The Philadelphia Debate and Big Media’s Dumbing Down of Americans
There is a lot of talk on and off the ‘net about the ABC News Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton debate a couple nights ago in Philadelphia, the last debate before the important, but probably not critical, Pennsylvania primary now just four days away. The consensus at the progressive political sites I frequent — and in the nearly 20,000 (at this writing) comments about the debate at ABCNews.com — is the questions chosen by moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos did not address most of the issues of pressing concern to ordinary Pennsylvanians and their fellow Americans. Furthermore, the consensus is most of the questionable questions, if you will, were directed at Obama. “Appalling”, “degrading”, “debacle”, “execrable”, and “tabloid” are among the common choice words debate viewers have used to describe it at ABCNews.com.
Here is a sampling of blog posts and debate reviews critical of ABC’s handling of the debate:
- Sweet Jesus, I Hate Charlie Gibson Democratic Debate Wrap-up
by Eli (Firedoglake)
- An open letter to Will Bunch and George Stephanopoulos by Philadelphia Daily News journalist Will Bunch (Attytood)
- In Pa. Debate, The Clear Loser Is ABC by Washington Post columnist Tom Shales
I agree with these criticisms. Some organizations — MoveOn.org and the non-partisan Free Press — have started campaigns to formalize public displeasure with ABC News. I’ve lent my name to these campaigns and I encourage you to join me.
So what’s going on here?
I’ll give you my opinion — and it’s shared by many. First, though, I want to provide a bit of historical background:
Traditional mass media in the US is owned by a handful of media conglomerates — Disney (ABC), General Electric (NBC), Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. (FOX networks, Wall Street Journal), Time Warner (CNN, AOL, Time, TBS) and Sumner Redstone’s Viacom/CBS (CBS, MTV, BET, The CW). These gigantic, exceedingly profitable companies have received favorable treatment from the US government. In particular, they greatly benefited from the 1987 abolition of the FCC Fairness Doctrine and the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The former removed their burden of providing opposing points of view. The latter gave them license to increase and consolidate media holdings.
As the media conglomerates have benefited from the favorable government treatment, so too have their executives. Over the last 30-some years in the US there has been a widening of the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. I suspect big media is one of the industries at the forefront of this trend.
There is no doubt big media executives have an economic interest in producing content offerings that reinforce the status quo.
My opinion is media conglomerates view Obama’s candidacy as a threat to the status quo. I feel they think their best strategy for maintaining the status quo and along with it, their dominance and favored treatment, is to try to dumb down Americans.
Hence they serve the public a diet of fluff — “reality” shows, American idols, and political coverage that spotlights the trivial — bowling scores and flag lapel pins — and indulges in what I’ll call gaffespotting — for example, beating to death the Reverend Wright and “bitter” remark controversies — while giving the short shrift to substantive policy issues, like the economy, global warming, health care, the occupation of Iraq, our children’s education, and food and water supplies.
I see ABC’s Philadelphia debate coverage as yet another serving of fluff aimed at dumbing down Americans and thereby minimizing Obama’s threat to the status quo.
Make no mistake, on the Democratic side, Clinton is the establishment candidate. She is one of the five leaders of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) wing of the party, the side that gave us President Bill. Of the two Democratic candidates, she is the more hawkish, good for the military-industrial complex President Eisenhower warned Americans about in his farewell address. Given the support for Clinton’s candidacy by big business (including big media), she is more likely of the two Democratic candidates to give the payback to campaign donors that would serve to reinforce the status quo.
So it’s no wonder Gibson and Stephanopoulos had Obama in their sights. In fact, supporting Clinton is a “two-fer” for big media: Not only would she be more likely than Obama as president to support policies reinforcing the status quo, she would also be a more likely loser in the general election to John McCain. People can’t stand her! Talk about reinforcing the status quo … a McCain presidency would just about lock it in.
The good news, judging by the reaction to the debate, is ABC News may have jumped the shark by piling on too big a serving of fluff.
I hope so, but there’s not much reason for optimism.
You see, media executives would say the programming I’m calling fluff is “entertainment”. Providing the most compelling entertainment, they would insist, is their surest path to meeting the profitability expectations of their shareholders. But there is a difference between entertainment and news, isn’t there? There certainly should be. If big media isn’t willing to provide substantive news and/or maintain a distinction between entertainment and news programming, government needs to intervene. A great first step would be reinstituting the Fairness Doctrine.
Add to big media’s willful disregard for their reporting responsibilities and economic incentive to favor fluff at the expense of substance, the unfortunate fact that Americans are already pretty dumbed down. Big media really doesn’t have to try very hard. Decades ago American schools stopped teaching civics, so many young people don’t get educated in their responsibilities as citizens. Education standards in general have fallen. Public education has misplaced priorities. “No Child Left Behind” is a failure. And nowadays there is so much media, including, alas, the ‘net, that many Americans have become addicted to frivolous entertainment.
I’m not sure Obama is truly a threat to the status quo, by the way, but I do support his candidacy. I do worry that as his nomination becomes more certain, if he becomes perceived as too much of a threat to the status quo, “something bad” may happen to him, eliminating his candidacy and handing the nomination to Clinton. I would honestly not be surprised were that to happen. (Remember how the assassination of RFK in June 1968 threw the race for that year’s Democratic presidential nomination wide open?)
What’s more likely is that Obama will win the nomination (not without an extraordinary fight) and the Republican noise machine, with big media abetting them, will be just successful enough with their gaffespotting, to dissuade enough would-be Obama voters to prevent him from winning in November. That would be tragic.
I want to take this opportunity, without going off topic, to introduce you to a fine writer, “Hunter,” a contributor to Daily Kos, the leading progressive blog. Hunter (real name Michael Lazzaro), can really turn a phrase. I think you’ll be impressed if you give him a chance. A good starting point for Hunter newbies would be his post critical of ABC’s handling of the Philadelphia debate.
A couple of caveats:
- Hunter isn’t the most concise of writers. Many of his posts are long.
- For the uninitiated, Daily Kos can be an incredible time-sink for followers of progressive politics. It’s not a traditional blog; it has a lot more content. New posts occur frequently due to DK’s large roster of contributing writers, its “frontpagers,” whose numbers include Hunter. Plus there are “diaries,” which are analogous to forum or message board posts in that any registered user can post them. Add to all this the high number of comments generated by many posts and diaries. Watch out. Don’t get sucked in — unless you’re sure you really want to be.