October 30, 2009

Overzealous Punditry Is Hurting America

Walter Cronkite once said, “Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine.” 

In my opinion, when the latter begins to masquerade as the former – when journalist’s opinions adorn the garbs of objectivity – we face a crisis of journalistic integrity.

This is precisely the situation we find ourselves in today.

A highly partisan culture has emerged in the mainstream and side stream media, releasing a rancor which perpetuates the single-mindedness and inflexible partisanship that now roil the country. “Info-tainers” and shock-jock radio hosts, with rants against opposing party politicians and lambasts of differing viewpoints, contribute little to the constructive debate about how we can fix today’s true problems and continue ensuring that America stays at the respectability forefront.

These media rabble-rousers would not necessarily concern me if they were TV, radio, and internet aberrations, the exceptions to the broadcast-news rule.  But they have become the standard, setting a bar for irrational and incendiary political reporting and bouncing the “vitri-ball” back-and-forth from station to station, from blog to blog.

The sharp divide they engender between parties and politicians is a direct threat to American productivity and progress, and therefore eventually our respectability as an economic and political leader.  Their brand of demonizing politics fosters a culture wherein political stalemates are valued over prudent legislation.  This needs to stop, for everyone’s sake.

As David Gergen and I explored, this socio-political reality can permanently cripple America.  From healthcare reform to climate change, from economic relief to the wars in the Middle East, Americans remain seemingly incapable of reaching anything resembling consensus because politicians and constituents alike have been feeding on this tradition.

Gergen took this conversation a step further in his recent article for the US News and World Report.  Discussing what he sees as a leadership deficit in America, Gergen observes that the current media tone does not help the situation:

The president and his supporters have tended to blame the blogosphere and 24-hour news channels that feature extreme voices and manufacture artificial controversies. They have a point. There was a time in the lives of many today when the culture and the media environment were more civil and the country was more united. The 1940s, ’50s, and early ’60s had ugly moments—remember McCarthy? And Dallas?—but the overall tone was more positive. Was it any accident that those years also spawned Truman, Marshall, Eisenhower, and Kennedy?

Today’s leaders are facing a no-win situation because the media have pinned them in a corner.  Every decision is either overly lauded or ruthlessly decried.  While accountability is imperative, and while we should continue to ask tough questions, we should also realize that the “shout-them-down” approach serves no long-term purpose and only brings momentary self-satisfaction.  This is engendering a culture of skepticism, disbelief, and partisanship that is detrimental to our hopes for continued progress.

And while I wouldn’t say that overzealous punditry is the root cause of partisan disconnect in America, it is certainly more than just a symptom: it is an accelerator.  Today’s news culture makes things worse.

The President has called time and time again for our country’s leaders to rise above pettiness and assume the mantle of dispassionate, consensus-centric leadership.  I agree wholeheartedly that this culture shift is the only means by which we can hope for a return to prosperity, and must acknowledge that any effort counter to that is hurting our country.

Talking heads cheapen discourse.  They tout easy solutions.  They speak in truculent soundbites.  Their invective hurts America.

Our problems are real.  Let’s discuss them in a real way.