- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 23, 2009


The media have an obvious vested interest in constantly urging that cameras be allowed in more places where governmental decisions are being made, including the Supreme Court. Like so many things that are said to be good for the public, this is something that would be good only for its advocates - and harmful to the process of making decisions in the public interest, as distinguished from providing a forum for grandstanding.

The adage that “seeing is believing” should be a warning. What you see in politics is what politicians want you to see. You believe it at your own risk - and at greater risks to the country.

Televised congressional hearings are not just broadcasts of what happens to be going on in Congress. They are staged events to create a prepackaged impression.

Politically, they are millions of dollars’ worth of free advertising for incumbents, while campaign finance laws impede their challengers from being able even to buy name recognition or present their cases to the public nearly as often.

The real work of Congress gets done where there are no cameras and no microphones - and politicians can talk turkey with one another to make deals that could not be made with the public listening.

To be a fly on the wall, able to listen in while these talks were going on, would be very enlightening no doubt, even if painfully disillusioning. But that is not what you are getting in video footage on the evening news.

Some might argue that in the absence of the cameras, many people might not know what is going on in Congress or in the courts. However, being uninformed is not nearly as bad as being misled.

For one thing, it is much easier to know that you are uninformed than to know that you are being misled.

Quite aside from the fraudulence of a photographic facade, even if everyone involved plays it straight, there often is remarkably little to be learned from observing a court case, for example, unless you understand the legal framework within which that case is to be decided. That is especially so in appellate courts, including the Supreme Court.

The same thing applies in many other contexts. You could watch televised brain surgery for years without getting a clue, if you had no medical training that would enable you to understand what is being done and why - and what the alternatives are that you do not see on camera, much less whether the surgeon has consummate skill or is botching the whole thing.

The more complex the issue, the more likely that understanding the context is vastly more important than seeing a picture and hearing sound bites.

Wars are especially susceptible to being distorted on camera. A dramatic event with emotional impact need not tell you its military significance. The viewer is able only to react emotionally, in circumstances where rationality can be the difference between life and death not only for the combatants, but also for the societies from which they come.

Even when televised congressional hearings are meaningless in themselves - the real decisions having been made off camera - their implications can be devastating. But implications cannot be televised.

Over the past two decades, judicial confirmation hearings often have become exercises in character assassination against nominees whom senators oppose for political reasons having nothing to do with the inflammatory charges that are aired on nationwide TV.

Judges who for years have supported civil rights have been depicted as racists. Other events in their careers have been twisted beyond recognition. Irrelevant questions have been raised to appeal emotionally to uninformed television viewers.

The most direct harm, of course, is to the nominees. But the most important harm is to the public and the country. Not only are many top-notch people lost and many innocuous second-raters appointed in their place, but many other top-notch people refuse even to be nominated, not wanting to see the sterling reputation of a lifetime destroyed by political demagogues.

None of those lost people and their talents is televised, though they may be far more important than what is televised.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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