Come on, Get Happy

Early this summer, on the influential NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, a leading pundit sat in front of TV cameras and made the kind of broad pronouncement often favored by media commentators. "American politics is about optimism," Mark Shields declared. "Americans are the most optimistic people on the planet."

Uttered with great assurance, such statements are more than silly. They sound like descriptions but function as prescriptions. Claiming some extraordinary national trait - in this case, depicting the USA as the global headquarters for hope - these cheery proclamations end up instructing the public as to proper attitudes.

That's hardly surprising when we consider the sources. Shuttling between newsrooms and TV studios while earning hefty salaries, big-name journalists are fond of rosy windows on the world. Overall, the powerful politicians they cover have similar vantage points. And when large numbers of them get together, the upbeat - and facile - rhetoric is thick.

A lot of speeches at the Republican and Democratic conventions were fated to echo a familiar theme: The other party is the party of doom and gloom, filled with pessimism, foolishly contending that America's best years are behind us, but we know that much more greatness is ahead for our nation.

Speechmakers remain in sync with audio tracks laid down long ago. "It has been the tough-minded optimists whom history has proved right in America," President Dwight Eisenhower said in 1958. "It is still true in our time." Six years later, while campaigning for a full term just a few weeks after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution opened the bloody floodgates to the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed on Sept. 16, 1964: "Somehow or other, optimist that I am, I just believe that peace is coming nearer."

The nonstop media flow of syrupy optimism can cause millions of people to feel badly out of step. Yet many Americans currently say that they are not hopeful about the future. Buried in the results of a recent New York Times poll were statistics that refute the myth of predominant optimism in the United States. The Times survey asked, "Do you think the future of the next generation of Americans will be better, worse or about the same as life today?" Fewer than half of the respondents - 44 percent of blacks and 39 percent of whites - said "better," while 35 percent of blacks and 30 percent of whites said "worse." (The newspaper touted the poll as a gauge of "race relations in America" but confined it to African Americans and whites, ignoring the country's Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans.)

On July 11, a story about the survey appeared on the Times front page under the headline "Poll Finds Optimistic Outlook But Enduring Racial Division." Why use the word "optimistic" when most people say that they don't expect the future to be better than the past?

The spin for optimism exerts pressure to override or suppress the contrary conclusions that we might draw from our own perceptions of the status quo. At times, media commentators seem to be implying that Americans who lack the appropriate optimism are of inferior mettle or insufficient resiliency.

When Americans mobilize to protest, their downbeat messages usually don't get very far in mass media. The coverage rarely amounts to more than a smattering of soundbites or a few drops of ink, with brevity reinforcing the notion that demonstrators are simplistic. Inevitably, the ritual optimism from inside the glitzy convention hall glows in stark contrast to the protests in the streets.

Meanwhile, affluent journalists are apt to project sanguine world views. The social order is likely to look reasonably good to those near the top of the economic ladder. They're much more inclined to find reasons for optimism than people at the lower rungs.

Paradoxically, the upbeat focus can be quite depressing: for people excluded from the media picture, discounted and rendered invisible. When news outlets keep reporting that "the economy" is doing great, it may feel especially grim to fall farther and farther behind while struggling to pay basic household bills.

Every day, we wake up in a society squeezed by priorities that favor the wealthy and large corporations as they tighten their grip on government policymakers. And every day, the optimistic pundits and happy-talk news anchors babble on.