Broadcast Media:A Failure of Both Journalism & Democracy

A free and fair media is what used to set America apart from all other “free” country wannabes. In a blatant display of the depths to which the U.S. media has sunk, U.S. news reports have been blaming the government shutdown on the inability of both political parties to come to terms. Supposedly, it was a “bitterly divided” Congress that “failed to reach agreement” (Washington Post).newscartoon


This sort of false equivalence is not just a failure of journalism, it is a colossal failure of democracy.

When the political “leadership” of this country is incapable of even keeping the government open, a political course correction is not only necessary but imperative to the future of the U.S.

But how can democracy self-correct if the majority of the voting public does not even bother to take the time to understand where the problem lies? And where will the pressure for change come from if journalists do not hold the responsible parties accountable?

In the most incredible abdication of journalistic integrity outside of FOX “NEWS”, Chuck Todd, the most disgraceful choice of a network political I’ve ever seen, was recently quoted on MSNBC’s Morning Joe saying that he actually disavowed the media’s role in holding Republicans accountable for lies that they were spreading about Obamacare.

If Not the Media, Then Who?

But the most maladroit exhibit of journalistic malfeasance cannot be hung on any one person or organization. It is the entire broadcast national media that has acquiesced its once sacred place in American culture as gatekeepers of the truth, to being entertainment for profit.

And the fact that not a single broadcast organization was capable of stating an obvious truth: that a seditious faction within the Republican Party has been intent on holding  the entire government hostage while demanding the de facto repeal of a president’s signature legislation without even bothering to negotiate. This is, by any reasonable standard, a severe political act of treasonous extremism. It is an unconstitutional attempt to make an end run around the normal legislative process. There is no historical precedent for it. The last shutdowns, in 1995 and 1996, were not the product of unilateral demands to scrap existing law; they took place during a period of give-and-take budget negotiations.

But the political media’s aversion to doing anything that might be seen as taking sides — combined with its obsession with profit — led them to actively obscure the truth in their coverage of the votes. If you did not already know what this was all about, listening to the broadcast news would not help you understand.

What makes this more than a journalistic collapse is that the press plays a critical role in our democracy. We have, until essentially the Reagan era, counted on the press to help create an informed electorate. Perhaps even more important, we rely on the press to hold the powerful accountable.

That requires calling out political leaders when they transgress or fail to meet commonly agreed-upon standards: when they are corrupt, when they deceive, when they break the rules and refuse to govern. Such exposure should be the minimum; the first consequence . When the transgressions are sufficiently grave, what follows should be continued scrutiny, marginalization, contempt and even ridicule.

In the current political climate, journalistic false equivalences have lead to a woefully uninformed—or an out-and-out misinformed– electorate, because the public is not getting an accurate picture of what is actually happening; and making disastrous decisions because of the deceptions that the profit-driven broadcast media is using to attract an audience for its advertisers—not it’s desire to offer fact-based information to their viewers.

Journalists Have Been Covertly Bamboozled into Espousing ‘Balance’ and ‘Neutrality’ Above All Else

But the lack of accountability is arguably even worse because it has the characteristics of a cascading failure. When the media coverage seeks down-the-middle neutrality — despite one party’s grotesque conduct–there are no political consequences for their actions. With no consequences for extremism, politicians who have succeeded using such conduct have an incentive to become even more extreme. The more extreme they get, the further the split-the-difference press has to veer from common sense in order to avoid taking side. And it becomes a perpetual, self-sustaining monstrosity of bias and partisanship.

The political press should be the public’s first line of defense when it comes to assessing who is deviating from historic norms and practices, who is risking serious damage to the nation, whose positions are based in irrational phobias and ignorance rather than data and reason.

And the consequences of their choice in an era of political extremism will only get worse and worse.

One of the great ironies of the current dynamic is that political scientists Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, who for decades were conventional voices of plague-on-both-your-houses centrism, have now become among the foremost critics of a press corps that fails to report the obvious. They describe the modern Republican Party, without any hesitation, as “a party beholden to ideological zealots.”

But as Mann explained in an interview last year, “The mainstream press really has such a difficult time trying to cope with asymmetry between the two parties’ agendas and connections to facts and truth.”

Even with a story as straightforward as the government shutdown, splitting the difference remains the method of choice for the political reporters and editors in Washington’s most influential news bureaus. Even when they certaibly know better! Even when many Republican elected officials have criticized their own leaders for being too beholden to the more radical right wing!

Media critics — and members of the public — have long decried this kind of he-said-she-said reporting. The Atlantic’s James Fallows, one of the most consistent chroniclers and decriers of false equivalence, describes it as the “strong tendency to give equal time and credence to varying ‘sides’ of a story, even if one of the sides is objectively true and the other is just made up.

Blaming everyone — Congress, both parties, Washington — is simply the path of least resistance for today’s political reporters. It’s a way of avoiding conflict rather than taking the risk that the public — or their editors — will accuse them of showing unprofessionally partisan bias.

But making a political judgment through triangulation — trying to stake out a safe middle ground between the two political parties — is still making a political judgment–and often a lousy one. In the case of this ridiculous showdown, with its blatant disregard for the actual damage it has inflicted on millions of Americans, is doing the country a grave disservice.

So, no, the shutdown is not generalized dysfunction or gridlock or stalemate. It is aberrational behavior by a political party that is willing to take extreme and potentially extremist  actions simply to get its way, in spite of the American public, the Supreme Court, and both houses of the Congress having unquestionably passed a legal, constitutional set of laws

And by not calling it what it is—an act of sedition– the political press enabled it, if not outright encouraged it.

Harvey A. Gold