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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Don Shelby (I love this guy): Why I never want to cover politicians

Why I never want to cover politicians

political rally
REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer
Politicians will say almost anything to get elected.
Thirty-three years ago I was hired to work at WCCO-TV. The man doing the hiring was one of the great journalists turned out by the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism. Ron Handberg is an imposing figure today. The veins in his forehead still bulge when he sees bad journalism. It was love at first sight.
At the conclusion of our interview, Ron said: “Is there any area of news you won’t cover?”
“Yes,” I said.
His brow knit. He raised an eyebrow. The vein in his forehead turned blue and seemed to throb.
“I won’t cover politics,” I said.
He was aghast. He shot back, “Why, in the hell, not?” 
I began to wriggle in my seat. I could see the possibility of working for the vaunted WCCO-TV and sitting near the legendary Dave Moore slipping away. I tried the truth. Handberg, as the legend went, loved the truth more than anything.
“Because,” I said, “they are too conceited.”
If you are playing this scene in your head, this is where you place the very loud audience laugh track. Handberg stifled his own laugh, but he broke into a smile. I know what he was thinking. Handberg was thinking: “I have known you for one hour, and you strike me as the most conceited man I ever met.”

“I know that must seem odd,” I said. “But when a politician and I get near each other, our combined egos suck all the oxygen from the room.”
Handberg laughed. Handberg hired me on the spot.
The only time he assigned me a story involving a politician it was to try to put the politician in jail. Shortly after that, the I-Team was born.

The great politicians

Since those early days, I’ve come to admire some great politicians. I like politicians who stick to the facts. I was never a member of the cynics club who accepted as axiomatic that politicians would lie when the truth sounded better, just to get elected. I’m one of the few who read the latest polls showing little confidence in our elected leaders and feel the visceral urge to weep. A republic doesn’t stand long, history shows, when the governed think the government is a bunch of nitwits. Historians put the thought in better words.
Handberg came to understand that my cockiness didn’t stem from an inflated sense of myself, but from an ardent love of the truth, and its cousin, the fact. I usually feel like the stupidest guy in the room. That’s why I arm myself with facts. I believe in them, more than I believe in what I could come up with on my own. Like this: 2 + 2 = 4, and it really doesn’t matter how desperately we need it to be otherwise.
But I’ve seen politicians who would go before a community of people who believed 2 + 2 = 9, and tell them, with a straight face, that he supported their conclusion, and would, if elected, change all the math books to reflect their wishes. Tell the people what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. Journalists, in the drive to be popular, sometimes stoop to the same practice.
Which, at long last, brings me to my point. I dislike hubris. So did the ancient Greeks. It was, in fact, a crime. Roughly defined as extreme pride, hubris also has come to mean an absolute, unshakeable confidence in one’s own opinion, without regard to the facts.
(Side note: I don’t care about anyone’s opinion. I’m with Jefferson on this. An opinion is meaningless. What the framers were trying to protect was not just your opinion, but “the informed opinion.” If you have an informed opinion, you have my attention.)
So, I’ve been watching the politicians in this run up to the presidential elections. The hubris makes me dizzy. There are candidates who will tell you that the Earth is 6,000 years old. The only source for that revealed “truth” is a guy named James Ussher, who, in 1650 was the bishop of Armagh. He did the math and arrived at the conclusion that the world was created in 4004 BC.
That notion stuck around for a two centuries because, primarily, no one had a better idea. Then the science of geology was born, and now we have the unassailable evidence that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Never mind the facts. If there are voters who want the Earth to be 6,000 years old, there are plenty of politicians who will say: “I agree with you. Now, please vote for me.”

Global warming

But as you may have suspected, I am most saddened and angered by the hubris of candidates who say they know that global warming is a hoax. They know there are voters — and big-money contributors — who want to hear those words, so the politicians say them.

What is most puzzling is people fall for it. How can a person who spent his life making money and running for office or being a lawyer and running for office take on the body of knowledge we know as science? How can a personal opinion trump the laws of physics? How can a politician know more than 98 percent of all the climate scientists in the world? How can people buy it?
I am cocky, but this display makes me look meek. It makes the republic look silly to outside eyes. “Really?” they ask. “You voted for a guy who would promise to overturn the law of gravity — if you wanted him to?”
I don’t know if it is hubris. I can’t believe that one person who has no training can declare his opinion more important than the scientific world’s collected knowledge. My faith in humanity urges me to believe that if you wake one of these politicians from a sound sleep and asked the question, he would say: “Uh, of course I am making this up. How else am I going to get elected?”  
My hope is this: I actually hope the politicians are lying. And if they get elected, they can stop lying and govern based on known fact. Short of that, voters could decide that it is better to hear the truth than to be told what we want to be told. We could shake ourselves out of this political Stockholm Syndrome and come to realize that it is always bad to put a liar in a position of power over us.
It has taken three decades to make it clear to Ron Handberg why I never wanted to cover politicians. And in the end, I didn’t have to explain anything. The candidates have made my case exactly.

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