"We can't afford to be distracted," Obama bellowed in frustration recently to a standing ovation. "Every time somebody somewhere says something stupid -- that everybody gets up in arms -- and we forget about the war in Iraq and we forget about the economy."
Poor Barack Obama. The media will not let Jeremiah-gate disappear. Obama's irreverent reverend continues to get more play than Eliot Spitzer ever did (gratis too). Television news cannot step out of the mind-numbing, money-making mud of sound bite distortion, faux-ombudsman logorrhea ("keeping them honest"), and character demonization.
Obama's dignified elevation of our national discourse through honesty, depth, and nuance was greeted by ratings-esurient tabloid news, race-baiting commentary, and rancorous replay of Wright -- ad nauseam. Within moments of flying high on the road to a more perfect union, our talking heads reminded us that we are all typical white people.
How can we move beyond the partisan, racial, and generational divides of yore, as Barack Obama hopes, when our media filters all political discourse through a sieve of facile commentary laden with sensational slime? The lesson of Jeremiah-gate: without a new kind of mainstream television media, Obama will never cultivate a new kind of politics.
I take it as a given that the constitutional spirit of "freedom of the press," ensures a citizen's right to information necessary to participate in politics, to function as responsible citizens, and to hold government accountable. As with public education, our forefathers understood that a free and vibrant press nurtures a well-informed public, which can then best direct the future of American global and domestic policy.
But the spirit of the first amendment has been eroded thanks to the inane antics and crude quality of trash-television news (especially cable news). Let me be clear: this is not an issue of media bias or political influence; it is a problem of low quality and little accountability characteristic of both liberal and conservative media outlets. With few exceptions, TV news shirks its educational and civic responsibilities by offering as little informative substance as possible.
True, the Internet now offers a variety of news outlets to the public, but access to these outlets has not yet caught up to TV ownership and, even if it does, it is doubtful that most would have the time to navigate closely for reliable information. The reality is that most still depend on TV news for information.
How does TV News guarantee its continuously vapid product? The following are just 8 of its coma-inducing strategies:
1. The Blitzkrieg Effect (a.k.a. The Epilepsy-Inducing Effect). This strategy lulls our wits and dulls our critical senses through a lightning war of flashing lights, flipping screens, and flippant sounds. Grounded in the assumption that most Americans have the attention span of Ozzy Osborne, the celerity of TV News abbreviates most of what deserves our attention. The effect is that an hour with Wolf, Keith, or Dan feels like an entire afternoon in front of a Playstation. The verdict on Verdict and its carbon copies: This is not sexy news; it's stupid news.
2. Prioritize the Petty: All pedophiles, all the time; Celebrity news; Oddballs.
3. All Prophecy All The Time (a.k.a. The Getting It Wrong Most of the Time Strategy). If a drinking game could be designed around the erroneous 2008 primary predictions, we'd all need liver transplants. It didn't work for Isaiah or Ezekiel, so why would prophecy work for Andrea Mitchell or John King? Does Botox induce clairvoyance? This modus operandi of false prophecy may be embarrassing, but it isn't entirely self-defeating: the revelation of unexpected outcome provides an endless supply of non-newsworthy but oh-so-exciting news: What? We were wrong about Hillary? Again?! How do you explain it this time Chris Mathews? Well, you see we didn't entirely anticipate that Hillary is a seven headed hydra.
4. The Isolationist Doctrine and the Patriotism Principle. Flags, Flags, Flags. Avoid foreign news when possible rather than go through the trouble of illuminating the relevancy of world events for the lives of Americans.
5. Groupthink über alles. This strategy demands that journalists only turn to other journalists or campaign spinsters (who are often former journalists) for commentary and analysis -- no matter how little expertise they have on a matter. Apparently, journalists don't make many non-journalist friends. Endogamy is all the rage (traces of journalism's Jewish origins perhaps?) with pundits only talking to pundits who are interviewing pundits. Of course, this is totally logical; after all, when a plumber needs to repair a car or get the cable running, doesn't he call other plumbers to do the job? This strategy also does wonders to help chip away at the American cultural aversion to academic scholarship, intellectualism, and thought.
6. The Tim Russert Effect (a.k.a. The "Gotcha" Effect or The I Embarrassed You On National Television Effect or The How Does That Foot In Your Mouth Taste Now Effect). Mr. Meet The Press and his clones confront politicians with allegedly contradictory statements, without offering adequate opportunity to elucidate the contextual circumstances within which those seemingly opposing statements were made. As Matthew Yglesias recently described so well, this strategy fails to inform the viewer of anything useful aside from a politician's ability to withstand unfair grilling. The Russert Effect is part of a larger ongoing inquisition to unearth what the media considers the greatest of all political sins: hypocrisy. While the architects of a botched preemptive war remain at peace, the Spitzers of the world must fall.
7. The Nirvana Principle or Keep it safe: Do not ask guests difficult questions (unless it's the Tim Russert Effect above). Rarely investigate the meaning of words like "unpatriotic," "un-American," and "liberal." Never question assumptions.
8. The Racehorse Strategy (a.k.a. Substance is for Sissies). Rather than pay attention to issues or substantive policy questions, this strategy insists on attention to campaign tactics, poll numbers, and who is leading and where, as if the presidential campaign was the Indy 500. No wonder some of the best cable news commentary comes from the former leading anchor on ESPN.
The inanity of our TV news affects the strength of our democracy, our national security, and our ability to function productively in a globalized world. The quality of TV news is a political issue that needs to be addressed by government through intervention and policy.
Fault lies beyond the feet of any individual production team or news organization. All news media organizations share the same primary goal to attract and hold large audiences for advertisers; being profit-driven, media-defenders argue, the media responds to consumer demands for entertainment and for news that conspicuously bears directly on their lives.
But even if the content of our news is driven by perceived consumer demand, we are not obviated (if we want to preserve a healthy democracy) from ensuring that more Americans remain well-versed in the foreign and domestic issues of the day. Given the wide grassroots appeal of the Obama campaign, which pivots upon the promise of "a new kind of politics," I don't think it too presumptuous to assert that many Americans are hungry for a higher form of political discourse (even if they do find TV news entertaining as well).
To raise the level of our political discourse, our political leadership must begin discussing the best ways -- at the level of policy -- in which we can reach this goal. In addition, alternative public spaces or institutions should be created in which information can be transferred and public awareness fostered.
As long as the majority of our news outlets remain profit-driven, we can only expect the most insipid of productions.