Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Scary Consequences of Bad Media

Happy Halloween.

On a day when many people are dressing up to look like someone or something else, I thought I would call attention to some very recent media criticism that brings the weaknesses of some aspects of our news-gathering infrastructure into brilliant focus, and puts forward a warning about the future using the mistakes of the past.

From the local front, Delta-area blogger and Bagel Street Irregular Robert Laitres brings forward a historical perspective when analyzing the state of much of our media today. In an excellent post this past Friday, Mr. Laitres makes comparisons between today's media and much of the media in Austria before Hitler's rise to power. Quoting from the post:

Another observation on the behavior of the press during that period is to be found in other studies of that period as well, and on the role of a “mud raking” press in politics. In fact, all who have undertaken any type of comprehensive study of the period have come to the same conclusion. One of those, by way of example, is from the book The NAZI Seizure of Power, by William Sheridan Allen.

But, its chief effect was to debase the nature of politics and to destroy the foundation of trust and mutual respect without which democracy cannot succeed. When politics becomes a matter of vilification and innuendo, then eventually people feel repugnance for the whole process".
If there has been anything obvious in this political season, it has been the loss of civility, fomented in large part by the preponderence of what Mr. Laitres cited as a media focusing more on the bottom line, rather than getting to the bottom of the story. What is sensational often gets more emphasis than what is substantial, and that starts to sound like the beginning of a slippery slope that American media, and we as a nation, cannot afford to start down.

Perhaps a good portion of those who attended yesterday's rally hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are those who see these problems with media, with government, and with ourselves, as well as the lack of "sanity" that the "rally" sought to edge us back toward.

I half-watched the rally yesterday morning between doing other things, and while what I saw was entertaining, I was most attentive when Mr. Stewart took about 13 minutes to really say something meaningful. If you didn't see his speech, it's available below, and is definitely worth the time.

Thanks to a transcript from Rolling Stone, here is some of what made the most sense to me. The emphasis of certain points is mine:

The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems and illuminate problems heretofore unseen, or it can use its magnifying glass to light ants on fire, and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous-flaming-ant epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.

There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and theocrats, but those are titles that must be earned. You must have the resume. Not being able to distinguish between real racists and tea partiers, or real bigots and Juan Williams and Rich Sanchez is an insult -- not only to those people, but to the racists themselves, who have put forth the exhausting effort it takes to hate. Just as the inability to distinguish between terrorists and Muslims makes us less safe, not more.

The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything we eventually get sicker. And perhaps eczema. Yet, with that being said, I feel good. Strangely, calmly good, because the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us through a funhouse mirror, and not the good kind that makes you slim and taller -- but the kind where you have a giant forehead and an ass like a pumpkin and one eyeball.

Arianna Huffington, when asked about Stewart, Colbert, and the rally on CNN today, brought it down to lowest terms a bit:
"What makes him (Stewart) and Colbert special is the fact that they use satire to speak truth to power, whether that power is liberal, conservative, in the media, in politics. That's where their power comes from. And people who continue to see it as a sort of left-leaning show are completely missing its appeal."
This raises more questions and concerns with me. Many pundits, politicians, and media wonks on both sides of the ideological divide basically give Stewart and Colbert a pass because they are primarily entertainers, humorists, comedians, and actors. While this does not diminish the importance of the points that they make on their respective programs and at the rally yesterday, it may change the tone of the response to them in the future.

Stewart and Colbert take their comedic approach seriously; that much is certain from yesterday's event. What remains to be seen is how this event changes the playing field for them, and how they react to it.

Have a great week ahead.

1 comment:

Len said...

John: thank you so much for this post. Dead on. We are in some real political danger at this point if we can't get the rhetoric, the lies, the money, and the irrational anger under control. There were three of us from Grand Junction there at the Rally4Sanity. It was amazing to be with 250,000 people who shared our values...and those values that Jon Stewart so emphatically showed us throughout the program and then recapped so well at the end. And, the values that you've outlined in this post.