1/12/2008

Lamentations of an Educated Voter: Part III (On the Failings of the Media)

The latest salvos in the 2008 presidential race have been about Barack Obama and what "change" actually means. Rudy Giuliani mentioned in a recent debate that "change" is a mixed bag in that this "change" could be one for higher taxes, "socialized medicine," and increased spending, or that it could be for lower taxes and a stronger national defense. Giuliani is right, although I think most voters would consider "change" to be synonymous with taking politics and government policy in a new and more favorable direction than what we have right now.

Fair enough.

I've been hearing a lot more politicians, pundits, and even regular people asking Obama to explain what "change" means. Some of these people are genuinely interested in his message and in his rhetoric, but want to know a bit more information before they commit to vote for him. Others may be trying to poke holes in his rhetoric by getting Obama to express positions that would validate Giuliani's line of attack. (e.g., "The 'change' Obama is talking about is giving drivers' licenses to illegal aliens! We don't need that kind of 'change!'") And others are cantankerous voters who would never consider voting for Obama anyway, but simply want to knock him off his pedestal by forcing him to answer this question, lest he be seen as an empty suit who doesn't want to address the concerns of the people.

Again, fair enough.

So I went home for lunch yesterday and turned on the television so I could catch up on the latest political news. I was also curious to see how Obama was responding to requests for him to elaborate on what "change" means. After all, being big on rhetoric and short on specifics has been one of the most common and most enduring criticisms of his campaign, so it would seem that he would be prepared to address this question at length.

BREAKING NEWS!

General news coverage was interrupted by a live news conference concerning the missing pregnant Marine in North Carolina. Expecting normal programming to resume shortly thereafter, I didn't change the channel.

But three minutes became four minutes, which then became seven minutes. And MSNBC was still carrying the news conference. So I switched over to CNN, "the world's news leader" with "the best political team on television." But they were carrying the exact same news conference:

"Yes, she did purchase a bus ticket, but never used it. That is correct."

To my dismay, I switched over to Fox hoping that they would be covering the day's political news...

"Is it safe to assume that the fetus is dead too?"

Frustrated, I switched over to the regular network stations, but they were covering local news, as was to be expected. So I had to spend the rest of my lunch break listening to a sheriff in North Carolina talk about how the attorneys for the missing Marine's senior officer were influencing what the sheriff could tell the press. And this went on for about 20 excruciating minutes before I finally had to turn the television off and go back to work.

Another strike for the media.

This is not to say that the media should not cover these bizarre murder/missing person mysteries. After all, they are quite compelling. However, why is this a national story? What's wrong with letting the news stations of Fayetteville and Wilmington, North Carolina, handle this story while keeping the national airwaves open for national news stories? People are murdered and kidnapped everyday in the United States, so why is this particular story worth the coverage these other abductions and murders aren't receiving? Being an attractive White woman, Maria Lauterbach fits in quite nicely with Laci Peterson, Natalee Holloway, Jennifer Wilbanks (the "Runaway Bride"), and Stacy Peterson, all of whom received similar intense media coverage, often at the expense of other more significant news.

Where is the sense of perspective? The Michigan primaries and Nevada caucuses are rapidly approaching. After providing almost wall-to-wall coverage of the presidential candidates on the campaign trail prior to Iowa and New Hampshire, how do the national media suddenly have the time to devote half of my lunch break to a press conference about a local murder mystery? And if the media are going to cover a press conference about the death of a Marine in North Carolina, why not cover the death of a Marine from North Carolina who fell in Iraq?

There are so many Americans who are unbelievably ignorant of what's going on in the world and what's happening with the people who lead (or want to lead) this great nation. However, the media are complicit in promoting this ignorance. People at corner barber shops, local diners, general stores, and cafes all across the nation are probably talking about this case of the missing Marine. ("Do you think that sergeant killed her? I bet they had an affair! What kind of mother would tell the press that her daughter was a compulsive liar?") However, how many of these people could tell you which presidential candidates are still in the race? How many of these people could tell you the difference between Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani when it comes to abortion rights or illegal immigration?

Case in point: Of all the presidential debates that have taken place so far, the highest rated one drew about 9.3 million viewers, and that debate was broadcast on ABC. Compare that with American Idol, which drew an average of 30 million viewers per night. Knowing this, would it not be reasonable to assume that more Americans know which singers advanced to the next round of competition than know why Mitt Romney might be the best candidate to turn the nation's economy around? What an awful statistic!

There's nothing wrong with not being into politics. And there's nothing wrong with wanting to watch something entertaining on television after dinner. But if the media can use their influence to totally change our culture (as they did with the advent of reality television), why can't they also use their influence to elevate our collective consciousness? In the spirit of voter advocacy, why not devote just one hour of media time to showcase each candidate and provide an overview of their campaign platforms so that voters can make more informed decisions before they participate in the upcoming caucuses and primaries?

As for me, other than pursuing a traditionally liberal political agenda with a less partisan attitude, I am still not really sure what Obama means when he says "change." I do, however, know that the remains of the missing Marine in North Carolina were purportedly buried in the suspect's backyard. And I have the media to thank for that.

At what point will people say enough is enough? If the media continue to feed us garbage, we will remain ignorant. Yes, we'll be happy (Desperate Housewives! Brittney Spears! Sanjaya!), but we'll still be ignorant. Again, there's nothing wrong with those popular TV shows and tabloid journalism at all. But that's what channels like E!, VH-1, Court TV, and MTV are for. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox should have a different responsibility to their audiences. People in the media commonly talk about how "this election is the most important one of our lifetime." If that's so, then why do their programming decisions suggest otherwise?

8 comment(s):

oso diablo said...

i'm with you all the way here. i can't stand the tabloid style of journalism we now get. btw, here's a link about a Marine from my town killed in Fallujah (it's been a few years ago, but it's easy - sadly - to find others more recent).

http://projects.washingtonpost.com/fallen/dates/2004/nov/26/david-b-houck/

oso diablo said...
This post has been removed by the author.
Nikki said...

Hey Anthony.....again a great post. I get frustrated just talking to friends and family. Of course there is much "tradition" when it comes to voting. My husbands family are hard-core democrats. Yes utah Mormon democrats. My husbands grandmother had a picture of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy on her wall with Jesus right in the middle. You would think she was Catholic. She was a huge Clinton fan and had voted that way for years and was not about to change. Now my father in laws cousin is Wayne Owens a popular Congressmen in Utah who was a hard core democrat. They are from Panguitch Utah and "Southern" Utahns tend to be democrats. Harry Reid is from that area on the Nevada Utah border. So I think especially with older people they will vote how they always voted and for whomever appeals to them. Younger voters are the ones to watch in this election. But part of me cringes when I think about the information they are getting from MTV and VH1. Barack Obama has more of a Rock Star persona than one of a Politician. Young people are informed about him and they think he is the "cool" candidate. Liberlism is trendy among those in the entertainment industry and it is almost required. While I don't think most voters are influenced by celebrity endorsements, I do think young voters are. great post.
N

Anthony Palmer said...

Oso,

What really irritates me is how the media claim that certain politicians haven't adequately explained their views to the voters. I think they have their opportunities to grill these politicians and showcase their platforms, but often choose not to because talking about Brittney's custody battle is more important. Maybe I start my own media organization (PNN--Palmer News Network) that focuses strictly on news. Real news.

-----

Nikki,

I think politics is like a pendulum. Just as JFK ushered in liberalism in the 60s, Reagan ushered in conservatism in the 80s. All political movements crest and recede. After almost 30 years of generally center-right/conservative government, perhaps the nation is ready to try something new. How often can politicians talk about lowering taxes, a strong military, and traditional family values? If these goals haven't been achieved by now, then what's the excuse? The same happened with liberalism's demise when Nixon became president. This nation will not remain conservative (or liberal) forever. And the White House will change its political stripes many more times throughout my life. It's just a natural phenomenon.

oso diablo said...

Anthony, maybe you could call it the "Palmer Pilot". :groan:

Anthony Palmer said...

I found an excellent piece by Broadcasting and Cable that shares these sentiments. They even brougt up the current writers' strike as a reason why the broadcast networks should pay a bit more time to a different kind of "reality television."

Steve Johnson said...

This was a very entertaining post for me because I know exactly how you feel. I'm looking at it from a completely selfish perspective, but I hate it when shows devoted to politics stop to cover these "breaking news" stories. It's a little harder to get so frustrated when lives have been lost, but liked you said, things like this happen all of the time. The media's decision to run with certain missing person stories all has to do with what they think will provide entertainment.

Silence Dogood said...

Just as side note again on media coverage. With 90% reporting Ron Paul came in 4th in Michigan with Rudy and Thompson well behind. Now how did fox decide to exclude him yet keep Thompson? Rudy?