Questions of Character

By PAUL KRUGMAN

New York Times

October 14, 2005

George W. Bush, I once wrote, "values loyalty above expertise" and may have "a preference for advisers whose personal fortunes are almost entirely bound up with his own." And he likes to surround himself with "obsequious courtiers."

Lots of people are saying things like that these days. But those quotes are from a column published on Nov. 19, 2000.

I don't believe that I'm any better than the average person at judging other people's character. I got it right because I said those things in the context of a discussion of Mr. Bush's choice of economic advisers, a subject in which I do have some expertise.

But many people in the news media do claim, at least implicitly, to be experts at discerning character - and their judgments play a large, sometimes decisive role in our political life. The 2000 election would have ended in a chad-proof victory for Al Gore if many reporters hadn't taken a dislike to Mr. Gore, while portraying Mr. Bush as an honest, likable guy. The 2004 election was largely decided by the image of Mr. Bush as a strong, effective leader.

So it's important to ask why those judgments are often so wrong.

Right now, with the Bush administration in meltdown on multiple issues, we're hearing a lot about President Bush's personal failings. But what happened to the commanding figure of yore, the heroic leader in the war on terror? The answer, of course, is that the commanding figure never existed: Mr. Bush is the same man he always was. All the character flaws that are now fodder for late-night humor were fully visible, for those willing to see them, during the 2000 campaign.

And President Bush the great leader is far from the only fictional character, bearing no resemblance to the real man, created by media images.

Read the speeches Howard Dean gave before the Iraq war, and compare them with Colin Powell's pro-war presentation to the U.N. Knowing what we know now, it's clear that one man was judicious and realistic, while the other was spinning crazy conspiracy theories. But somehow their labels got switched in the way they were presented to the public by the news media.

Why does this happen? A large part of the answer is that the news business places great weight on "up close and personal" interviews with important people, largely because they're hard to get but also because they play well with the public. But such interviews are rarely revealing. The fact is that most people - myself included - are pretty bad at using personal impressions to judge character. Psychologists find, for example, that most people do little better than chance in distinguishing liars from truth-tellers.

More broadly, the big problem with political reporting based on character portraits is that there are no rules, no way for a reporter to be proved wrong. If a reporter tells you about the steely resolve of a politician who turns out to be ineffectual and unwilling to make hard choices, you've been misled, but not in a way that requires a formal correction.

And that makes it all too easy for coverage to be shaped by what reporters feel they can safely say, rather than what they actually think or know. Now that Mr. Bush's approval ratings are in the 30's, we're hearing about his coldness and bad temper, about how aides are afraid to tell him bad news. Does anyone think that journalists have only just discovered these personal characteristics?

Let's be frank: the Bush administration has made brilliant use of journalistic careerism. Those who wrote puff pieces about Mr. Bush and those around him have been rewarded with career-boosting access. Those who raised questions about his character found themselves under personal attack from the administration's proxies. (Yes, I'm speaking in part from experience.) Only now, with Mr. Bush in desperate trouble, has the structure of rewards shifted.

So what's the answer? Journalists who are better at judging character? Unfortunately, that's not a practical plan. After all, who judges their judgment?

What we really need is political journalism based less on perceptions of personalities and more on actual facts. Schadenfreude aside, we should not be happy that stories about Mr. Bush's boldness have given way to stories analyzing his facial tics. Think, instead, about how different the world would be today if, during the 2000 campaign, reporting had focused on the candidates' fiscal policies instead of their wardrobes.