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Minding Our Business



July 2012

The Long, Hot Electoral Summer

We’re in a political season. You’d noticed, of course. But which elections have gotten your attention? Which have worn you out? The spectrum is far greater than Obama vs. Romney.

Libyans recently went to the polls to elect their National Congress Libyans. Muammar Gaddafi’s manic rule of more than 40 years ended with his violent death just last October. And now a fresh breath of democracy is blowing across the Libyan sands and oil fields.

The Arab Spring, now two springs and a couple of hot summers long, has yielded mixed results from North Africa to the Persian Gulf. Hopes have been raised and dashed and, in some cases, raised again. We’ll get to Egypt in a moment. Gaddafi resisted democratization and lost. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is in a furious fight to retain control. The shadows of Cold War antagonists — Russia and the United States — are cast over the Syrian struggle. Assad, like Gaddafi, shows no sign of yielding. Meanwhile, Syrians are dying.

It would be foolish to throw a blanket or lay a matrix over the countries of the Middle East or the broad Arab arc. Not even the common threads — Islam and Arabic — are all that common. Islam is a religion with multiple and often jealous sects and no central authority. Arabic is rife with distinct dialects. There are kingdoms, emirates, military states, secular states and, now, fledgling democracies.

I spent two weeks of May in Cairo lecturing in journalism at MISR International University. During those days leading up to the first round of Egypt’s presidential elections, everyone — students, faculty, guides, drivers — wanted to talk about it. After all, none of Egypt’s pharaohs, kings or strongmen had been democratically elected. No, not Cleopatra, either.

After the first round, many Egyptian voters were less than thrilled with the runoff candidates — an Islamist representing the Muslim Brotherhood and a retired general closely tied to the Mubarak regime deposed in the 2011 uprising. A hoped for moderate candidate did not survive the first round. Egyptians I met feared that either the Brotherhood would create a conservative Islamist state, constraining secular traditions and comforts, or the still ruling generals would refuse to hand over authority to a lawfully elected Islamist president.

As it became clear that the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi had won, the courts stepped in and overturned the earlier election of Egypt’s legislative body. It would seem that Egypt’s three-legged stool — executive, legislative and judicial — is as wobbly as ours.

At this writing, President Morsi has prodded the Egyptian legislature to defy the courts and reconvene, and so they have. In the US, the Supreme Court’s action in sustaining President Obama’s Affordable Care Act has prodded Republicans in Congress to renew efforts to overturn Obamacare legislatively. The soap operas are playing out on adjacent screens in Cairo and Washington.

From time to time, I teach a course called Media & Politics. We hashtagged it #MP12 during the spring semester which coincided with the frenzy of the Republican presidential primary season, including South Carolina’s “first in the South” position on the compressed calendar. Many of my USC students would be voting in a presidential election for the first time, not unlike my Egyptian students. Both groups were exposed to the inundation of contemporary campaigns, the noise, the claims and counterclaims.

“I’m so confused,” one Egyptian student said, explaining why she was having difficulty with a writing assignment about the election. Confusion was really the heart of her story.

My USC students became exasperated with the drumbeat of political ads, especially the harsh attack ads generated by super PAC advocates external to individual campaigns. These are ads in unlimited and almost ungoverned measure now permitted, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in a case called Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. As Justice Antonin Scalia suggests, “The more, the merrier.”

One class exercise was to reconvene the Constitutional Convention--#ConCon12 — to seek to rewrite Article 2, Section 1, provisions for the election of the president. Two notable changes emerged. My students felt the exclusion of naturalized citizens from eligibility is anachronistic in a 21st century melting pot nation. They’d also terminate the Electoral College in favor of the popular vote, ensuring that every vote does count. They punted on how to finance presidential campaigns. Another semester, perhaps.

In September, we’ll be sending about 20 senior journalism students to Charlotte to join major national news organizations — the Associated Press, CNN, National Journal, Charlotte Observer and others — in reporting on the Democratic National Convention. It should be an experience doubly valuable for them as journalists and citizens.

There was a time when I wanted to be a sports reporter. Then, as I frequently tell students, I discovered that politics is a four-season sport. It’s intensely competitive and often not pretty. The press tends to get caught up in the horse race. But the consequences are tremendous. The outcome of American elections also has repercussions from here to Benghazi and Cairo.

|   The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.

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