That Which Entertains

This is not a rhetorical attack on the media. It’s not meant to be a self serving indictment of the media, but rather an appeal to our newspapers and especially our television news to renew their efforts to make a genuine contribution to our society. In this modern era of hyper-partisanship, when trust in government, trust in commerce and trust in each other are at historical lows, the fourth estate is needed more than ever.

Why do we need the media to change it’s approach and focus on how it presents news? It would be easy to point out the impact of pseudo-news right wing talk radio. It would be easy to point to the news-like Fox News. It would make sense to call out so many irresponsible members of the blogosphere. However, as bad as these examples are for our nation, I’m more concerned with the publications and television news sources that most of us would consider serious news.

We now live in the era of the 24 hour news cycle. We now have multiple 24 hour news channels. We have numerous online sources, blogs and commentaries, yet somehow we are less informed than ever. With so much time, money and effort spent on providing news, we receive remarkably little information.

As we look to our future, as we face the enormous and still growing problems of our present, we need to have the best possible elected officials and decision makers our nation can produce. In order to meet that goal we must have an informed electorate that can choose wisely when it goes to the polls. The media then, our news sources, have a huge role to play in the future direction of our nation.

What am I driving at? Let’s get specific. Take for example the ongoing healthcare debate. When this debate started, we heard all manner of baseless claims. We heard about death panels that never existed. We heard about a government takeover of healthcare that never manifested. We heard about so many things that were designed to get the worst among us out in the streets demeaning and threatening the weakest and the poorest among us. Day in and day out we heard about these myths. Day in and day out we saw video of enraged Americans protesting and demonstrating against these myths.

We never heard a thing about France, Italy, San Marino, Andorra, or Malta. You see these are the top 5 healthcare systems in the world according to the World Health Organization. In fact, we never heard a thing about the 36 nations that ranked higher than the US.

To bring it back to the topic of the media and news, it’s difficult to know if the healthcare bill we passed was good or bad. It’s hard to know if it will be a significant change or not. No one can say because we weren’t informed. As a nation we lost a valuable opportunity to learn about how other nations manage their healthcare systems. Say what you will about the politicians, but for certain our media let us down.

The debate and the politics raged on for over a year, but the process of informing the American public has yet to start. We had 52 weeks that our news outlets could have spent exploring the advantages and disadvantages of each of the top 36 nations. We could have spent the better part of a year coming to understand all 36 alternative approaches to healthcare. If we had spent a week focusing on each nation's healthcare system, we would have had 16 weeks left to harness our new understanding to evaluate the measures and the bill that was proposed here in our own country. We could have, as a nation, become much more expert on the subject of healthcare and we could have had an intelligent conversation that could have led to real, meaningful, beneficial change.

We did not.

Instead, we had 24 hour news cycles with constant repetition of images of President Obama depicted as Hitler, people bringing guns to rallies, and republican senators and congressman talking about death panels. We saw loops of republican senators and congressman holding up huge stacks of paper that no one could read or understand. We had cries of socialism in spite of the fact that the solution being proposed was a market based system. Perhaps if we had taken the time to learn before we started drawing pictures of Obama-Hitler, we might have been able to read and understand the healthcare bill. If we had focused on the reality rather than the rage, we might have come to understand how a failure to address our lagging healthcare system will make us less competitive with other nations around the world. If we had focused on the reality and not the rhetoric we might have come to understand how of all the factors contributing to our skyrocketing personal and national deficits, healthcare costs are the rocket engine pushing us skyward.

Now apply this model to any of the issues facing us. Imagine if we spent large portions of our news cycle understanding the deficit, entitlements, the wars, global climate change, or even jobs. We have the resources to inform. We have the tools to teach. We have the capacity to learn. We have a history of doing great things. But, we must have information. We must be informed. In fact, our founding fathers emphasized that our democracy depended upon an informed electorate. Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying:

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."

". . . whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right."

It’s easy to understand how spin and fiery debate are good for ratings. It’s easy to understand the low cost of publishing random tweets. It’s easy to understand the ratings derived from incendiary falsified O’Keefe and Breitbart videos. What is unclear is their value to us as a nation? How does this help us solve our problems and make critical decisions about the future of our nation?

But the media needs to do more than simply inform us. They need to do more than focus on the key issues and put together informative detailed coverage. They also need to develop a longer attention span. Beyond a lack of true information, we also fail to focus on key issues for the amount of time they deserve. The healthcare debate whose momentary gravity demanded we bring guns to rallies, now is barely discussed. Our media would benefit from moving beyond the buzz of the 24 hour news cycler to a more balanced approach of covering both long term stories of great import and news events of the day.

It’s clear that the voices on the right want to deny facts. It’s clear they want to suppress true understanding and individual thought. But it’s also clear that our nation has lost the better part of the last 30 years to these strategies and we’re starting to show signs of deterioration from our collective intellectual neglect.

This shouldn’t be a left issue or a right issue. We can still fight, we can still debate. But let’s do so over the same set of facts. When we talk about what the “American people want” let’s talk about the well informed American people not the intentionally dulled, misinformed American people who tried to defeat healthcare because Obama is the most radical leftist foodstamp socialist muslim fascist president from Kenya.

Throughout our history we have relied upon the military, the free market, the government's new deal and American ingenuity to overcome our greatest challenges. In our current struggle, only the media is equipped to defeat the armies of disinformation. In this fight, the truth will truly set us free.