THE BLOG
05/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Beyond Krugman's "And That's Just the Way It Is"

See Saturday Morning Update At The End Of This Post
---------------------------------------------

Paul Krugman has written an otherwise excellent essay entitled "Senator Bunning's Universe," in which he describes the totally different universes in which America's two major political parties now live.

I say "otherwise excellent essay" because - after brilliantly stating the problem we face (a nation governed by two parties literally incapable of seeing the world the same way) - he ends the essay without offering a ray of hope.

All he says is...

Someday, somehow, we as a nation will once again find ourselves living on the same planet. But for now, we aren't. And that's just the way it is.

That's a strange thing to say, given that - from a factual standpoint - we do live on the same "planet."

However, our two parties definitely don't act as if they do; and - until there is an independent arbitrator of who is on the "real" planet and who is on the "imaginary" planet - they will continue to fight over whose planet is real.

How to solve this? Well, in a way, his last sentence - "And that's just the way it is" - points to the solution. And it's a solution I'm surprised he doesn't see himself.

That's because that sentence is very close to the sentence Walter Cronkite used to sign off each night from The CBS Evening News. And Paul Krugman, when wearing his Times OpEd hat, works in the same industry.

You see, journalism is the solution. Real journalism.

Walter Cronkite would end his news show by saying "And that's the way it is." And millions of Americans agreed. They knew that Walter Cronkite had just told them the way the world was. That's why he was called "the most trusted man in America."

And what Walter did is a lot different than what passes for reporting the news today: Reporting the arguments going on about the way the world is... and going no further than that.

So, here's the solution to this whose-universe-is-right war:

The news media - and not the opinion side, but the reporting side - must start reporting which side's argument is correct... and stop reporting only the argument between the two sides itself.

The inability of the media to act as "the umpire" - the referee - between the two sides of our political "reality fight" is as astoundingly detrimental a development in our civic culture as the freedom corporations now have to spend as much as they want to influence policy development and election results.

I'm not going to get into how the news industry got to this place. But I know it can't stay here. Because the only way American can return to being governed by a political establishment that - while they may disagree on some things - essentially lives in the same universe is for journalism to become journalism again, the way our Founding Fathers intended it to be.

Imagine a future America in which - no matter how artfully one side used language to lie about the other side's position - our journalists didn't just interview those making such fanciful claims but called them out for being liars! Imagine how you would feel if that was what you saw on the news!

To those journalists who say "I can't call people liars when I report on them," I say "It's called fact-checking. Try it. You'll like it."

Imagine if the evening news didn't just report the debates going on in Congress - (as if the debates were news just for being debates... news because "people not getting along" has become newsworthy in unto itself)- but reported that "In today's debate on (fill in the subject of your choice), Senator XXX lied about what would happen if this bill was enacted."

My God, the world of politics would be turned upside down!

We, the people, act as if we have no choice but to tolerate the greatest country on Earth (at least as we see ourselves) being governed by people acting like 10 year old's having a never-ending school yard fight.

"I'm right, and you're wrong." "No, I'm right; and you're wrong." "No, I'm right; and you're wrong." "No, I'm right; and you're wrong."

Makes me want to throw up. And - to be honest - so does most of the coverage I watch (not counting reporting from some, like Rachel Maddow, who are starting to present lies as lies).

We, the people don't have to tolerate this. We can demand better. And if we don't get it, then we really can stop paying for the poor quality news product we're currently getting (and which companies like The New York Times want to start charging us for).

To all of those media executives who wonder how to get people to pay to read their newspapers or watch their news programs, if you would wake up and realize that you should give people the news they really need... that you should return to the job of being the umpire... the referee... that helps we, the people tell who is telling the truth and who isn't... you would start attracting paying customers again!

You would be giving people news they would pay for, because it would be news that helps them have better lives... by helping our government function the way it was intended to function... by giving people the civic education they need to be informed citizens.

It would truly be news "that is fit to print".

I wrote an essay after Walter Cronkite died, which I will offer here in closing. I met Mr. Cronkite twice. And I swear he must be turning in his grave, as he sees how little his beloved profession is doing to fulfill its civic education role in American society today, a role which the Founding Fathers thought was so important that they enshrined the right to a free press in the Bill of Rights.

I sincerely hope that this spirit of civic education returns to the profession of journalism. I can promise its leaders that we, the people will reward you for returning to this higher standard of public service.

And that's the way it really is". My memorial to Walter Cronkite from September 9, 2009
--------------------------------
Saturday March 6th update:

I am delighted by the response this essay is generating. But I have to make one point that I see coming up a number of times:

I am NOT advocating that individual Americans give up their responsibility for figuring out what they believe to be true about what's going on in the world. We all have that responsibility... to think for ourselves, rather than to blindly follow what people tell us.

But it is this issue of "blindness" that I am dealing with here.... as well as the issue of the macro-counterbalancing force the journalistic profession was meant to play in our society (counterbalancing compared with the political and corporate segments of society) in the public dialogue... in the marketplace of ideas.

You cannot have a healthy "marketplace of ideas" if there is no independent body performing the critical role of saying "what person X wants you to buy will not do what he / she says it will do". This is why we have a variety of consumer protection agencies and non-profit organizations guarding us against things such as toys made with paint containing lead or food containing bacteria that could kill us. These organizations help us to see clearly what is being sold to us... they help prevent the condition famously known as "the blind leading the blind". (And no offense intended to any blind people. I know many of you are able to get around just fine.)

There is no individual American who should have to test their food before they eat it... or test the paint on the toy they buy for their child before they buy that toy. In this same way, Americans should not have to "test the truth" of what a politician says all by him / her self. Americans should have help from some larger, trusted organization... one that has the resources to do this all the time. This is what the news profession was meant to do. This is what the news profession used to do. It was meant to be the guardian of democracy in partnership with "we, the people".

I invite you all to track down the amazing 1950's TV series "You Are There" - which was hosted by none other than Walter Cronkite - in which stories from American history were re-enacted as if they were taking place during the era of television and could, as a result, involve someone like Mr. Cronkite interviewing the people involved.

I watched an episode of this show in which a major New York City news organization was shown playing a role in exposing the Tammany Hall scandals in NYC's government. What a great example of the role journalism used to play in American civic life!

I also invite you to watch this lengthy interview with Walter Cronkite, to better learn about the man and his historic role in American society...