Editorial: Spitting into the wind?
In a keynote speech Monday night honoring the winner of a journalistic prize for investigative reporting, President Barack Obama used the occasion to encourage the media to rise to “higher aspirations” in its political coverage, while lamenting the “divisive and vulgar” state of American politics.
“People depend on you to uncover the truth,” he told the gathering of 450 media representatives at the Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting. “People (need to be) getting information that they can trust, that has substance and facts behind it… What we’re seeing right now does corrode our society. When our elected officials and campaigns become entirely untethered to reason and facts; when it doesn’t matter what is true and what’s not, that makes it all but impossible for us to make decisions on behalf of future generations.”
It is a well-founded concern, and throughout his half-hour speech the president noted that the disconcerting state of American politics was alarming not just to Americans, but also to leaders around the world.
“The No. 1 question I am getting as I travel around the world or talk to world leaders right now is: What is happening in America — about our politics? And it’s not because around the world people have not seen crazy politics; it is that they understand America is the place where you can’t afford completely crazy politics,” he said.
While the president was right to challenge the press corps to do better, he missed a key point: Much of the problem is that television and radio stations pander to an audience that seeks entertainment, not news. And what Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump knows all too well is that offensive/in-your-face/confrontational entertainment outsells staid and factual political reporting.
Trump has also demonstrated that offensive, alluring and otherwise catchy tweets are political gold. How fitting for the times that a 140-character tweet has more impact on forming public opinion (or at least sparking political interest among the masses) than a well-considered, fact-based story or policy statement.
What that says about today’s social media society is that titillation, insults and outrageous statements triumph over substance. One challenge is to change that culture.
But there is also another challenge. Before Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the hundreds of other purveyors of social media; before Fox News and other overtly partisan news outlets; back in the days where CBS, NBC and ABC dominated the airwaves, the political establishment could rely on the American public operating from a common base of information. We all could disagree or agree on how to interpret that information, but at least a common core of understanding was prevalent.
That is no longer true.
What Fox News reports is very different from that reported on ABC, NBC or CBS, let alone NPR or the BBC. And what right-wing radio talk show hosts talk about is far different than the conversations going on at VPR.
That is something to lament, but encouraging reporters to rise to “higher aspirations” is preaching to a choir that is already there and missing the elephant in the room: the hijacking of America’s broadcast media by partisan interests and 24-7 cable talk-shows that dwell on every single blip, scandal and attention-grabbing antic, whether it is newsworthy or not.
This challenges the president’s statement in his speech: “I believe that for all the side shows of the political season, Americans are still hungry for the truth, it’s just hard to find.”
It is not, actually, hard to find.
There is more accurate news reporting out there than ever before; and you can get fairly reported information from a number of various perspectives. Read The Nation, The Atlantic, The Economist, The New York Times, Financial Times, the Los Angeles Times, ProPublica; or listen to the BBC, NPR, or a number of other trusted sources and you’ll find balanced and factual reporting — all at your fingertips on your cell phone or computer or on the newsstand.
The breakdown is not with the reporting corps of the nation’s print media, or even with good broadcast media, as much as it is the fracturing of any common news perspective based on the relevant facts.
What is lost today is the public’s ability to discern between reliable news sources and those media outlets that are so partisan they betray the truth.
What the president might have encouraged is for the American public to ignore the partisan bloggers, discount the round-the-clock cable news broadcasters that champion political bias and, instead, read more about the nation’s political state of affairs as part of every American’s obligation to uphold democracy by being an informed citizen. What the president might have addressed is the responsibility of broadcast stations that come with a FCC license. What the president might have championed is a re-instatement of civic classes in American high schools.
Then again, in this political climate, asking Trump or Ted Cruz supporters to become more informed may be akin to spitting into the wind.
Angelo S. Lynn
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