The media has become a three ring circus
Complaining about the news media is a cliché these days. You've complained about it. I complained about it. Politicians always complain about it –– almost only when they have bad press. Bashing the media is perhaps the safest thing a person can do in our culture –– besides trashing terrorists, telemarketers and "those politicians." This sentiment is justified, considering how we live in a time when we need good journalism more than ever, yet we see the press cut corners, ask dumb questions and manufacture narratives.
Yet, in the chaotic stream of media idiocy, we still consume it like a drug. Some of our most well-informed peers, who are aware that political pundits are wastes of human flesh, still rationalize reasons why they watch opinionated men and women with messiah complexes screaming on their TV sets. Our friends will give reasons like "It's entertaining" and "I need to feel angry about things," pretty much conceding that the programming is not news but entertainment.
It is not just our peers. Our professors are always the first to take a punch at the media for focusing on distractions like Spears or Hilton, yet they will also make the same topical and inconsequential references in their own lectures. This election season, everyone is screaming for the press to talk about the issues, but we all accept the horse race coverage and feast on non-news like a pain killer.
People in the news media themselves also feel the industry is quickly rotting from within. They hate the exchange of depth for sensationalism. They lament over the media cutting back on local, state and international resources in order to maintain their national news coverage. They are aware that they are resorting to the lowest common denominator when they cut to live car chases and hostage situations. They know how formulaic the news reporting is when they cover hurricanes or scripted political events.
We now just need people in the media to hold a mirror up to themselves and have them see themselves as perpetrators rather than small accomplices.
I am reminded of a Q&A panel on C-SPAN where members of an audience asked questions to reporters about how they covered the Virginia Tech massacre. One of the younger panelists in particular had a lot to say about how inappropriately reporters behaved. She talked about how other story-hungry news teams were not sensitive to the students affected by the shooting. She complained about how intrusive the media was to the university community for shouting at crowds of mourning students asking for someone who was willing to provide a quote or recollection of the then-recent tragedy.
Yet the same panelist talked about how she dug up her stories after the shooting: by looking up the victims' profiles on Facebook to see who their classmates were. She rationalized looking up information that arguably was not meant for her by saying it was no different than using a phonebook, and for every handful of people who said "leave us alone!," there were those who were willing to share their story. Her reasoning continued with them pointing out her age and her ability to be less intrusive while intimately observing the community's behavior as if she herself was a student. Unethical? Maybe not too much, yet it pretty much treks into the same morally ambiguous behavior of "the media" –– an entity that she often allow herself to believe she was not part of. I do not want to single this reporter out in particular, but I think this is a true microcosm of what is happening in the industry when the newest reporters quickly embrace the dysfunctions of the modern news media rather than fixing them.
Tragedies are one thing, but our democratic processes are another beast. For anyone remotely using the American media to follow the current presidential campaign, it is another cliché to point out that anchors and pundits frame elections as a spectator sport for their audience rather than as crucial decisions. The art of playing along with the "who said what" game is more important than verifying if the accusation was accurate or bogus. Often, the convention for election coverage is to wait for an opponent to fight back at an absurd accusation rather than calling out the inaccuracy first.
Coverage of the presidential and vice presidential debates this year so far was clearly, for lack of a better word, bad. Seeing pundits ask whether a candidate successfully convinced media pundits to expect low expectations just shows the amount of narcissism of our news personalities. The whole debate expectations narrative just shows that the media's instinctive tendency is to frame the event from the perspectives of the political actors themselves rather than the voting population in general who has to evaluate them.
Enough complaints. Here's the solution. Turn off your darn TVs. Whether you made up your mind about the election or not, there is very little to gain from watching CNN, MSNBC or Fox News. If the media argues over the political effects of … the media, turn it off. If political coverage constantly re-airs a candidate's attack ad free of charge because of its so-called inherent newsworthiness, turn it off. If a news network uses their political coverage to cross-promote its sister network's unfunny comedy sketch show, turn it off. If news channels hire former political insiders whose prior job involves deceiving the same press, turn off the darn box already.
The networks are not much better either. Have you really ever seen a detailed report on the candidates' records and plans for a particular issue beyond the campaign rhetoric? Probably not. By watching the news media's poor coverage, you are only confirming it.
If you are thinking about watching the last debate on Wednesday, try PBS or C-SPAN, and turn the set right off before some talking head tries to override your opinion of the debate's victor. When reading about the debate the next day at the news stand, avoid commentary and garbage analysis and read only the fact check. Chances are your standard of victory is actually better than any spin doctor's.
It is very appropriate that the term "media" evolved from a plural noun to a singular noun, considering how homogeneously horrible the media still acts in today's information age. It will take hundreds of election cycles before someone steps up to their journalistic duties in our current climate. But the time is always right for citizens to step up and be citizens when picking our leaders. It's better to know better than to act better. Hold a mirror up to yourself.
Roger Sheng is a Rutgers College senior majoring in political science and journalism and media studies. His column "The Echo Chamber" runs on alternate Mondays.