Monday, February 14, 2011

An Interview with Adlai Stevenson III, Part Two: The Role of the Media

Midway through our interview, Senator Stevenson spoke about the ways in which the mainstream media shortchanges the American people. While criticizing sound bite culture, as so many have before, his harshest words were for a mass media who, in his opinion, oversimplifies broader issues without taking the time to provide the full context to its audience. In his opinion, this is tantamount to complete irresponsibility. Then, perhaps qualifying his remarks somewhat, Stevenson conceded something very interesting.

"In a world of globalization," he acknowledged, "issues are often more complicated to explain. It didn't used to be that way."

Regarding the subject of the ongoing Egyptian Revolution, I recall the way it was initially reported to an American audience. Substantive details were few and far between. Confusion reigned as a result. All we knew was that something very important and substantial was happening, but we weren't exactly sure what that was, exactly. Experts in the region were consulted to provide some color commentary, but their remarks were regularly consigned to the fringes. It was tacitly assumed that we wouldn't have the patience or the time to wish to know the complete picture.

In The Black Book, his new memoir/political treatise, Senator Stevenson cites a recent study to support his claims.

A study of local television news coverage by the University of Wisconsin-Madison News Lab in 2007 showed clear evidence of this discrepancy. In an election year, thirty-six monitored Midwest stations devoted an average of 36 seconds in a typical 30 minute news program to election coverage. By contrast, advertising received more than 10 minutes, sports and weather received more than 7 minutes, government news received about a minute, and foreign policy received all of 23 seconds.

In a bygone era, America was more regional in orientation. Local newspapers devoted print and space to covering events which were pertinent to relatively small numbers of people. Radio, then television expanded national coverage, giving Americans the opportunity to identify more with country than with region. In today's Internet age, any person with a computer and a connection can read what has been reported by media outlets in every world region and within almost every country in the world. The industry has still not devised strategies to best disseminate and synthesize this massive amount of content to its viewers and listeners. Instead, it continues to extract bits and pieces of much larger topics in the hopes that less is more.

It is difficult to know what changed first. Were people forced to embrace a busy, hectic lifestyle where free time is at a premium, or did the medium of news openly encourage this attitude? Or, did one perhaps cater specifically to the limitations and demands of the other? Whatever is the case, this is still the reality in which we find ourselves. Furthermore, Americans distrust the press about as much as they distrust Congress these days. Yet, both still manage to take their seats, year in and year out. Stevenson cites a Harris poll taken in the 1970's wherein 25-30% of those surveyed stated that they had a great deal of confidence in in the press. This dislike has been widespread for a long time, it seems. By 2005, that number had shrunk considerably, registering now a paltry 12%. The Senator wryly points out that, in the more recent poll, only law firms were trusted less.

Stevenson is particularly critical of the way in which elections are presented by the media. In his words, they focus too much on "the game" and less upon substantive policy issues. Electioneering, to him, goes beyond public relations and should never be confused with a sporting event. Furthermore, he believes that candidates ought to do their part to provide information to a responsible press, after which the media should uphold its end of the bargain.

He writes,

In 1980, former Congressman John Anderson--a respected, eloquent, moderate Republican of Illinois--pledged a third party issue-oriented campaign for President. The idea was newsworthy until he started to spell out his positions on issues. The public heard little of his ideas--only that he had news conferences to explain them.

President Carter, in the closing days of his 1980 campaign for reelection, sought to explain his objectives for a second term in a prepared speech delivered in Texas. That is what the public at large heard--that he had objectives, not what they were. Leaving office, he was asked his greatest disappointments: "Iran and the press," he replied.

After that campaign year, one defeated candidate remarked of the media, "And then they complain that we did not discuss the issues." It has been downhill since then.

In a book that is peppered, deliberately, with frequently clever and wise sayings as it with commentary, the Senator concludes his chapter on the media by telling this story.

Mark Twain, then an editor of a small Missouri newspaper, was asked by a subscriber if a spider found in his paper was an omen of good or bad luck. He responded that finding a spider in the newspaper was neither good luck, nor bad. The spider was merely looking over the paper to find out which merchant was not advertising so that he could go to the store, spin his web across the door, and lead a life of undisturbed peace.

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