10/07/2013 11:15 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Message is the Medium

The federal shutdown is a study in what is known in Washington as "messaging," the political practice in which words are used to influence the outcome of arguments without conveying information or truth.

In messaging there is no right or wrong, true or false, just good messaging and bad messaging, messages that sway opinion, and messages that don't. The purpose of messaging is only to gain political advantage, not to inform.

Sen. Rand Paul was caught on an open microphone Thursday talking to Mitch McConnell about how he just kept hammering home the message that Democrats refuse to negotiate over healthcare. He said, " I think... I don't think they poll tested 'we won't negotiate'. I think it's awful for [Democrats] to say that over and over again."

He wasn't claiming that the Democrats were stupid, wrong, or arrogant. He accused them of poor messaging, like their tennis game has a weak backhand.

The current message from House Republicans is that they want to sit down with the President to talk about the deficit, as if that is why they allowed the government to shut down. But now they say they will let the US default on its debt and send economic shockwaves throughout the world if they don;t win something, anything, from the President. House Speaker John Boehner said on ABC, "The nation's credit is at risk."

This replaces the message of last week, "fairness for all Americans under Obamacare", when Republicans said they let the government close because they want a delay in implementation for the public similar to what the White House gave to business. Speaker John Boehner talked about "fairness" and so did, Rep. Eric Cantor, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chief Republican House message dispatcher. Listen to any Republican and they use the same phrases, as if they are all drinking the same flavor of word Kool-Aid.

Before that their message was "defund Obamacare," but that was not successful, so they replaced it with the "fairness" line, even though what they really want is to kill the Affordable Care Act.

And they have another one, "Obamacare is not ready for prime time." They have seized on the spate of computer failures in the opening of healthcare websites to claim they are a failure. The message word is "glitch", even though Obamacare just might be so popular that demand overwhelmed the computers.

Messaging is a two-party game. The message from President Obama and the White House is that the Republicans are holding America hostage. He spoke at a restaurant where furloughed federal workers are offered a discount. Appearing with and talking about victims of the shutdown is just another form of messaging.

Much of the time the Washington press corps is the conduit for unchallenged messages from both sides. Reporters spent two days covering veterans trying to visit the closed World War II memorial and never said it was an event staged in part with the help of Republican representatives. The message they trumpeted for the Republicans was that elderly veterans in wheelchairs were victims. The real story is that the veterans were used by cynical politicians. Did you see Michelle Bachman kissing an old soldier?

Political reporters, who often parrot the Orwellian language of the people they cover, have been sucked into the void. NBC's White House correspondent Chuck Todd, in a recent discussion about the fight over healthcare said "Republicans have successfully messaged against it."

About the public confusion over Obamacare Todd said, "What I always love is people say, 'Well, it's you folks' fault in the media.' No, it's the President of the United States' fault for not selling it."

True, it was the president's job to sell and explain the signature legislation of his presidency before it went into effect. But when politicians defer, deflect, fail, refuse to answer the question and "message" instead, it is the job of journalists to cut through the crap. Any reporter who considers himself merely the medium for "messaging" should be sent back to covering car accidents.

Our politics have been reduced to messaging without substance or meaning. As much as anything, what's happening is not a fight about making wise decisions for the country, it's a war of words about who gets to make the decisions. In an unguarded moment of frustration House Speaker John Boehner blurted out, "This isn't some damn game!" But it is. We get the message.