Summertime is on the wing and in Washington, that means only one thing -- pretty soon, the relative humidity and wretched air quality index will combine to make the entire D.C.-Metro area a sweltering, inhospitable environment that feels like you are walking around inside the jockstrap of the world's first gorilla-triathlete. It is fetid and unpleasant, and everyone with the means to leave for any amount of time shall do so.
This is just one of the reasons that the month of August has traditionally been known as a "slow news month." You hear about it every year. "Oh," pundits opine, "this is the slow-news month." As if things are just not going to happen.
Of course, things do happen, and as it turns out, things can happen a lot, in August. Last year, as Zachary Seward in a blog for The Wall Street Journal pointed out, August was a month of peak things-happening. Libya had this whole big civil war, and Londoners rioted in the streets, and Hurricane Irene pounded the East Coast, so lots of people missed the memo that it was supposed to be a slow news month. When it was all over, Seward took a look at Factiva and determined that August 2012 was pretty newsy, at least compared to other Augusts:
It turns out that 7.85% more news was published in August than would normally be expected, the largest such jump over the past ten years. The only other August that comes close was in 2004, which saw a 5.37% increase in August news ahead of the presidential election.
Nevertheless, year over year, August has been fairly inconsistently newsy, lending some credence to the whole "slow news month" concept. But there's another noteworthy aspect to August apart from its reputation for slowness, and that's its reputation for being the month that everyone acts like a complete idiot.
The other name for August, in media circles, is "silly season," because it's the period of time where stupidity seems to overtake everyone. And it seems to be something of a global phenomenon.
According to Wikipedia, there are "comparable periods" in other nations. The French, poetically, refer to it as la morte-saison. The Germans call it Sommerloch (which means "summer hole"). The Swedes have this awesome death-metal sounding term for it called "nyhetstorka." As in, "good evening, Stockholm, we are Nyhetstorka and we are about to rock you with our crushing disappointment!" I have to imagine that Russia's is called, "Нет рубашку Путина Сезон," which translates roughly to, "No shirt Putin season," in recognition of the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin will always be doing something, shirtless, during that period of time.
Wikipedia also says that "in many languages, the name for the silly season references cucumbers." That is something I am not going to touch. I trust, however, that I've made my point. Which is, "you should get a jump on the silly season spirit by padding out your column with Wikipedia trivia."
Even though last August was not slow, it certainly lived up to its reputation for silliness. It was last August that political commentator Dick Morris said he'd seen "the real numbers," and that Romney was headed for a landslide. Conservatives called for Romney adviser Andrea Saul to be fired for mentioning that her boss had racked up some impressive achievements as governor of Massachusetts. Former Missouri Rep. Todd Akin made his famous "legitimate rape" gaffe, pissing away an election in which he might have otherwise contended. The month closed out with the sight of Clint Eastwood, babbling incomprehensibly at an empty chair, on national television.
August isn't just when figures in the news go to their dumb place. The media sort of descends into a fugue state as well.
Last August, the Weekly Standard, taking leave of its senses, started a countdown clock, counting down the minutes until President Barack Obama replaced Vice President Joe Biden with then-outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the Democratic ticket, because that was sure to happen. (That clock is still up, ticking restlessly into the future.) Days later, some idiot managed to trick a lot of people into believing that columnist Paul Krugman was on Google Plus, promoting the economic benefits of earthquakes.
Elsewhere, pundits used their perches in August to issue laughable complaints about the American people. Sheryl Gay Stolberg contended that the American people were really to blame for congressional gridlock, saying, "If Americans want to know why their elected officials can't compromise, these scholars and pundits say, perhaps they ought to look in the mirror."
Thomas Ferguson swatted this away by pointing out that available data demonstrated that there was "little evidence that congressional polarization is rooted in sharp differences in public sentiment." Stollberg wasn't alone. Days earlier, Tom Brokaw summed up the summer's debt-ceiling crisis by suggesting that the American people got what they deserved.
Of course, when it comes to August's effects on the media's brainpan, you really can't find a finer example than in August 2010. That was the year a bored media, managed to elevate an otherwise non-notable, anti-Muslim crank named Terry Jones into a media celebrity, as the culminating event in their slipshod coverage of the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy.
More than anything else, the "slow news month"/"silly season" signifiers exist to absolve the media in advance of whatever terrible nonsense they are about to get up to, because they are bored and sweaty and sad that all the powerful elites to whom they normally have access are away on vacation.
So that's what summer is like, for those who ply their trade in the world of Beltway politics: a hot swamp of idiocy, laziness, and error, where seriousness rarely finds a purchase. I still recall the words of one of Washington's most decorated soulless government functionaries, Bush White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who said, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August." The "new product" he was referring to? The Iraq War, which I think we can all agree was much too sensible and intelligent to be associated with "silly season."
Oh wait, you say the White House Iraq Group was formed in August? Never mind, then. That's just perfect.
This story appears in the special Summer Issue of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, May 24.
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