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Monday, June 04, 2007

Media Matters and Ours is Failing Us

Vivian Paige has an excellent post up about last night’s Democratic Presidential debates, in New Hampshire, complete with a chart displaying graphically the amount of talk time that each candidate was allotted by moderator Wolf Blitzer. The chart was compliments of Chris Dodd’s campaign. As Vivian points out:

Look - we all know that the MSM has decided that Obama, Clinton and Edwards are the only candidates worth hearing from but does it have to be so obvious? Can’t they at least pretend that the voters haven’t made that decision yet? After all, even the primaries are seven months away!

The positioning of the top three - with Clinton in the middle - at the podiums was a dead giveaway that this “debate” was not going to give much time to the other candidates. To me, that does a disservice to the viewers, the ones who will ultimately be making the decision.
Indeed, 20 minutes into the debate, my husband and I both checked our watches, distressed to realize that within that time period, only the top three contenders – Clinton, Obama, and Edwards had even been addressed with questions. The others present were rudely overlooked.

This is probably the most poorly conducted, biased debate I’ve ever seen. It even surpasses last month’s shameful League of Women Voters event, where Charlie Hall, running for Providence District supervisor, was first up to answer each question, giving incumbent Linda Smyth the advantage of always having the last word.

That unbalanced debate could, at least, be written off as local yokel hacks who got caught clumsily trying to stack the deck. It was simply an amateur night that ended up giving their favored candidate more embarrassment than help.

But this is the professional media, the folks who pride themselves on being the gatekeepers and the shapers of public perception.

Unlike the LWV, though, their purpose isn’t even political. In a media world driven increasingly by a search for the next great star rather than a substantive focus on issues, this was all about the horse race and the charisma kids in the top tier, not about really examining the issues that affect people’s lives.

In fact this post on Huffington Post, from long time Los Angeles Times reporter, Nancy Cleeland, shows the frustration of journalists who want to do good work in an era when publishers and corporate owners want to focus on the next scandal with Lindsay or Brittany. Here’s what she had to say about her departure from the Times.

After 10 years, hundreds of bylines and some of the best experiences of my professional life, I’m leaving the Los Angeles Times at the end of this month, along with 56 newsroom colleagues. We each have our reasons for taking the latest buyout offer from Chicago-based Tribune Company. In my case, the decision grew out of frustration with the paper’s coverage of working people and organized labor, and a sad realization that the situation won’t change anytime soon.

Los Angeles region is defined by gaping income disparities and an enormous pool of low-wage immigrant workers, many of whom are pulled north by lousy, unstable jobs. It’s also home to one of the most active and creative labor federations in the country. But you wouldn’t know any of that from reading a typical issue of the L.A. Times, in print or online. Increasingly anti-union in its editorial policy, and celebrity — and crime-focused in its news coverage, it ignores the economic discontent that is clearly reflected in ethnic publications such as La Opinion.Of course, I realize that revenues are plummeting and newsroom staffs are being cut across the country. But even in these tough financial times, it’s possible to shift priorities to make Southern California’s largest newspaper more relevant to the bulk of people who live here. Here’s one idea: Instead of hiring a “celebrity justice reporter,” now being sought for the Times website, why not develop a beat on economic justice? It might interest some of the millions of workers who draw hourly wages and are being squeezed by soaring rents, health care costs and debt loads.
And even in the political sphere, once respected reporters and pundits are more interested in chasing the next star than in discussing repeal of the alternate minimum tax, health care, outsourcing, immigration policy, or even an exit strategy for Iraq.

In fairness, all of the candidates, when given a chance to speak, did address these issues and they all had thoughtful solutions. They all came prepared to engage the audience even if the media often seemed to want to give only selected candidates the chance to do so. And Vivian is right on target that that approach does a disservice to the public.

It’s possible that the most creative solutions could come precisely from the second tier of candidates because they are the ones more likely to be thinking outside the normal political "inside the Beltway" box. But they were never given the time to develop their ideas fully in front of the audience.

We live in serious times but we no longer have a serious media. Unfortunately, today’s top journalists are like crows. They are very intelligent creatures, with short attention spans, and they are easily distracted by bright, shiny objects.

Don’t look for substance or service to the American people from them.

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