Media speed’s negative effect on politics

Horse-race reporting

The advent of intense media speed and opinion masquerading as news have had some damaging effects on our political system. This is especially evident in the coverage leading up to and during elections. We now have horse-race reporting on elections, where we spend more time talking about who has the lead and who is catching up. We hear about the status of the polls more than the global and nation-shaping issues that form the platforms of the candidates.

We tend to hear fewer of the once notorious journalistic questions with regards to governmental action. The media just ends up parroting the government with regards to what is going on. Rosenberg and Feldman accuse the news media of being relatively uncritical and asking few questions when George W. Bush announced that the United States had been victorious in the Iraq war. Commenting on the Iraq war, Arianna Huffington said that “media watchdogs acted more like lapdogs.”

Fewer questions, more answers

The business of political journalism has become less about asking tough questions and more about being the first to announce what the government recently did. Also, reporting is generally interpreted through the political lens of whatever organization publishing it. Fox is republican, MSNBC is democrat, and CNN pushes their own agendas.

Trivializing political debate

In their book No Time to Think, Rosenberg and Feldman mention that debates at the time of Abraham Lincoln were often 60-90 minutes per speaker. Today our televised debates often have 60-90 seconds for discussion of issues of tremendous scope and complexity. In No Time to Think, Rosenberg and Feldman quote an example from the trivialized debates of this day and age:

“What would you do, in the eyes of Muslims, to repair America’s image? Mayor Giuliani – 90 seconds.” – Anderson Cooper during CNN-Youtube GOP candidate debate on Nov 29th, 2007.

“How do you repair the image of America in the Muslim world? – 30 seconds to respond.” – Cooper asking another candidate to respond to Giuliani.

How can we even begin to discuss issues of this magnitude in such time frames? Of course we can’t. The fact is, these political ‘debates’ are far more a media and popularity gimmick than a tool for understanding how we can shape the fate of our society. News media get lots of content they can feed the beast with, and political candidates get a chance to score points against their opponents in these brief clashes.

Rosenberg and Feldman ask the critical question: What do sound bites and rapid speech debates have to do with the candidate’s ability to govern? Not much, I’d say. ‘Political debates’ seem better oriented to help us select good actors, speakers, and entertainers.

Rosenberg and Feldman also claim that media speed also makes it harder for governments to actually be honest and straightforward with their people. It is easier for governments to hire people to answer the media with empty rhetoric along party lines.

Pressure on decisions

The lightning speed of news puts pressure on political figures to make faster decisions. In the case of most crises today, a very significant portion of the population is likely to be made aware of the crisis within hours or days. With the populace becoming more accustomed to increased speed of information and action, they would be putting pressure on the government to act quickly.

The problem is that acting quickly can be acting rashly. We do not want media pressure to push our governments into doing terrible things. I believe that we cannot afford guesswork and hype regarding the most important issues facing our society.

Rosenberg and Feldman tell a scary story. They interviewed Ted Sorensen, an important advisor to John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Sorensen, a person who is generally an optimist, is convinced that if there had been significant media pressure on the government to act early in the Cuban Missile crisis, it would have led to a preemptive strike against soviet forces who were armed with nuclear weapons and authorized to use them. His opinion is that this action would have escalated to a full nuclear exchange, ending civilization as we know it.

The stakes are high, and we can’t afford to let our media put undue pressure on our governments to act quickly. On the other hand, we can’t let our governments get away with not listening to us or answering our questions. Our media, to some extent, is a reflection of what we are thinking about and what we are feeling. If our government finds that they only way they can make decent decisions is to tune out the media, we are heading down a scary path.

Who has the credibility to question government?

It used to be that journalists were the ones who would ask the tough questions of government. They could be relied upon to demand answers of government, and they were well-respected enough that the government would hesitate to ignore them. They were not called media watchdogs for nothing. Who watched the watchers? Their editors, other media companies and media forms, and the people. Our news media today is all-too-often acting for profit, not for the public interest. They ask fewer questions but shout out more answers.

With regards to journalism in general, Rosenberg and Feldman say that “When your independence goes, so does your integrity.” If you as a journalist have the job of increasing advertisement productivity, selling products, or increasing viewership, you have lost a critical portion of your credibility. Our news media today is serving corporate interests that damage their ability to contribute meaningfully to discussion and investigation of real issues.

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