by | May 30, 1993 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

There’s a scene in a Mel Brooks movie in which cavemen are drawing on a wall. “These,” the narrator says, “were the world’s first artists. . . .”

Then comes another group of cavemen. “These,” says the voice, “were the world’s first critics.” They look at the drawings, grunt, then lift their furs and urinate on the wall.

The name of the film is “History Of The World, Part I.” And that’s indeed how far back evaluation goes. Still, I doubt we’ve ever seen an era where reviews come spewing forth the way they do today in America.

And I’m not talking art. I’m talking politics.

I’m talking about “Approval Rating” the new and supposedly important barometer of how we feel about our president. I don’t know who invented this. He may have been wearing fur.

Last week alone, we were swamped with stories about President Bill Clinton’s approval rating; how it has dropped due to his so-far ineffectual term. Of course, we had a rating story last week. And the week before. We had it when Clinton proposed his budget. And again when he spoke on health care. We had it when he endorsed gays in the military, after his first 100 days, a week after he took office.

We seem so obsessed in watching this gauge, we forget to ask a basic question:

What’s it got to do with anything? A new national pastime

I call it Thermometer Journalism, poking under America’s tongue, printing the results. No place is more guilty than USA Today — or McPaper, as some call it — where it seems easier to create a story than to investigate one. USA Today will take poll after poll, and trumpet the results as news. “Today WE feel this . . .” “Today WE feel that . . .”

It is hardly alone. Most U.S. newspapers — including this one — now regularly write about approval ratings. TV news often shows a ratings graphic.

It has gotten so that every move the president makes — from legislation to a haircut — gets an instant reading, like blips on a blood pressure test. We chart our feelings. We graph them. We analyze.

This is not only foolish, it is inappropriate. What president in the history of this country didn’t do things that were, for a moment, unpopular? What president didn’t need time to try and get his programs going? What president didn’t stop now and then to play golf, or dance, or get his hair cut? What president didn’t, at some point or another, leave the average American scratching his head?

The difference was, that American wasn’t asked “How do you feel about it?” every two seconds. Patience was practiced. Time was given. We watched how the president did, and, come the next election, we decided if we wanted to boot him out.

Today, for some reason, we feel compelled to report our feelings daily. Outside of being dumb, there is a real danger in this. The danger comes when politicians let it guide their actions. And they do. Just look at the last months of George Bush’s presidency. He seemed obsessed with becoming what he thought we wanted him to be.

Even if he wasn’t. Appraisals are for real estate

All this begs a question: if we really elect a leader on his deep-rooted beliefs, shouldn’t we show a little ourselves? Would you take a parent’s
“approval rating” the moment after a child is punished? Or a boss’ approval rating the moment an employee is chewed out?

Things take time. When they are baked, hatched, cooled, completed, then you sit down and pass judgment. Sure, we can cluck our tongues in private, but when we make opinions front page news, they feed on themselves. They create a mood. I’m not sure, for example, how many people really think Clinton is doing a lousy job and how many simply read how others feel he’s doing a lousy job and say, “Hmmm. I guess he is.”

You see how Thermometer Journalism works. It is not news. It is mercury in a tube. Bush had this enormous approval rating during the Persian Gulf War; why, then, less than a year later, was he scraping bottom? Lyndon Johnson’s support of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 was not overwhelmingly popular, but would you rather he hadn’t done it? John F. Kennedy would have scored high when he first suggested we go into Vietnam. Did that work out?

Reactions are just that: reactions. They cannot — and should not — dictate a presidency. You would hope the nation’s highest office has a vision of its own, but when the popularity tote board keeps beeping, things start to waver. What we get is a herky-jerky government, where leaders are a vaudeville act, doing whatever gets the biggest applause.

We want approval ratings? Fine. Do them once a year. Or at election time.

In between, let’s stick to news. In this way, journalism can teach an important lesson to America: forget about lifting our furs and showing how we feel every minute of the day.

And try instead to do something about it.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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