Fight-or-flight | It’s not a good idea to govern by anger

Fight-or-flight | It’s not a good idea to govern by anger

From reading the newspaper carefully and doing just a bit of research into physiology, I’m convinced a lot of news stories originate with people experiencing an increased rate of noradrenergic activity in their locus ceruleus.

We’re talking here about the so-called “fight-or-flight syndrome", which makes people behave badly. You’ve seen it happen: Somebody gets upset, feels threatened and then seemingly gets a whoosh of adrenalin that prompts a combative response. Next thing you know, you’re reading about it here.

This isn’t about fists flying as much as it is about words. It’s when fight-or-flight takes over public policy debate, and reporters get into the mix, that important issues get jammed.

This occurred to me recently, after watching a very relaxed and charming woman named Condoleezza Rice perform before a few dozen media executives on the top floor of the Hearst Tower in Manhattan. And I use that word perform quite consciously, because she was as poised as the concert pianist she once intended to become. Where was the defiant, pugnacious woman the secretary of state often seems to be when she’s on a podium in Washington? Maybe she was more at ease because she was before a group less threatening than the UN General Assembly or the international press corps.

As a reporter, I was often invited to sit in when a politician on my beat met with the editorial board of the newspaper I worked for. It was awfully frustrating to hear the higher-ups tossing what I considered softball questions on generic themes. But, I began to understand that the more thoughtful discussions that typically emerged from those sessions actually better served the goal of creating good public policy than what might have happened if I had been picking at the official. In a conversation around a table, more than in the rat-a-tat exchange with beat reporters, a public official can explain and discuss, more than defend.

It’s not that journalists shouldn’t ask tough questions. That’s an essential part of a reporter’s role. But, grilling may not always be the best recipe for understanding or progress.

Of course, sometimes turning up the flame is the only way to bring out the true flavour of something. Does anyone doubt that President Bush should have been pushed harder in early 2003 to justify the claim underlying the invasion of Iraq—namely, the supposed existence of weapons of mass destruction that threatened our security?

Laying that aside for now, though, there’s a question of whether our community’s best interests are served when politicians give in to adrenalin. Reading the classic debates of prior generations—from Abraham Lincoln to Richard Nixon—you can’t help but believe that we are poorly served by the rant and hyperbole that reporters now record in their notebooks every day. Honest policy discussion seems obscured by sound bites born in quiet rage.

We journalists are both beneficiaries and victims of these wars of words. We’re suckers for a powerful quote but, as citizens, we’re the victims when people govern by anger—or by feigned anger and make-believe offence. Even as we scribble in our notebooks, we might note the politician’s pupils dilating, and if he feels his heart beating faster and his mouth going dry, we might wish that he would remember that it’s the adrenalin at work, not his better impulses, and that it may be time for flight, not fight. You don’t owe us a great quote in those moments as much as you owe us good government. ©2007/THE NEW YORK TIMES