Media critic Eric Boehlert recently summed it up, "Virtually all the corporate press does these days is shallow, polling-based horse-race coverage, and now it can't even get that right." We've all had it with the way elections are covered. We've had it with vapid television news. And we've had it with Groundhog Day-like mea culpas.
Mainstream media -- especially television -- is like an alcoholic that keeps binging, repenting, swearing sobriety, and returning to the bottle. Problem is, it's the American public that's getting poisoned by their lethal stew of horse-race election analysis, celebrity gossip and soundbite coverage. We go to the voting booth -- a right that people fought and died for -- knowing very little about what the candidates actually stand for. And you can forget about any information on candidates like Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul, whom the press has shut out of the debate -- literally.
While Wolf Blitzer is throwing softballs at another candidate, Bill O'Reilly is blaming every problem on liberals, and your local news anchor is reporting on a car wreck, we are left without a clue about the issues that count. We don't know if the president's "surge" in Iraq is actually working. Or if the recent skirmish between U.S. warships and Iranian speedboats is a real incident or a Pentagon PR stunt. And what are the real implications of China's $1.4 trillion trade surplus that increases by $1 billion every day? Or what important decision was made by your City Council or school board last night?
Before you shake your head and say that TV doesn't matter in the age of the Internet, consider this: According to a report recently released by the Pew Research Center, local TV stations remain the No. 1 source of presidential election news. Cable TV news is second; network TV news is third. TV continues to completely dominate as the opinion leader in American politics.
But at some point you need to stop throwing your remote at the TV. Going outside and yelling that you're "fed up and you're not going to take it anymore" isn't working, folks. It's time to understand what's really wrong with the media and what's really needed to fix it. One word: profits.
You can dress up a cash cow and make it look like a news operation, but at the end of the day, they're milking the information lifeline that nurtures our democracy.
TV newsrooms are not run by journalists. They are run by businesspeople that operate with a simple formula. Cut out expensive-to-produce investigative journalism, documentaries or long interviews. Get a couple of talking heads to yell at each other and create good "theater." Pretend that a blue dog Democrat and a far-right Republican represent the range of debate and "fairness." And of course, keep moving to the latest breaking news -- celebrity or criminal (or preferably both) -- leaving out any important context or deep inquiry.
After all, why spend time and money reporting on the issues when you can boost the bottom line by making the candidates pay top dollar for access to voters? TV stations sold more than $50 million in campaign and "issue" ads in Iowa last year, according to TNS Media Intelligence. In 2004, Iowa spending was around $9 million. The same report said that U.S. spending on campaign and issue ads for all current races -- presidential and others -- reached $715 million by the end of 2007. That's serious money.
It's nauseating when you think about it. Elections -- the centerpiece of democracy -- have become so steeped in money from special interests and the wealthy that the constitutional notion of one person, one vote has become a historic footnote.
The only solace is that we may have finally reached a moment of clarity. We finally see why there is still a giant tax loophole that allows private equity executives to game the system out of an estimated $12 billion per year. We see why Congress can't pass reasonable automobile fuel efficiency standards, while the icecaps melt and natural disasters escalate. We see why the middle class continue their slide into poverty, as the disparity between rich and poor grows to levels not seen since before the Depression. And why there are 47 million Americans without health insurance.
These facts are not merely the result of an abominable administration. I wish it were that simple. It is a lethal brew of profoundly broken electoral and media systems that must be fundamentally reformed -- and fast.
For media, that means rolling back ownership consolidation, so that TV and radio stations and newspapers are owned by people who represent the broad diversity of America and live in the communities they serve. It means strengthening non-commercial media outlets like PBS, NPR, low power radio and community television channels. It means investing in universal, affordable Internet access and breaking the corporate bottleneck on distribution, so that any Web site can have the reach of a TV or radio network.
It means creating a media that provides every American with a megaphone. It means reclaiming a truly free press.