Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Press Gives a Pass

When they write the history of our times, I hope someone will examine the role played by the press.  It is an accepted truism that a free press is central to democracy, and thankfully that’s what we have.  American print and broadcast journalism rests on the shoulders of giants whose like can still be found in newsrooms and broadcast studios across the land.  Particularly reassuring are the young women and men dedicating their lives to high level reporting here and elsewhere including dangerous war zones, many of them elevating us with elegant prose.  So there is much to be thankful for, but the news isn’t universally good.  In fact, some of our most visible media either reflects the spirit of disturbing Hearst-like bias (right and left) or seems more attuned to showmanship than enlightenment.   It is that kind of journalism that has focused us on what can generously be called “the trivial” and, in doing so, has robbed its audience of the information it so desperately needs.  A huge percentage of our public is ill informed or worse, misinformed.

Without question, our level of knowledge and opinions are increasingly influenced by the ultimate in free “press”, the Internet.  Much of what is found there is surprisingly good, but all too often it more than meets or exceeds the “garbage in, garbage out” test.  Moreover, the lion’s share, including this writing, reflects one person’s unchecked opinion.  That may be ultimately self-correcting, though the jury is still out.  What we do know, is that some of the garbage promulgated online is repeated, lightly filtered (if at all), by professional cable and even broadcast media.  That, coupled with the “show” mindset, produces skewed or sound byte length “information” that is destined to be misleading or superficial.  Person-on-the street interviews reflect not so much the “garbage” maxim, but the sheer absence of substantive information.  Then too, again motivated in part by ratings and commerce, there is an atmosphere of overt or implied intimidation that keeps reporters and bay or impels them to over-balance, lest they be pushed off the assignment or lose their jobs.  All of that has played out during this election cycle, which explains but doesn’t excuse the present circumstances.   That brings me to the much-anticipated Vice Presidential Debate and the performance of the press in its aftermath.

Let’s forget for a moment all the spin about high and low bars and the contrast between the painful moments of dumbfounded hesitation witnessed earlier in the week and the virtual running at the mouth seen on Thursday.  In any self-respecting university, a student doesn’t get credit for the word count of a term paper but for the quality of its content.  Filling the time allotted with words should be no barometer of success.  To their credit, most polls and pundits scored the debate for, "may I call him Joe".  Even so, what really caught my attention was how many purportedly smart journalists felt compelled to declare how well Governor Palin had done.  It was the “fair” and safe thing to do.  The only hint of objective criticism was the widely declared cop out conclusion that the debate was “no game-changer”.  That may be true, but the preamble of meritorious performance left me speechless.  I sat through Thursday night’s session (watched on C-Span to be free of off camera press commentary), and saw a stream of robot-like and often garbled pronouncements – they weren’t responses – peppered with a few, often misquoted or disjointed, golden oldie zingers.  “Say it isn’t so Joe, there we go again.”  I witnessed a contrived folksy tone complete with winks that was at one patronizing and an insult to the adult intelligence of city and country mice alike.  It was bad enough on the first hearing, profoundly worse on the next day’s rereading of the transcript.  The press, by and large, gave her a pass.

I’m sure they (and there were some exceptions, usually blatantly partisan in tone) felt under great pressure to “be fair” and thus forgiving.  And here lies the problem.   As anyone who reads these posts knows, I don’t agree with John McCain.  In the sense of full disclosure, I am beginning to truly dislike him.  I think he would be a terrible, even dangerous, president and have often suggested so.  There are areas in which McCain has greater expertise than others.  To his detriment in the current environment, he knows little about the economy.  But I don’t for a moment question John McCain’s credentials or the fact that he is vastly more qualified to be president than the current occupant of the White House.   He is not, like his opponent, a gifted writer or orator, but his utterances are generally coherent.  Again, he surpasses the incumbent.   With that in mind, let’s return to Palin and the press assessment of her performance.  Many of them suggested that she rehabilitated herself after a disastrous two weeks, presumably with the American public or at least her partisans.  If that’s the case, shame on us, and shame on any such suggestion.  Perhaps the bar was set low for her, but can we accept one set so low for ourselves?

We are considering an occupant of the second highest office in the land.  This is potentially someone who will have her hand on the tiller of our nation.   She isn’t being considered for some tangential job and, if elected, she can’t be easily fired for at least four years.  The power of both the Presidency and the Vice Presidency, we have learned by bitter experience, is enormous.  Those who raise their hands and take to oath can change history and our lives with virtually no constraints.  Hello, members of the press.  I’m not concerned about the weight of the term paper submitted no matter how energetically and there is no “get-out-of-jail-free” card to be tossed on the Monopoly board.  The press, all their digging notwithstanding, continues to give this frighteningly unprepared and seemingly unqualified person a pass.  Yes her disjointed rambling may have made it at the PTA meeting, in a town with fewer inhabitants than a two block radius around my former New York residence or in running the sparsely populated state of Alaska whose fortunes rise with the price of oil just as those of the lower 48 diminish.  But we’re beyond that here and just getting out some words doesn’t cut it.  Much of the press gave Sarah Palin a pass.  We shouldn’t give them one.  They blew it and, in doing so, did us a great disservice.

I continue to believe, as I have from the outset, that in the end this election won’t be close.  Some fear that behind the curtain there will be voters who, despite what they tell pollsters, will submit to racial prejudice.  Perhaps, but I hope we are beyond that.  There are many reasons why John McCain is likely to go down.  He pinned his hopes, as we thought did Barack Obama, on issues of the war and foreign policy.  While now loudly claiming to be so foresighted about Fanny and Freddie, he has been blind sighted by the financial crisis.   Perhaps you can’t really see people's everyday struggle at the river’s edge in breathtaking Sedona.  But for many voters, John McCain will go down because of his cavalier decision on the Vice Presidency.  Sarah Palin may be judged harshly, but not so harshly and deservedly as the person she sometimes calls “her running mate”.    And the press, it shouldn’t give John McCain or Barack Obama an inch, and it certainly shouldn't give Sarah Palin a pass now or when she returns to the capital of her home state and once again becomes their problem not ours.


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