West Wing The Media's Mini-Truths

Barack Obama may be closer than ever to defeating Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic nomination, but the real loser of the election campaign is the American people. They have been betrayed by cynical journalists who have constantly opted for style over substance.
Von Gabor Steingart
With pundits like former Bush aide Karl Rove, who needs journalists?

With pundits like former Bush aide Karl Rove, who needs journalists?

Foto: AFP

Rudolf Augstein, the founding father of SPIEGEL, the magazine that I work for, once said that the good journalist is subject to no one -- only to his own prejudices and errors.

The right to make mistakes has been exercised extensively during this campaign, at times also by the author of this column. "All of those people who've been dreaming of America's first black president now have to slowly wake up. It'll happen one day, hopefully, but not in this election," it was claimed after Barack Obama's losses in New Hampshire and Nevada. The column was entitled "The End of the Obama Revolution." 

The chances that the next US president will be black and a Democrat are better than ever before in American history. The revolution continues -- even if the skepticism remains.

What we are talking about here, though, is not a series of mistakes. It's betrayal. During this election campaign, a large part of the American media has neglected to carefully follow the principles of the profession. In fact, some were about as loyal to those principles as Eliot Spitzer to his wife.

A journalist's twin points of references should be the real and the important. But for months the focus of the election coverage was on trivia. Every insignificant detail got blown out of proportion, with every chipmunk becoming a Godzilla. According to a report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, over 60 percent of election coverage by the US media has been focused on campaign strategies, tactics or personalities -- but not on actual political content.

Reporters focused the most attention on such pressing questions as whether Barack Obama was wearing an American flag lapel pin, whether John McCain had a mistress eight years ago or whether former first lady Hillary Clinton was incorrectly recalling her 1996 trip to Bosnia.

Clinton claimed to recall hearing sniper fire as her plane landed in Bosnia. In fact, as archive TV footage later showed, Clinton was actually greeted by a young girl who recited a poem on the tarmac. That may have been embarrassing for Hillary Clinton, but it is insignificant for voters.

Even the eccentric pastor from Obama's church, Jeremiah Wright, is not worth the fuss. "God damn America," he preached. So what? The priest at my Catholic church was a reactionary, while my class teacher was a communist. Perhaps the mad and the blind to the right and the left of our path through life are there simply to show us where the middle way is.

The American public has not only been misled during this election campaign, but has also been fed a constant stream of irrelevant information. In one of his novels, the British writer, essayist and journalist George Orwell invented the Ministry of Truths, which he called "minitruths," with which one would try to confuse the public with small parts of the truth that even when added up do not give the whole picture.

This is despite the fact that there is no shortage of relevant issues to discuss. The upcoming US presidential election should address issues of war, peace, and growing inequality created by the forces of globalization.

Many questions could be posed that are hard to beat in terms of drama. What would happen if the Democrats really were to withdraw the US Army from Iraq? How does Barack Obama plan to address the threat that the killing fields of Cambodia could be repeated in Basra and Baghdad? Does he have a plan or even an idea for dealing with the day after?

How do the Republicans plan to end the scandal of the uninsured? Some 47 million people in America now have no health insurance. Around 9 million have been added to that total during the seven years George W. Bush has been in power. This is the greatest market failure since the invention of modern capitalism.

But one cannot blame the journalists alone for the decline of journalism. Their importance has diminished more than in any other previous election. They now share newspaper pages and TV broadcasting time with people who call themselves strategists or consultants and who are either in the pay of a party now, or have been in the past.

Journalists and strategists deliver their commentaries, side by side and in harmony, on CNN and Fox News. Make way for Karl Rove, the architect of George W. Bush's two electoral victories, who is now under contract with Fox News, Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal. Raise the curtain for Dick Morris, once the closest adviser to Bill Clinton, who is a fixture on practically every TV channel. Cast the spotlight on Donna Brazile, who appears on CNN as a commentator on every election night -- the audience only learns in passing that she is actually a member of the exclusive Democratic National Committee and one of her party's superdelegates.

The job description of journalists and party strategists could hardly be more different. One is a seeker of truth, the other is a manipulator of reality. What these strategists offer the public may sound like analysis, but it is actually propaganda. It may say journalism on the tin, but the content is pure party tactics.

Morris continually criticizes Hillary Clinton. Donna Brazile promotes the Democrats. Rove talks up Bush's policies. And all three dish up large doses of what Orwell called Newspeak and doublethink.

For these strategists, reality is merely the raw material that they use to form whatever is useful for their candidate. They consider the love of truth to be nostalgia, and manipulating reality to be a valuable craft.

And there are more than a few journalists who are happily playing their role in the diminution of their profession. The once legendary White House Press Corps, which former President John F. Kennedy once half mocking, half respectfully described as a "thundering herd," now sees itself as part of a media amusement park.

Within the ranks of journalism's elite, there is an artificial hysteria that sells every halfway intelligent campaign ad as a sensation. Style triumphs over substance, which in the end reflects back on the journalists themselves. Reporters who claim that the decisive criterion of an election is whether the candidate is able to "inspire the American people" should not be surprised if similarly stiff demands are placed on them.

That may not be nice, but it's fair.

To reach the author and join the discussion, please visit GaborSteingart.com .

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