The Listener

Politics 24/7: No One Can Hear You Scream

Duncan Hunter's in the loop on POTUS '08.
Duncan Hunter's in the loop on POTUS '08. (By Bill Pugliano -- Getty Images)

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By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 14, 2007

Be careful what you wish for. In this era of media superficiality, newsroom budget cuts and celebrity worship, there's also a growing call for depth and tough reporting on the crucial issues of our time, such as the election of a president.

Enter the next phase of niche media: XM Satellite Radio has launched a 24/7 channel devoted exclusively to presidential politics.

So I subject myself to 24 hours of Channel 130, POTUS '08 (the name is the acronym for president of the United States). There, I learn that "the question of the day," "the one question I have to ask," "the big question," "the real question right now," "the question I can't let you go without asking" is the one that XM's political voices ask their guests an average of three times an hour:

"Is it over?" "Should we go home?" "Does she have it?" "Has Hillary gone over the top?" "At this point, she can't be stopped, right?"

The responses on POTUS (where, as XM puts it, "everyone is an insider") are various versions of "Yes," delivered with basso profundo confidence, hedged slightly in hopes that a competitive Democratic race might yet return, or spoken with a knowing chuckle. Again and again, reporters, bloggers and consultants declare New York Sen. Hillary Clinton the Democratic nominee, after which Channel 130's announcer reminds us that there are 403 days to go before the 2008 election.

Me, I'm ready to sell my vote to anyone who can stop the words.

I nearly fall to my knees in weeping gratitude when I hear the dean of American political reporters, The Post's own David Broder, slip in a rare note of caution: "Until actual votes are cast, anybody who talks about a front-runner is making a mistake."

But before Broder can get back to his phone, POTUS serves up another half-dozen pundits assuring us that it's all over.

There's a show jampacked with bloggers in their pajamas -- really, it's called "Pajamas Media" -- who have read each other's writing and are here to tell us that "Hillary is so far ahead it's almost time for her to make the pivot to looking ahead to the general election" (Glenn Reynolds), and that "She does have it sewn up absent an absolute explosion" (John Podhoretz), and that . . .

Dear God, make it stop.

That the tsunami of information unleashed by the digital revolution threatens to overwhelm our ability to discern meaning is obvious enough. But the new media's insatiable demand for material poses another kind of danger, too: The combination of the rising expectation of instantaneous information and the narrowing of categories to minuscule niches attacks the very concept of audience. Who craves a 24/7 channel on presidential politics? Anybody other than people who work on presidential politics?

Mass media and mass audiences are dead, we're told. Never again will there be a Walter Cronkite, a Beatles, a Top 40 radio. The Super Bowl is the last vestige of the era of mass, undifferentiated audiences. Now, it's all about the niche.


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