05/14/2008 10:00 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bumper Sticker Broadcasting

Listening to pundits dissect the West Virginia race is making me queasy. Today, a major talking point is the exit polls showing that 50% of voters in that state believe Obama shares the views of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. With astonishment and foreboding, the talking heads titter about his prospects in the fall. Not one of them owns up to exacerbating this mess by reinforcing likely prejudice. The intellectual dishonesty is staggering.

Reporters did not put Obama in that church for twenty years, and yes, the subject was an appropriate campaign topic. But to loop about twenty incendiary seconds from thousands of hours of sermons while linking the politician to the preacher, then act surprised when some voters believe what has been forced down their throats, is disingenuous, to be polite.

As usual, only Bill Moyers bothered to examine the issue with any depth. He has been hitting the circuit to discuss his new book, Moyers on Democracy. He rightly notes that "[b]y no stretch of the imagination can we say the dominant institutions of today's media are guardians of democracy," and as one reviewer summarizes, "Our public conversation is mediated by politicians who have mastered 'sound bites' sculpted from polling data, by "pundits" whose credibility increases with the frequency of exposure despite being consistently wrong, and 'experts' whose authority depends not on reason, evidence or logic but on ideology and affiliation."

A Moyers sound bite now appearing on the web actually sums things up nicely. "We're not going to have a discourse in this campaign over the fact that the great American wealth machine is benefiting only those at the top. We're not going to get to the fact that 10% of the people own 60% of the wealth and 70% of the people have no net worth. We're not going to get to the issues of how do we rebuild the infrastructure, the sewer, the water, the highways, all that. We're just going to be constantly in this battle of bumper stickers."

All three candidates have been victims of this madness. Superficial labels are easily and recklessly slapped on each of them then hyped as fact, not simplistic fiction. (Regurgitating incendiary charges by formulating them in countless questions does not absolve the questioner.) Regardless of the victor in the fall, I hope votes will be cast on the big issues facing this nation, not on contrived imagery created by campaigns or pundits in search of ratings. I am not naïve. I know that inherent emotions affect our decision-making process. But shouldn't the media acknowledge its ability to shape perceptions then wield that power by debunking nonsense and illuminating the substantive issues at hand? The answer is yes, but for now, I'm holding my nose, not my breath.