by Libby Hellmann
They’ve finally done it. The news media have broadcast themselves into irrelevancy. It’s been trending that way for years, but now, with the coverage of the Democratic convention, it’s over the top. I’m a long-time news junkie, but even I’ve had to turn off the tube.
On one hand, you’d think continuous coverage of the proceedings by CNN, MSNBC and Fox News would be a good thing. After all, the networks have abandoned full coverage, save for a spotty hour here and there. If the 24-7 outlets were really giving us full coverage, it would be a tremendous public service, not to mention a rich historical archive. But they’re not. Except for major speeches, what's on the air is a sea of pundits, all armed with talking points from their respective political arms.
Some of them don’t even bother to deny it. After Hillary addressed the convention last night, several “analysts” mentioned the emails they’d already received (Blackberries and I-phones are de rigeur now) reacting to her speech. And while I was flipping between CNN and Fox, I heard conservative pundits on each say exactly the same thing. In the same words. This is not news. It’s propaganda.
But that’s only one of the problems. There has to be something going on, if only to fill all those hours, so what’s evolved is a false sense of urgency. For example, we’re treated to a breathless breaking news proclamation that the plane carrying a VIP has landed safely… or an “inside scoop” that Madonna’s new tour marries pictures of McCain to Adolph Hitler. The desperate need to create conflict elevates triviality, gossip and speculation to truth: Are Hillary PUMAs going to revolt? How frosty are relations between the two camps? Are the Clintons “over”?
Again, this is not news. It’s not even debate. It’s manufactured content. Ersatz news. Comedian Jon Stewart, whom some consider the most trustworthy source of news these days (an irony in and of itself) took the media to task the other day, calling the 24 cable news outlets “gerbil wheels” of spin. And this wasn’t the first time. Four years ago, he pleaded a similar case with Crossfire hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala. Sadly, most of the audience thought it was a comedy routine.
One of Stewart’s points was that by abdicating their responsibility for objective reporting, the cable outlets help advance the strategies and plans of politicians and corporations, who, in many cases, own the broadcast news outlet. I can’t disagree. Too often what passes for political discourse is raw partisanship, especially on MSNBC and Fox. And, in the off chance that a talking head disagrees with the political orientation of Chris Matthews or Bill O’Reilly,or their bosses, they’re literally shouted down or simply cut off.
A long time ago I worked at an underground newspaper. We were a collective, very Marxist, as convinced of our own superiority as Fox News and MSNBC are of theirs. One of my comrades claimed that even back then, the media were the pawns of the ruling class. They only reported news that the establishment could handle. You couldn’t trust them for accurate information, he said. Particularly news that undercut the ruling class's goals and strategies. The only thing you could count on, he said, was the weather report.
I didn’t want accept that, and I went on to work for the media. Inspired by Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly, I thought I was performing a public service. And when Watergate broke a few years later, I was convinced that serious journalism would --and did -- safeguard our democracy. But I now believe resentment over Watergate triggered Bill Clinton’s impeachment twenty years later. In the meantime Rupert Murdoch bought Fox News, MSNBC became the left-wing alternative, and CNN is up for grabs.
The weather channel says it’s not going to rain for another week. What do you think?