[I was thinking of writing on this very subject, so I'm glad that a real (former) journalist beat me to the punch. See also this post for more MSM nonsense from Tim Russert.]
I was a journalist once. Today I’m ashamed to admit it.
It’s bad enough that Fox News is allowed to call itself “news”. There should be a standard for using that term — for example, fairness, balance, timeliness, newsworthiness, etc. — so viewers have help differentiating real journalism from rank sensationalism and propaganda (Check out Parts 1-2 of “The Meter is Running”).
But if there were such a standard, ABC News would have been forced to change its name to ABC SmackDown Wednesday after it hosted the 21st, and possibly the final, televised debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Hosts Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos managed to waste the first half of the 90-minute debate on tabloid journalism. They pressed the candidates — mostly Obama — on verbal gaffs, controversial associates, and lapel pins.
The superficial and the silly dominated the debate and the news coverage that followed. The next day, for example, ABC offered video outtakes from the debate on its web site, covering highlights such as Clinton Explains Bosnia Botch, Obama’s Pastor Under Fire, Doubting Obama’s Patriotism?, Clinton’s Baggage an Asset?, Clinton on “bitter” Pa. Voters, and Does Hillary Think Barack Can Win?
[JR Note to ABC: National politics will be just like high school as long as you make it that way.]
Of 10 outtakes on ABC’s site, only one dealt with a policy issue, affirmative action. Similarly, Stephanopoulos’s recap of the debate dwelled almost entirely on the superficial.
So did the coverage on National Public Radio, which usually is a little more thoughtful. But if NPR was looking for thoughtful news in the debate, it had little to work with.
Why do respected journalists from venerable network news focus so heavily on trash? Some consider these to be “character” issues. But the incessant focus on gaffs and pastors and lapel pins — brought up again and again for weeks and months at a time — suggest a different reason: conflict sells newspapers and attracts viewers. With rare exceptions, journalism — once a cornerstone of democracy — has become the place where trash goes to find immortality.
We have plenty of newsworthy conflicts in the nation today, begging to be debated during this presidential election campaign. Our energy policy conflicts with our national security. Our carbon-intensive economy is in conflict with one of the Earth’s major life-support systems. Federal spending is in conflict with fiscal responsibility. Corporate greed — most recently the exorbitant profits of oil companies and predatory lending by the mortgage industry — is in conflict with the ability of everyday Americans to make ends meet. Some of the stuff going on in the White House is in conflict with the Constitution. And those are just a few examples of what the next President will face, and the American people presumably will want to see addressed, next January.
I know that conflicts over superficial issues make better television than conflicts over national policy, in the same way that mud-wrestling is more fun to watch than chess. But if the Roman Empire were still alive today, it probably would fall because everyone went to the Coliseum to be entertained while Rome was burning.
From now on, when television “news” turns me off, I’m going to return the favor. As for you, I know that you’ll do what you think is right.
– Bill Becker
Editor’s Note: During the first half of his career, Becker was a decorated war correspondent for the U.S. Army in South Vietnam, a write/photographer for the Associated Press, editor/publisher of his own weekly newspaper and columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.