In the wake of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, there’s been considerable talk about the role of the media as an instigator.
On the surface, this seems like a superficial argument. After all, do rap lyrics cause drive-by shootings? No. Did Marilyn Manson tell Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to shoot up Columbine High School? Of course not. Did Genghis Khan play his records backwards to inspire his massacres? Unlikely. Did Ted Bundy need porn to be a serial rapist and killer? No, though he made a scapegoat out of it. It’s stupid to blame someone’s actions on some bit of pop culture they consumed. Or really, anything else other than their own decisions and actions.
That said, however, I think there is something to be said for the influence of the media. And I’m torn on this. Like I said, I don’t go much for allegedly bad influences, especially as a premise for censorship. But the media is not envelope-pushing rock music; it has a very real effect on how we see the world around us. Rap may be the “Black CNN,” but CNN isn’t supposed to be white noise for gangsta wannabes.
For all of the sky-is-falling forecasts about traditional media, and the often-dismissed reputaton of new media, people still rely heavily on both as sources of information. Whether anyone admits it or not, the media carries authoritative weight. Some will say that’s changed since the advent of 24-hour cable news and the Internet. But it hasn’t.
Back in the day, most people got their news from Walter Cronkite or one of the other major TV or radio networks, which operated their news divisions at a loss, and/or a local (and usually independent) newspaper. Liberals, conservatives, moderates, libertarians and the politically apathetic might have differed on interpretation, but generally agreed on the facts that they got from the meat-and-potatoes journalism that ruled the day.
In recent decades, meat and potatoes gave way to TV dinners and fast food. At some point, most likely when 24-hour news channels made it necessary, entertainment and profit concerns entered the picture. And the line began to blur between editorial and tabloid content, and hard news.
What didn’t change is public perception of trust in the media. Sure, there is and always was criticism, but it generally comes from the idea that the media should tell us the truth. That we can and should be able to rely on what we hear. The problem is that we don’t agree on the truth anymore. And that’s because many media outlets have shirked that responsibility.
It used to be that sensational coverage and editorial writing were particular provinces of a newspaper or broadcast. You had to buy a tabloid, or flip to a mainstream newspaper’s editorial page, or wade through Mike Wallace, Morley Safer and Ed Bradley to get to Andy Rooney.
These days, some of the most incenidary personalities are linchpins of news networks’ lineups. People will tell you with a straight face that they get their news from Glenn Beck, or Rush Limbaugh, or Keith Olbermann. But you don’t get your news from them; you get commentary. And chances are, anyone who listens to these and similar pundits does so to hear what they want to hear. Which is fine, but that doesn’t make anyone truly informed in the absence of other sources.
But what’s sad is that the punditry regularly ranks among the highest-rated broadcasts these days. I can only hope that those who get a kick out of these commentators’ shenanigans are also working doses of real news into their noggins. Because the exchange of information frankly isn’t working as it should.
For all their bluster, Americans aren’t skeptical enough of the media. And when they are, it’s because they think the media is too liberal, conservative or whatever ideology they happen not to be. They don’t consider the real concerns. The need for ratings. Corporate influence. The blurred line between news, opinion and entertainment necessitated by profits. The qualifications (or lack thereof) of the person in front of the camera. Despite everything, there’s still a cachet of legitimacy that comes with writing for a major newspaper/website or appearing on a TV network.
And that’s where many media sources are dropping the ball on their own end. Journalism requires a commitment to the truth, built on solid reporting and fact-checking, conducted by those versed in media law and ethics. Those trusted to offer commentary should at the very least be informed, enlightened and responsible with the power they wield.
A former screaming morning-zoo DJ spewing alarming rhetoric about our country’s immediate future, all the while encouraging his viewers to buy and hoard gold and joking about poisoning Nancy Pelosi, violates that trust. A former tabloid-show anchor known for his hot temper, incidences of alleged sexual harassment and love of frivolous lawsuits who makes up glib nicknames for abortion doctors, who inflames hatred against immigrants and abortion doctors, should not be anyone’s No. 1 fount of enlightenment.
And yes, I’m singling out conservative pundits. Not all of them, of course, because are there lots of responsible ones, but all the ones I have issues with are conservative. “But what about Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Rachel Maddow, The Onion, etc.?” Well, all of those shows and publications are honest about their place (or lack thereof) as legit media. And none of them, as far as I know, attract an audience brimming with hatred and stoke that hatred.
As media consumers, we must harbor a healthy sense of diversity and skepticism. Likewise, the media has a responsibility to deliver hard news in a way that favors accuracy above all else, and its opinion element must be equally responsible in its commentary. Maybe then we wouldn’t have to read and watch coverage on all these shootings.