BY CHRIS SZABLA
Two months ago, television journalists Lis Wiehl and Jeffrey Toobin came to HLS to talk about their careers, and quickly took to sparring over the quality with which the media covers legal affairs. Wiehl promoted a “follow the money” approach, and said she was giving viewers what the ratings suggested they were asking for, while Toobin fired back claims of irresponsible sensationalism.
Cut to the past week: both Wiehl and Toobin took to the airwaves to analyze the ongoing contest to decide the two major parties’ presidential nominees. While Wiehl has predictably fell in with the media’s vapid boosting of bloviating rhetoric and emotive soundbites, Toobin presented himself as a voice of reason. While the rest of CNN’s “best political team on television” fell into cackles, and later condemnation, over Hillary Clinton’s now storied outburst just prior to the New Hampshire primary, Toobin said that he couldn’t believe Americans would be swayed by something as insubstantial as a tear.It was a quixotic attempt to address the questionable notoriety that the five second event received. Of course, a flood of other theories on Clinton’s upset victory have since arisen, and self-recriminations over thrill-ride journalism have become de rigeur among members of the Fourth Estate. But while talking heads have largely gotten the message that their power to crown nominees might be rudely interrupted by uppity voters, the attraction of yellow journalism has hardly withered. Today, the networks and newspapers gleefully report on the candidates’ high-stakes allegations of racism and sexism. Columnists rush to the barricades to defend women’s rights and civil rights, or fire broadsides in the opposite direction, declaring themselves, and America, “so over” identity politics. The feeding frenzy is so acute, it’s surprising it hasn’t boiled over into crass Hitler references by now.
The trend toward sensationalism hasn’t eased because the present media climate is the product of a culture that has merely amplified news and opinion that is sententious and superficial, but has not confronted its character.
New technology – the television, the radio, expanded printing presses, the internet – has produced an exponential expansion of information. At the same time, the quality of both reportage and commentary does not seem to have evolved much beyond William Randolph Hearst’s famous expression, “you supply the pictures, and I’ll supply the war”.
Today, however, it seems that much nonsense journalism is less the fault of avaricious robber barons and more a fatal combination of laziness alternating with excitement. A pliant press paid homage to its Hearstian roots when it jumped the gun and declared “WAR!!!” on the front pages of September 12, 2001. It hardly began to ask the critical questions lying behind that exclamatory expostulation before it dopily followed the White House’s sketchy logic toward self-fulfilling prophecies in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A mystified plurality of the public still seeks solace in some purported prewar connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, thanks to the president’s duly reported, thinly disguised conflations. Repeated often enough, any assertion becomes common sense “truth”; the narrative, for example, that Iran is an inherently dangerous rogue state has received far more press than the observation that it is surrounded, paranoid, and desperate to develop a deterrent.
Al Gore identified many of these problems in his latest jeremiad, “The Assault on Reason.” For a solution, he turns to the multiplicity of voices blossoming on the internet. But, like Orwell’s Winston Smith, who misplaces his hope in the proles, Gore relies on those who mostly digest raw information, rather than those with the power to decide what gets reported upon, and how it is initially spun.
Others believe that the 20th century victory of television over newspapers has been complemented by the early 21st century triumph of YouTube online; both are indicative of a slide away from written culture and the dawn of a “second orality” in which mnemonic devices like repeated phrases and images take precedence.For all its compelling melodrama, the theory fails to account for the sensationalist press that existed well before TV. For each of their flaws, however, both Gore and the prognosticators of the “second orality” have diagnosed the essential problem: the triumph of simple, overarching narratives. Of these, the media rarely asks deep questions; it prefers less trenchant, instrumental ones. At this it excels. How should the U.S. confront [dictator of the month]? How can [candidate] ever hope to break the tidal wave of momentum possessed by [other candidate]?
To ask instead why a given state has come to be seen as a threat, or why a candidate can’t transcend the traditional categories he or she has been boxed into; these questions derail the media’s ability to decisively define opinions, perhaps. But the media doesn’t lose stature when it critiques its own role, it merely redefines it, becoming a more responsible steward of the public sphere. This means providing perspectives that originate from some authority other than a political mouthpiece or a warrior of the Red State-Blue State Kulturkampf – from people who care less about the outcome of a given debate, and more about the way it is conducted.
Chris Szabla is a 1L.