Is today’s political journalism just ‘infotainment’?

In October 1958, Edward R. Murrow, never a stranger to controversy, delivered his “Wires and Lights in a Box” speech before the Radio-Television News Directors Association. In it, Murrow spoke of journalistic responsibility and warned of the dangers of commercialism in the news.

{mosads}”One of the basic troubles with radio and television in the news,” he cautioned, “is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news. … Upon occasion, economics and editorial judgment are in conflict. And there is no law which says that dollars will be defeated by duty.”

Murrow went on to add that television could “illuminate” or even inspire, but “only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference,” he said. “This weapon of television could be useful.”

One could argue that such a battle against ignorance has existed throughout human history. Scientists, artists and political reformers throughout the ages have been bedraggled by those who would rather cling to the safety of the status quo. Yet, since the advent of moveable type in the mid-1400s, the forces of erudition have had a powerful weapon to wield against those of ignorance: the media.

Murrow understood this as well as anyone. Yet, just imagine what the legendary reporter would think of today’s 24-hour news cycle, with its “infotainment” structure and its tendency to seek out the sensational over the informative. Murrow, of course, achieved his legendary status by taking on the witch-hunting Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) at the height of the Red Scare. He was not afraid to face the fire.

It was Murrow’s ardent belief in the decision-making capabilities of the American people that drove him. He saw it as the media’s responsibility to get the people the facts so that they could make informed decisions. In the battle against ignorance, the media was the vanguard.

But a weapon is only as effective as the ones who wield it. Media can be used for good, for evil or for naught. The responsibility that Murrow spoke of is a grave one, and must be treated as such. If we entrust it to those who, as Murrow noted, seek only to profit from it without regard to their moral duties, we will suffer the consequences of mass delusion.

For this reason, I can’t help becoming disgusted when I see people such as “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough or “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd treating the presidential election as if it’s some sort of horse race, evaluating the “moves” of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump from a political standpoint without considering them from an ethical one. In fact, following Trump’s disappearing act from the last Iowa debate, anyone watching CNN or MSNBC would’ve concluded nothing other than that they considered his anti-democratic, misogynistic actions a brilliant political strategy.

After Trump chickened out of the debate because a journalist he referred to as a “bimbo” had been “unfair” to him, most of the media were all too eager to become accomplices by covering Trump’s supposed “alternate event” and giving him the vainglorious attention he desired.

In an interview CNN was granted before Trump’s event that was shown after the debate, Brianna Keilar practically swooned over the bigoted demagogue, asking him exactly zero tough questions and thanking him repeatedly in the end as if he were Queen Victoria and she a simple peasant woman. In addition to seeing an interview wherein Trump was permitted to ramble on without ever truly answering a single difficult question, we were treated to repeated references to the fact that King Donald had been kind enough to allow Keilar on his exclusive private jet. At no point in the interview were the terms “anti-Muslim,” “misogynistic” or “anti-First Amendment” used.

More important, neither Keilar, nor CNN, nor CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, nor Chris Matthews on MSNBC, for that matter, seemed to grasp the fact that a candidate was essentially dismissing a journalist and setting his own terms for the type of questions he’s allowed to be asked. By viewing his actions purely in a political sense, they were able to avoid the more difficult task of actually informing the American people by questioning Trump on moral grounds. Their fear of him allowed him to dictate the terms of the discourse.

Days later, the Iowa caucus turned Trump into a dog with fleas. In truth, Iowa means very little, especially for someone like Trump who can fully self-finance his own campaign, if he so chose (despite his claims to the contrary, most of his funding has come from donors). Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) won eight delegates out of 2,472; that’s less than 1 percent of the 1,237 delegates necessary to take the nomination. Trump, meanwhile, won seven, as did Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). But did the media report this with any real sense of scale or perspective? Of course not. Instead, the networks acted as if Cruz had just won the World Series and slain Godzilla. The sad truth is that today’s media is loyal only to spectacle, and conflagrations attract more eyeballs than in-depth analysis.

Is this the best that we can do? Is this the sorry state that the American media have deteriorated into? Can a major presidential candidate dismiss the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause, advocate for the exclusion of an entire mass of people, consistently denigrate the opposite sex, speak with nothing but racist vitriol against our neighbor Mexico, and dictate the terms of our debates without ever truly being called to the carpet? Have political gamesmanship and ratings taken the place of responsible reporting? Will someone in the media ever turn to Trump (or the homophobic Cruz, for that matter) and, as Army counsel Joseph Welch said to Sen. McCarthy exactly three months after Murrow’s report, ask him, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Rosenfeld is an educator and historian who has done work for Scribner, Macmillan and Newsweek.

Tags 2016 presidential campaign Anderson Cooper Brianna Keilar Chris Matthews Chuck Todd Donald Trump Edward R. Murrow Joe Scarborough Journalism media

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