No, I’m not referring to physics, but the political reporter obsession with ‘optics’ (boldface mine):
The president hadn’t necessarily said anything inaccurate or made controversial claims. Critics just didn’t like the way he said what he said. It didn’t look or sound quite right.
On Meet The Press, Obama conceded he had made a specific error when he played golf after making a public statement about the brutal beheading of American journalist James Foley. “I should’ve anticipated the optics,” he said. “Part of this job is also the theater of it.” And he’s right, optics do matter for a commander-in-chief, especially in his role as communicator. But optics and stagecraft aren’t the only thing. And Beltway pundits proved themselves to be poor judges of optics when a Republican last occupied the Oval Office.
Please recall that the press loved President George Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” optics in 2003, which foolishly implied the United States had won the war in Iraq. (NBC’s Brian Williams: “He looked terrific and full of energy in a flight suit.”) And don’t forget Bush’s “bring them on” taunt when he was asked about escalating attacks on American troops inside Iraq. (More than 4,000 Americans subsequently died in fighting there.)
A common complaint about the Beltway press is that journalists obsess over process at the expense of substance. (i.e. Who’s up, who’s down?) Sadly, we’ve now eroded to the point where process journalism has been eclipsed by an even more meaningless pursuit: “optics.”
Another description for the current press malady is theater criticism. Theater criticism means you don’t offer solutions; you don’t offer insights or analysis. Theater criticism means you simply detail everything the pitch-poor actor does wrong in terms of word choice, inflection and public emotion. (Or golfing.) Analysis is different. It’s more difficult, more rigorous, and it’s much needed.
Instead we got the tan suit meltdown.
BEIGEGHAZI! BEIGEGHAZI! BEIGEGHAZI! (Brief digression: how long was Obama supposed to wait before he could play golf again? Is this like keeping kosher, where you’re supposed to wait three hours before having meat after milk or vice versa? If he had gone to the White Hourse gym, would that have been ok? So stupid.)
What I don’t understand is how editors think people want to read this crap. As a NY Times subscriber, there are articles I never even bother to read based either on the byline (did Adam Nagourney ever write a worthwhile story?) or the lede. Admittedly, they already have my money from the dead tree version*, but in the online-paywall world, I can’t imagine who would pay for this crap more than once. It’s pointless writing, especially if you’re trying to glean useful information, such as how you might vote.
There are lots of ways newspaper and television executives have mismanaged their companies in the ground, but this ‘optics’ crap is just one more way they’re doing so.
*I mostly get the dead tree version because I like to read it at lunch if I’m not eating with anyone (or read the magazine outside on the weekend).