CARL R. RAMEY: What's Wrong With Our Political Dialogue?
In a New York Times op-ed reprinted by The Pilot last Sunday, Elizabeth Edwards blames America's mass media for debasing the political dialogue in this year's presidential primaries.
Her message, a common one, is that candidates have serious intentions, but they go unreported (or underreported) because our media messengers are more enamored with campaign strategy, polling and personal peccadilloes. The implication is that if only our mass media would act more responsibly, treating issues more seriously and in greater depth, our political dialogue would be magically transformed.
For years, media critics and academic scholars have railed against the tendency of popular media to obsess over the horse-race element of political campaigns, while ignoring more important information about a candidates' priorities, policies and principles.
While the criticism is legitimate, it must be said that what is important to voters is not always absorbed through weighty policy debates, to the exclusion of what candidates actually say and do. For example, who would argue that assessing Hillary Clinton's integrity, Barack Obama's authenticity and John McCain's temperament are not at least as relevant as examining their positions on nuclear energy or the estate tax? And such qualities are usually measured by weighing personal conduct.
Nevertheless, fundamental changes have occurred to threaten seriously the health of America's political dialogue.
-- First, today's media environment is fully 24/7, with the information flow virtually endless and the noise level wildly amplified. It is a YouTube and cell phone video world where every candidate's action or reaction is subject to instant viewing and analysis.
-- Second, the contemporary proliferation of media sources competing to hold on to highly fragmented audiences and advertisers significantly dilutes political content on many outlets. Mushrooming media sources chasing the same political stories with reduced staff and dwindling revenues simply runs counter to producing serious journalism.
-- Third, the problem is vastly complicated by the different ways modern political campaigns are conducted and the different ways American audiences now obtain political information.
Yes, commercial television, cable networks and radio talk shows continue to minimize meaningful discussions of serious public issues. But we should not delude ourselves into thinking that, if only those media sources would allow more time for serious discussions, our political dialogue would suddenly be uplifted. That is because, even if popular media could be reformed in this fashion, little would change unless the tendencies and habits of both political candidates and American audiences were also to change, a likelihood of near herculean proportions.
The sad truth is that political candidates and their handlers typically prefer the slick, shallow and safe sound bite over extended, in-depth conversations. And, like McCain, Clinton and Obama in the current campaign, they repeatedly pander to the electorate instead of addressing issues directly -- believing, perhaps legitimately, that revealing too many uncomfortable specifics might represent political suicide.
For example, even though Obama has the weight of evidence on his side in opposing a gas tax holiday this summer, he could easily be "buried" with the issue by Clinton and McCain, both of whom are supporting the idea by ignoring facts and appealing to voters' momentary distress.
Another sad truth is that, despite more in-depth coverage of political issues by leading national newspapers, weekly news magazines, public issue periodicals and public broadcasting -- most of which are experiencing losses, not gains -- most Americans seem to prefer the speeded-up, less reflective headline treatment of those issues found on commercial TV, cable and the Internet. Younger Americans, particularly, look to the Internet and satirical news features like the "Daily Show" for a quick political fix.
If, as critics claim, our dominant mass media are largely to blame for the deterioration of our political dialogue, why do the more serious media outlets -- and there are still many -- not attract more stable audiences, catching at least a few of the readers and viewers retreating from the political pabulum served by commercial television, cable and talk radio?
Part of the problem is that we live in a society where the dominant lifestyles have become less compatible with the mission of serious newspapers, magazines and broadcast journalism. In short, the problem of an increasingly dysfunctional political dialogue goes deeper than just indicting some of our most prominent, pernicious media sources.
Carl R. Ramey lives in Pinehurst. He is a retired media attorney and author of "Mass Media Unleashed: How Washington Policymakers Shortchanged The American Public."
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