In the wake of noted economist Paul Krugman's criticism of journalists for their shoddy analysis of the presidential debates, the recent remark that veteran newsman Ted Koppel made during a face-off with Bill O'Reilly of Fox News seems particularly relevant. He said that the sensationalist and often biased news media of today, on both the left and the right, are not just covering the partisanship in American politics but actually encouraging it. This is a big charge and one with very serious implications for our country if it is true.
So, is it? Well, look at the evidence. Over the past two decades, both political discourse and the media coverage of it has gotten increasingly acrimonious and hysterical, creating an almost constant state of negativity that is literally tearing our country apart. On top of that, it is not hard to recognize that the more we talk about discord, the more pronounced it actually becomes, as politicians stop governing and spend more time trying to win pointless debates in the press and score political points in front of the cameras instead.
The twin phenomena of sound bites and ideological commentary have become so common, and play so well, that the purpose of news itself seems to have morphed from keeping the public informed to shaping public opinion, and while it is easy to accuse particular networks like Fox News or MSBNC of being egregiously slanted or manipulative, the reality is that most of the media today, including online, is in the business of "selling" a viewpoint rather than reporting on events.
What this does, as Mr. Koppel so precisely pointed out, is make it even more difficult for our political leaders to reach bipartisan compromise; for the moment they do, the press lambasts their ideological softness and portrays them as turncoats or flip-floppers instead of acknowledging their pragmatism and responsible behavior. In other words, the media rewards politicians for being extremist and penalizes them for being balanced.
The most glaring case of this can be seen in the right-wing media's brutal evisceration of Republicans who dare to challenge conservative principles, even when all they do is adopt a moderate stance. The criticism of Mitt Romney in this election cycle also illustrates the impact of this policy, which has been to force the candidate to move even further to the right, regardless of how dangerous it may be, in order to obtain the blessing of the right-wing media and the conservative voters they reach.
Another damaging factor is the media's relentless portrayal of politicians in only one ideological color: they are either 'blue' or 'red' and nothing in between, which puts politicians into a box that they cannot climb out of even if they want to. When the public is led to believe that politicians are purely liberal or conservative, and starts identifying them exclusively with those values, the subjects eventually have no choice but to embrace that monochromatic caricature and become their own image -- an image that was not crafted by themselves but by a press intent on selling them to their readers in the most salacious and extreme terms possible. And by repeating that message over and over, the media ensures that the image, in essence, becomes the truth.
Taking these things into consideration, it is not hard to read Mr. Koppel's statement in a spirit of alarm and also urgency. If the mass media, which wields the staggering power to make or break our political system, does not learn to eschew profits in the name of journalistic integrity (as it once did), the state of our national debate and by extension the ability of our government to function will be eventually decimated.
The press is certainly not to blame for all our troubles, and in some instances it merely chronicles what is already happening, but to the extent that it influences public opinion and to the extent that it actively shapes it by adopting a specific point of view, it needs to take more responsibility for its choices and the consequences for the nation.
SANJAY SANGHOEE has worked at leading investment banks Lazard Freres and Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein as well as at a multi-billion dollar hedge fund. He has an MBA from Columbia Business School and is the author of two novels, including "Merger" which Chicago Tribune called "Timely, Gripping, and Original". Please visit www.sanghoee.com for details.