Media Mammon
By A. D. Freudenheim

17 December 2000

Listening to the comments made by our national punditocracy after Vice President Gore's and President-Elect Bush's speeches respectively, the casual student of American politics might find herself very confused indeed. Both speeches received high praise from our commentators: in Gore's they heard the more natural, casual, and warm politician they thought had been missing from the campaign, and who might have "won" the election had he shown this side of himself earlier. In Bush, they heard a speech that was proud but not defiant, even-handed, and that made an effort to reach out to the people of both political parties, despite the obvious opportunity not to do so.

The confusion comes from the fact that, with a more distanced view, it is easy to see both of these speeches as very poor indeed, and to see in the men who gave them some of the worst aspects of their personalities. Gore's speech, and his mannerisms, were not altogether different from those on view during the campaign; he was more emotional and empathic - he lost, and he conceded - but his manner was still forced, his tone still slightly lofty, his body language still stiff and awkward. Bush, during his speech, was also the same as he has been previously: smirking and presumptive, slightly defiant, and occasionally nervous when forced to address ideas with which he is unfamiliar. Neither appeared any more elect-able after the fact.

Yet the pundits would have us believe it were otherwise, and the reason is very transparent: it's their job, and one for which they are (mostly) well paid. With lucrative contracts, not to mention the kind of national exposure that can make even the most dim-witted of people a "star," the American media has lost its edge. No longer is American journalism acting from its distinctive and valuable perspective as the fourth column of American democracy, but instead it has become the veneer for the other three - coating the other columns and, with consistent and persistent reapplication, working to cover up many apparent flaws, presenting a pattern of its own making. After the Bush and Gore speeches, the discussion was so clearly flattering - flattering of the pride of the vanquished and of the humility of the victor - because to show us anything else would have been dangerous to the pundits' own welfare.

Sometimes, even the insightful miss the target. Several months ago, for instance, The New Yorker magazine ran an article about the struggles of ABC News, and its news chief David Westin. Westin, whom the article notes had no "news" or journalism background, became a controversial and divisive figure as he tried to push for programming that would have broader appeal to audiences being lured away by other, less reputable news shows. (He is also reported to have taken actions deemed unbecoming for an independent journalist, such as making a payment for assistance in securing an ABC interview with Monica Lewinsky. The allegations made in that article may or may not be true.) What the article left unstated is the fact that ABC News relies on ratings as much as everyone else in the television business; their advertising revenue is what enables them to pay their staff well, though none of the people quoted made statements saying that they would accept lower pay in exchange for a stronger, more credible news division. (Or perhaps they did, and they went unreported.) David Westin is probably irrelevant - if it wasn't him, it would have been someone else, because in the struggle between profitability and credibility, the desire for profit wins.

The truth is that few Americans seem to care. What passes for news does, indeed, pass - because to be critical of it would be to open a Pandora's Box of troubles about those things in our society that we all choose to take for granted. The trustworthiness and integrity of our politicians is an area where most of us can afford to be cynical. We're steeped in this cynicism by now, with a nearly Pavlovian response; how many presidential contests over the last 4 decades have been seen as necessitating the choice between the lesser of two evils? Yet, strangely, we do not demand even this same level of cynicism - passing, in these dire circumstances, for intellectual honesty - from most of the talking heads, the people who are supposed to be providing us with their insightful and thorough analysis of the political maneuvering of the day. Instead, the American media has taken a cynical attitude towards us, their consumers: that which is saleable merits attention. The hard issues of the day can safely be left behind, lest we, the people, turn on them our accusing eye and suggest that they are meddling with our Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness.

Copyright 2000, by A. D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.