This election is trying to swallow us whole—devouring intelligent dialogue and spewing out babble.
Every news outlet, it seems, is devoted to analyzing the mannerisms, wardrobe and dance moves of the four major candidates. In doing so, huge amounts of essential, urgent information is missing in this epidemic of “easy news.”
When something remotely interesting, not necessarily important, happens in relation to the campaign, it is captured and run through a media blender for days at a time. What comes out is seldom more than good material for the covers of tabloid magazines. We are sick of hearing about Bristol Palin or Obama’s ties to Bill Ayres. The only thing that has broken through the election news blockade is a story that hits people’s hearts and their 401(k): the financial crisis.
But what about our two multitrillion-dollar wars or the genocide in Sudan? What happened to the discussions of immigration, the recent ICE raids or the horrendous abuse of power that is the Bush administration?
Instead of journalism we have 24 hours of “commentary.”
Now, analysis is important. It lets us ground what can sometimes be an overwhelming amount of information into a contextualized understanding of our world, but there is a responsibility to keep the news focused.
And what is more, if we are to pay attention to the analysis of the news commentator, he or she needs to earn our respect. This honor is built not from a penchant to pander to binary agendas of “liberal” or “conservative,” but from a reputation of stand-up journalism — of fair, serious reporting.
In 1968, shortly after the now-infamous Tet offensive in Vietnam, Walter Cronkite, who had been reporting on the conflict since it began, shocked America when for the first time in his career he took a moment to provide his own analysis of the news he was reporting.
“To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, if unsatisfactory, conclusion,” Cronkite said, contradicting the adamant position of the Johnson administration that the United States was winning the war. “But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
The impact was enormous. Cronkite’s opinion was so valued that President Johnson is reported to have said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”
While it is now little more than a cliché to suggest that we have no more Walter Cronkites to look to for guidance, his dignity to all Americans during his era stands in stark contrast to the talking heads of our own era of ADD-programmed, conflict-driven news.
As young, mostly liberal, college students, it can feel really good watching Keith Olbermann or Chris Matthews nail some conservative Palinite on an error or cheap campaign ad, but these pundits are regularly eroding the reputations of the institutions that afford them the respect to be heard and, as much as it pains us to say it, are hurting journalism as much as Fox News.
In today’s world where everyone has an opinion and someplace to broadcast, write or post it, the person who knows how to shut up and build a reputation on calm, considerate analysis stands out. Colin Powell’s recent endorsement of Barack Obama is all the more powerful because the former secretary of state doesn’t run around stirring anger and division. His reputation, like that of Cronkite’s, is built on his long career and across-the-board respect.
Christine Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent, spoke Wednesday in Long Beach about the importance of journalists as storytellers, not as pundits.
“The history of human civilization is built on storytelling,” Amanpour said. “If the storytellers quit, the bad guys will win.”
In an age when we need them now more than ever, where are our storytellers?