Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean ’71, a former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, spoke Tuesday at Yale about the shortcomings of today’s print media and the importance of an ethical media in a working democracy.
In the symposium, titled “The Media and the Election: A Postmortem,” Dean stressed corporate ownership of the media and the increased focus on entertainment as problems with today’s media, and he emphasized the importance of diversity and regulation in fixing these problems. Panelists Evan Thomas, an assistant managing editor for Newsweek, and Martin Nolan, a political reporter and editor of The Boston Globe’s editorial page, defended the media’s integrity and objectivity.
“The media is a failing institution in this country,” Dean said. “They are not maintaining their responsibility to maintain democracy.”
One of the major problems Dean focused on during the talk is the media’s increased focus on entertainment at the expense of investigative journalism.
“The Monica Lewinsky scandal exploded,” Dean said, “and suddenly the way to get to the top [in media] was salacious gossip and sex scandals. There is no investigative journalism worthy of the name.”
The television networks, especially Fox News, are most to blame for the increased focus in journalism on flash and entertainment, Dean said. Dean said these networks aim to entertain because “entertainment sells better than news.” The infamous “scream speech,” often blamed for Dean’s loss to Sen. John Kerry ’66 in the Democratic primaries, was partially a media fabrication because it was appealing for its entertainment value rather than its newsworthiness, Dean said.
“The media is trained to get the entertainment value and screw the facts,” he said.
But Thomas said entertainment in the media is a necessary tool to attract the public.
“You do need to entertain a little bit,” Thomas said. “You get people to read about serious issues by — putting a [famous] person on the cover.”
During the discussion, Dean said the media has almost completely lost its objectivity.
“You can’t read a piece of newsprint very often in this country without being told what to think,” he said.
Nolan defended the media against Dean’s claims of bias, and Thomas said while there is a slight liberal bias in the media, reporters generally search for objectivity.
The solution to restoring an ethical media, Dean said, is to ensure diversity and cap corporate ownership of media outlets. He said he supports government regulation of media ownership.
“[The media] are incapable of regulating themselves,” Dean said. “What’s at stake is our democracy. If you think that American democracy can survive without an ethical media, then you are wrong.”
Dean received a standing ovation and an enthusiastic response from the audience. Approximately 200 members of the Yale community attended the symposium.
Many students said they agreed with Dean’s comments.
“Dean was spot-on,” Aaron Ring ’08 said. ” He talked about [the media] as being entertainment and just profit-seeking, and he’s absolutely right.”
Tuesday night’s symposium was the third in a series organized by political science professor Stanley Flink, who teaches the course “Ethics and the Media.”