When it comes to politics, I’m usually a fan of so-called “traditional media” — newspapers, NPR, national TV news channels — you know, anything with more gravitas than “Billy Bob’s Backyard Blog.”
So it is with heavy heart that I call upon my fellow fans to admit what we’ve known for a while: The mainstream media have failed us. It has become too passive, too artificial, too shallow. Sure, we can blame blogs for forcing a ridiculous new speed standard on the already frenetic journalism world, or for continuing the trend of overemphasizing the sensational at the expense of the meaningful. But identifying the cause of the decline is only the first step to fixing it.
Last week’s primetime presidential debates are the reason I’m all worked up. In case you missed them, CNN broadcasted the “Compassion Forum” on Sunday, and ABC hosted a Democratic debate Wednesday.
The Compassion Forum was hosted by Messiah College in Pennsylvania and moderated by CNN’s Campbell Brown and Newsweek’s Jon Meacham. The idea motivating the forum seemed to be that since religion is the most important campaign issue to Americans (especially all those bitter hillbillies in Pennsylvania), the presidential candidates should be quizzed on their personal beliefs and be forced to walk an impossible line in order to appeal both to nuts who believe the world was created in six days and to crazies who think religion has no place in public life. How fun it will be, the moderators must have thought, to watch them squirm!
The perception that religion is the most important issue was fabricated, sadly, by the mainstream media. Republican candidate John McCain, who understood the terms beforehand, declined to participate and instead made speeches about the real top issue in the election, the rapidly degenerating economy. People can argue all day about who “won” (which is to say, who best deflected the most inane and irrelevant questions with a joke), but the real winner was McCain, who refused to bow to the media’s attempt to frame the campaign in such hollow terms. Bottom line: Americans deserve to know what religion the candidates practice — sorry, atheists, “none of the above” is not an option — and that they won’t let their faith get in the way of good public policy. That’s it. The rest is personal.
It’s a lot easier for CNN to play 20-second clips of Barack Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, screaming “God damn America” or of Hillary Clinton avoiding sniper fire in Bosnia than to explain to the American people how the government could be dealing with the subprime-lending disaster more effectively. Moreover, in a decade in which TV news seems targeted more for entertainment than for anything else, the old networks have a ways to go before they can hold our attention as well as YouTube and DailyKos can.
But after Wednesday’s ABC debate, thousands upon thousands of disgusted viewers posted comments on abcnews.com. Many were disappointed that George Stephanopoulos, a former Bill Clinton staffer, was allowed to moderate. Others were incensed that ABC thought Obama’s lack of a flag pin was a legitimate question, or that other “tabloid” issues such as Obama’s association with Bill Ayers, his over-hyped comment about the bitterness of working-class voters, and Clinton’s fib about her Bosnia experience seemed to dominate the discourse. We have finally started to understand that the mainstream media feels the need to entertain more than to inform in order to compete with the “gotcha” mentality of the blogs. It has gotten out of hand, to the detriment of this campaign and our whole political system.
So here’s an idea: If the CNN really wants to pose some tough questions, let’s replace the “Compassion Forum” with the “Sci/Tech Forum,” or a “Freedom Forum.” Let’s see who really understands the science behind climate change, the technical issues of Internet neutrality, why retroactive immunity for telecommunications corporations in warrantless-wiretapping cases is a terrifying prospect, or any such substantial problems that the next president will have to deal with.
In fact, a science debate has already been proposed by such heavyweights as the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine, who want to ask the candidates whether America is losing its “competitive edge” in science and technology. Even though the questions would all be provided in advance, Clinton, Obama and McCain have refused to take part.
That says more about their priorities than any statement about their religious beliefs. The media have told them that religion trumps policy, and they listened. It’s a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies that we need to break out of soon, and it’s up to the media to reset the tone of these debates to one of significance rather than fluff.
Jay Buchanan is a senior in Branford College. He is a former editorials editor and copy editor for the News.