Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Educators to Enemies

In recent days I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the presidential primaries. As an Obama fan, I must admit I’m feeling a bit crestfallen by the way things are going. But more than anything I’ve just been fascinated about how this whole thing is playing out. The news media of today isn’t your momma’s news media, and it seems to be playing a very different role than it has in the past. It seems to me that they’ve gone from reporting on the differences between the candidates to actively fomenting dissent among them.

It was pretty awful to watch this last debate, in which the would-be leaders of the country were directed to attack each other with questions like "Specifically, what are the issues where you, Senator Obama, and Senator Clinton have differed, where you think she has sounded or voted like a Republican?” Aw snap, thems fighting words, are they not? It also happened to be the first question of the debate.

The debate that followed was not about the issues, but about the ratings that conflict could generate. It was the first of it’s kind, a Democratic Presidential Berate. The media made our leaders dance, and they had at each other like attack dogs. Responding to that first question, Barack seemed hesitant, but that just made him look petulant when he did dig into the heels of his rival. Edwards, the trial terrier, was vicious and merciless. I’ll bet he scares small children. He certainly scared me. Kucinich, ever relaxed, just smiled.* The next day plenty was heard about how vicious the other candidates had been to Hillary, but I didn’t hear much mention of the fact that they’d been directly asked to do so.

I remember just a few years ago I used to get so upset about Fox news because of how they sensationalized everything. That plague seems to have spread pretty quickly, and all the news networks seem to have dumped their integrity for ratings. That’s sad, but I didn’t find it quite so disturbing until now. CNN’s doing the next debate, and they’re advertising it as if it were a boxing match, claiming that this time the gloves are gunna come off.

So far I’ve only mentioned the Democrats debate, but the last Republican Debate was hosted by Fox News. Not that there was a great deal of difference there. The Republicans spent all their time attacking Hillary too.
Fox didn’t seem too upset that the candidates weren’t focused on the issues, either. In fact, they often accepted Hillary insults in place of valid answers to questions. For instance Guliani was asked the question “on a lot of the social issues, like abortion and gay rights and gun control, that there's not much difference between you and Clinton. Is there?” He responded via rant on how much he dislikes Hillary Clinton. Bravo.

Question dodges don’t get you far in a real debate, but that’s an A+ on Fox News. And in all fairness, with a question like “There’s not much difference between you and this lady we all find intensely distasteful, is there?” what sort of answer could they have been hoping for?

Politicians have been dodging questions since the beginning of time, so responses like Mr. Guliani’s aren’t really so surprising, but debate questions that sound like they were written by Jerry Springer are. Oh, ha, Jerry used to be Mayor of Cincinnati didn’t he? I guess he’d be over-qualified to write these questions now, come to think of it. But you know what I mean – these questions were written by mobs of eager instigators, not news reporters.

Regardless of what you think of the candidates in the race, it’s hard not to think that the media isn’t doing their best to bring out the worst in our nation’s leaders. I’m saddened to see that they’re succeeding so well at it, but I wonder how it will work out in the longer term. Next election season, will candidates continue to play the networks games and walk knowingly to whatever ‘debate’ MSNBC sets up? Or will the candidates be more careful in setting the terms next time?

This seems to me like it’s setting some interesting historical precedents. I guess these are being set all the time, what with modern technology interfering, but the idea that this could be a trend that continues well into the future sends chills up my spine. A media that broadcasts Black Hawk Down and an actual war with the same goals in mind – ratings – is starting to scare me more and more.

*He also thickly criticized all the other candidates positions and the institution itself, but in his usual friendly manner.

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