds their world together and tells them what to report about. It’s not left, or right, or center, really. It’s trickier than that. The name I’ve given to the ideology of our political press is savviness. And I see it in Australia too. When you watch political journalists on a roundtable program summing up the week and looking ahead, what they are usually performing for us is… their savviness.
So let me explain what I mean by that term. In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane. Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.)
Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are.
I would defend the worship of savviness – to a certain extent. Government is hard: it’s not enough for someone to be good, fair, decent etc – they have to be smart. Worthy policies aren’t sufficient – they have to be implemented properly, and if they aren’t then you alienate voters from the values and policies you’re trying to advance. You make it harder for your party to introduce similar policies in the future. Savviness is a key quality, in politicians and the journalists writing about them.
But they do need to understand the basic ideas and value systems behind all the skulduggery and political machinations. For a hilarious counter-example, take a look at the Q & A panel struggling to comment on Guyon Espiner’s interview with Richard Wilkinson, author of The Spirit Level.
Wilkinson’s interview is here – it’s not difficult, just an academic discussing his subject in layman terms. And his thesis isn’t difficult to critique – did he cherry pick the countries he included in his study? But the panel don’t go there – instead they obsess over his performance as an interview subject. You get the feeling that if Wilkerson had received media training and thrown in some jokes about Charlie Sheen they would have been avid converts to his hypothesis.