Trumping all else

Image from

Jim Rutenberg points the finger:

But in the end, you have to point the finger at national political journalism, which has too often lost sight of its primary directives in this election season: to help readers and viewers make sense of the presidential chaos; to reduce the confusion, not add to it; to resist the urge to put ratings, clicks and ad sales above the imperative of getting it right. … (T)his season has been truly spectacular in its failings. It has been “Dewey Beats Truman” on a relentless, rolling basis.

This blog isn’t about politics (I’m not sure what it’s about!) so I’m not going to get into the whole Trump Phenomenon. Still, though I think Rutenberg is essentially right, there’s a lot to unpack here.

One of my favorite movies is “Network.” In 1976, a time when the news media was generally considered above reproach — not long after Watergate gave the business a nice shine, and Cronkite, Chancellor and Reasoner ruled the evening news — here was a movie that dared to point out that it was a business (or certainly part of a business) like any other. Yes, there was the desire to inform the public, but there was also a need to make money — a need that only grew greater as the years went on. And if turning the news into an entertaining TV show pumped up the ratings, so be it.

(Network by Sidney Lumet, 1976 (Howard Beale Speech) from Tito Molina Faceblog videos on Vimeo.)

Other forms of media weren’t immune, either, and it had long been so. Did the New York Daily News put an electrocution on its front page in 1928 to serve the public interest, or sell newspapers? Discuss.

Forty years after “Network,” the world is that much more atomized and media outlets are desperately going after viewers (or users, or consumers, or eyeballs, or whatever the term of the day is). You gotta pay the bills, after all. Ideally, many of those viewers would be drawn by patient, thoughtful reporting and analysis. But what works — what’s known to work — is outrage and sensation. (Old news adage: “If it bleeds, it leads.”) Say what will you will about the presumptive Republican nominee, he delivers that.

(CBS CEO Les Moonves: “I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”)

Even when news organizations offer patient, thoughtful reporting, are we as consumers paying attention? Are we just perking up at the name “Trump” and the promise of the energy it brings, ignoring the rest?

(Image of “The Far Side,” 1983, via Reddit.)

I don’t have any answers, of course. There is an obvious tension between outrage and thoughtfulness, just as there’s almost always a tension between mass appeal and studied consideration. Rutenberg highlights the value of shoe-leather reporting, and we could certainly use more of that. (Right, David Brooks?)

But I think we also need more of simple media literacy. (And yes, I know that’s a challenge in itself.) Read more, view more, listen more. Be skeptical but informed. And, especially, know the biases of your sources — and yourself.

Until then, caveat emptor.


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