Friday, April 8, 2016

We Need More Journalism, Less Media


 
In my previous post, (“Reality TV Eats American Politics’), I described how the Republican Presidential campaign has assumed all the theatrics of reality TV.  In thinking further about the role of television in our civics and politics, I was reminded of what critic and communications theorist Neil Postman said in the 1980s. 

At the time, another group of proto-reality TV personalities were hitting the airwaves: evangelists such as Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, Robert Schuller, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and others.  A pioneer in the field of Media Ecology, Postman was frequently asked to comment on the appeal of the bible-thumpers who were bringing a new combination of fire, brimstone and fundraising into American living rooms.  While he pointed out that the brand of religion being peddled was second-rate and a disgrace to Judeo-Christian traditions, Postman said he was not overly concerned about the effect of religion on TV.  In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, he said that “the danger is not that religion has become the content of television shows, but that television shows may become the content of religion.”

Postman’s prescience is obvious when one looks at what is going on in Mega-Churches and other religious institutions today, with their mammoth video screens and emphasis on social media.  What I was trying to get at in my essay was that, in this same way, television has become the content for politics.  The orientation to ratings and advertising, and the philosophy of dumbing down information to the lowest common denominator, has permeated the civic arena.  The subtitle of Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death was “Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.”  He had no idea how low things would go in the era of Trump and a new generation of political bible thumpers such as Ted Cruz.

But the Democrats, while certainly more adult and respectful, are also reduced to sound bites and personal attacks.  Only in comparison to the idiocy of the Republicans could the debates between Sanders and Clinton be considered educational, enlightening, or inspirational.  The larger problem lies not with the candidates, but the system they are part of and the failure of the media to fulfill its duty to expose it rather than facilitate it .

Of course, one of the reasons this year’s campaigns have been so surprising and entertaining is that the insurgent campaigns of Trump and Sanders have challenged the party orthodoxy and hegemony.  This would be all to the good if it weren’t for two factors:

First, the parties are not independent institutions being guided by political ideology and competition alone.  They are subservient to the campaign finance system just as much, if not more, than the candidates (at least some candidates, like Sanders, refuse to take corporate and PAC money).  And the parties serve as the primary cog in the fund-raising machinery, requiring elected officials to spend much, if not most, of their time fund-raising; funneling money to certain races; and maintaining the absurd fiction that candidates and PACs do not coordinate their campaign strategies.   It is also worth noting that over the past couple of decades, the parties and networks have wrested control of political debates away from the non-partisan League of Women Voters and other non-partisan, good government groups, with predictable results.  The debates can be revealing, but there isn’t a college debate team that doesn’t put these candidates and the mamby-pamby moderators to shame.

Second, the media is not performing its journalistic function of probing and fact-checking.  This is obvious when you consider the now-popular refrain that Trump and Sanders are tapping in to the same well of anger and disaffection, just from different asides of the well.  Perhaps there is some small percentage of mindlessly angry voters who honestly can’t make up their mind whether to support the Democratic Socialist Sanders or the neo-fascist Trump, but even that  would be less of an indication of voter ignorance and more of a reflection on media coverage that treats affords both candidates roughly the same level of scrutiny and respect, which is to say almost none at all.

Speaking recently about the Trump candidacy at a conference of media executives, CBS executive chairman and CEO Les Moonves, said "It may not be good for America, but it's good for CBS."  Wow.  OK, many Americans understand the reality of ratings and advertising, but to have the head of a network admit, without apparent embarrassment, that the quest for profits completely overrides the obligation of his news organization to ask tough questions or provide reality-based analysis is astounding and horrifying.  Ever since the Communications Act of 1934 established the system of commercial broadcasting in this country, mainstream media institutions have had to rely on advertising to pay for news reporting.  But we have reached a dangerous tipping point when the head of a once-respected network shrugs off the fact that what he is broadcasting is doing real damage to the Republic.  

One last point: if television has had a deleterious effect on public discourse, as Neil Postman noted more 30 years ago, it is nothing compared to the Internet.  All those impacts of TV – the spreading of false or misleading information, the illusion of audience involvement and democratization, the emphasis on personality and bombast rather than substance and logic – are magnified many times over on the Internet, especially social media.  Winston Churchill and Mark Twain are both credited with saying that a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its shoes on; in the age of Fox News, Twitter, Instagram, Vice, and Gawker, lies blanket the world instantly while the truth just sits there, unreported.  
-- Gary Kenton

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