President Biden gave a prime-time speech last night about the perils of election-denial and political violence. It was carried on the major cable outlets, including Fox, but the major broadcast networks went ahead with their regular commercial programming because, apparently, making money and ratings is more important, and c’mon, he’s been carrying on about that since whenever. According to the networks, America would rather watch “Bob [hearts] Abishola” or the World Series.
I’m thinking that their excuse for this dereliction of duty is that if the electorate of America wanted to hear the president talk yet again about the rise of Fascism in our country, they know where the remote is and what buttons to push to watch it. Meanwhile, there’s tampons and floor wax to sell and they have stockholders who think the news division is boring. And that’s what happens when a corporation decides that it’s more important to make money than keep what’s passing for the democratic process from coming apart before our very eyes. But when it does, they’ll be there to cover it and have their Very Serious Pundits wonder why no one was paying attention.
Age has granted me the ability to remember when broadcast journalism was taken seriously by both the companies that produced it and the people who watched it. Now it has become a part of the entertainment division, and the people they put on the screen are chosen not for their background in journalism and understanding of the subject but their looks and smiles. The fact that the whack-job Republican candidate for governor of Arizona went from the anchor desk to the campaign trail without so much as a wink at Edward R. Murrow or even Barbara Walters tells you everything you need to know about the state of reporting today.
The fault, dear reader, is not all at the feet of the TV nor the short attention span of the watchers. The power of social media and the ability to read the Wall Street Journal with one hand and hold a coffee cup in the other while riding the Metro has made it so that what’s news and what’s important is diluted down to a scrolled-by sentence on a screen the size of a dollar bill. Easy access has turned something valuable and necessary into the journalistic equivalent of the salad bar at Golden Corral, and few people realize that what they are missing may be the end of way of life that gave them the freedom to choose between chicken salad and pasta: it’s all the same noise and empty calories.
When Tip O’Neill observed that all politics is local, he wasn’t saying it’s a good thing. It’s the shortsightedness that took over, and John F. Kennedy’s exhortation to “ask not what your country can do for you” became “what’s in it for me.” Yeah, a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body has been wiped out, but have you seen how much gas is going for these days? Sure, I believe in a good education, but if that neighbor kid insists on dressing funny, my world is falling apart. No wonder people don’t care about global warming or the rising sea levels; they don’t live in the desert or near the coast, but leave my gun alone.
Journalism, or the lack of it, isn’t solely to blame, nor is the ability to carry the world in your pocket. We still have the ability to reach out and help others beyond our neighborhood and do good things, and we’ve done it. We still have the ability and the means to do the right things and preserve what’s passing for the American idea. Then again, as Bobby Cramer said, hope is my greatest weakness.