Hoping for a long and satisfying ride, I want to start my gig as a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com by answering, in part, a rhetorical question asked on this site last month by my new colleague James Warren. He wrote: "But I do wonder if cable TV news channels, amid wicked competition and in pursuit of entertaining fare, have blurred lines to the point that only a declining minority probably truly differentiates among fair-minded journalists, ideologically-driven pundits and even professional jokers dabbling in politics.
Back in Chicago and now a new columnist with The New York Times, Warren is tied too tight to the Beltway, entrenched too much among the East Coast's media elite, and has been there for too long, to realize how late he is with his question. It's already been asked and answered a thousand times; its gospel echoes each night on the airwaves and online. The lines between television news and entertainment haven't just been blurred; they have been obliterated by a terribly divisive and destructive mix: the cynicism and greed of television executives and the concomitant apathy, ignorance, and lack of curiosity on the part of the American people. Which came first? Even if you argue "the people" and not "the media" it still doesn't excuse the glee with which television news has embraced the fashionable at the expense of the important.
The proof is in the ratings. Everyone in America should watch "Frontline," for example; our nation would be far better off for it. But, instead, everyone in America watches American Idol." As a direct result, hundreds of millions of us can't name our Supreme Court Justices, or find America on a world map, or list all of the states of the Union (never mind their capitals). In this regard, our public schools have failed us. Our technology has seduced us. And our leaders have encouraged or just capitulated to the descent. We are devolving into a "Know Nothing" nation despite our unprecedented access to first-hand information about events and issues.
"Democracy demands wisdom" sounds great as a slogan but no has any relevance in a world where even the highly educated don't take the time to sort sizzle from steak. It's no wonder most of our politicians are vacuous and venal. They are being elected by people who are too busy or too bored or too lazy to do anything other than cup an ear for the loudest, cleverest, most dramatic sounds emitting from their televisions, computers or PDAs. Industry insiders often call this "noise" and imply that it's the "white" kind, on in the background but harmless to the health and welfare of everyday life. It is not. It is a deafening roar, America is listening to it (but only half of it, remember) and it is harming, not strengthening, our national interest.
Indeed, sadly, we have both the government and the news industry we deserve. Tens of millions of people now form their dogged (unfounded, hysterical, self-defeating, etc.) opinions about politics (and law and governance and history and science) based upon the sly words and dramatic performances of modern-day carnival barkers, false prophets and snake-oil salesmen like Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs and Bill O'Reilly and Nancy Grace. Like Sinclair Lewis' irrepressible Elmer Gantry, these charlatans all share the same cynical inside joke: The louder you scream, the more people will watch; the bigger the conspiracy you allege, the more people will believe it; the more outrage you offer up, the more passionate and prolonged will be the response. It's about entertainment, not news, and these people and many more are laughing at us all the way to the bank; the latest generation in a long line of American demagogues.
For example, Dobbs wasn't always the creepy hector he became at the end of his tenure at CNN. Once upon a time he was a respected titan of business news. But, like all evolutionary creatures, he learned how to adapt in order to survive. One of the many tangible answers to Warren's question is the sound of Dobbs' transformation over the years; from baritone on bonds to soprano on immigration. I don't blame him for doing it--look at how many millions and millions of dollars he earned from taking the low road? About as much as Nancy Grace has earned since she began shrieking at criminal defendants. Keith Olbermann understands this. That's why he adds the sizzle (Worst Person In The World) to whatever steak he offers.
Intellectual honesty and rigor, or reasoned, dispassionate analysis, is for wimps, public television and the occasional unscripted moment on the Sunday shows. This paradigm wouldn't have been tolerated by news executives even ten years ago. The media's wall separating Church (editorial) from State (corporate) was weakening back then. But it's virtually gone today. News executives embrace the theatrical without apparent shame. No wonder that reality-show-wannabes are doing all sorts of idiotic things these days to get on the news. They realize that everything now is in play; that the networks and cable outlets will cover stories that aren't news, so long as they get a rise out of their audiences.