Hogan's Alley

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Why The Press Still Doesn't Get It

James Fallows

In February, 1996 James Fallows wrote a piece for The Atlantic Monthly entitled "Why Americans Hate The Media." That piece is as true today, if not in fact truer, than the day it was published. Here are some key quotes:

The discussion shows that are supposed to enhance public understanding may actually reduce it, by hammering home the message that issues don't matter except as items for politicians to fight over. Some politicians in Washington may indeed view all issues as mere tools to use against their opponents. But far from offsetting this view of public life, the national press often encourages it. As Washington-based talk shows have become more popular in the past decade, they have had a trickle-down effect in cities across the country. In Seattle, in Los Angeles, in Boston, in Atlanta, journalists gain notice and influence by appearing regularly on talk shows—and during those appearances they mainly talk about the game of politics.
And this:

When ordinary citizens have a chance to pose questions to political leaders, they rarely ask about the game of politics. They want to know how the reality of politics will affect them—through taxes, programs, scholarship funds, wars. Journalists justify their intrusiveness and excesses by claiming that they are the public's representatives, asking the questions their fellow citizens would ask if they had the privilege of meeting with Presidents and senators. In fact they ask questions that only their fellow political professionals care about. And they often do so—as at the typical White House news conference—with a discourtesy and rancor that represent the public's views much less than they reflect the modern journalist's belief that being independent boils down to acting hostile.

Fallows' writing is dotted with brilliant examples of the time and is well worth a read. Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for the link.

The horrifying thing is that nothing has changed. In fact, current journalistic practices are even more attuned to the pure political fight than they were eleven years ago. Witness our endless Presidential campaign. A full year and a half ahead of the election we are treated to incessant speculation about the success or failure of each subtle political move and the likelihood of the election of this or that candidate, even potential Presidential/Vice Presidential combinations are the subject of endless polling and speculation. In the current crucial debate over what to do in Iraq there is virtually zero coverage of the details and possible outcomes of the various options. Everything focuses on the political game. Who is taking sides and which side are they on, as if there were really only two, with Bush or against Bush.

Over the ensuing decade the number of sources for such gamesmanship have expanded greatly. First, we have met the new enemies of truth, and it is us, the bloggers. It is virtually impossible to find a widely read blog today that focuses on the details of the issues. Almost all delight in declaring wins and losses in todays round of the only battle that interests most political junkies, the next election cycle. Blogs report poll results, supporting articles, news developments, but only those which support the bloggers' view of the fight. The battleground is littered with ad hominem attacks and almost devoid of insightful policy argument.

As for the so called Main Stream Media, the Sunday talk shows, the incessant arguing heads of the cable news networks, it seems to have only gotten worse. Look at Chris Matthews, for example. One can almost actually see Matthews' skin crawl when a guest dares to go two sentences into an explanation of any policy position. Matthews is the prototypical political junkie and former operative. Like a Ritalin-free adolescent with ADHD, he immediately silences any such "silly" responses to cut to the chase, and the chase is always that Bullitt-like run down the hilly streets of America toward the final car crash we call elections. Even the Grey Lady, the nation's newspaper of record is a major sinner in this arena. For well over the last decade the typical NY Times story about any policy battle uses two or three paragraphs to briefly define the details of the issue under debate and the following 20 paragraphs to report on the outcomes or likely effects of the various players and their positions in the arena of the political battle, be it an election campaign or a congressional vote. If you want to learn details about the nuances of health care or immigration, the Times will not be your source. My only criticism of Fallows' article is he failure to note the Times as a major practitioner of the very brand of journalism he decries. In fact, the Times' influence provides an excuse to lesser purveyors. After all, if it is good enough for the Times, then...

As Fallows notes, the effect of this brand of journalism is cynicism, if not outright hostility to the journalistic profession. Worse than that, though, is the learned response to such "news" coverage. Many abandon the news altogether or focus on the latest exploits of the latest Hollywood trash queen. Others conclude that the process is really all crap and games, as portrayed by the pundits. The correlation with the shrinking size of the electorate unmistakable. Screw it, let's watch John Stewart. At least he knows what he is saying is bullshit. And we might get a laugh out of it.

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