The Digital Journalist
Substance Abuse
July 2007

by Peter Howe

During my teenage years my mother would look at my friends and declare in despair, "The trouble with you, Peter, is that you always let them bring you down to their level; you never bring them up to yours." This was a woman with a clearly aggrandized notion of her son's status; it was also only one trouble from a list of many that had my name next to them in her mind.

Unrealistic though my mother's assessment was, the principle had a certain ring of truth to it, as I was to discover later in life. The lowest common denominator seems to be one of the strongest forces in the universe, and in the last few years it has been the impetus behind much of the media in this country. What was once the purview of the tabloid news shows now appears regularly on Sixty Minutes, 20/20, 48 Hours, or any other show with a number in its title. Techniques that were used only by The National Enquirer, and to great effect, have now found their way into the investigative journalism departments of many of the nation’s more respectable news outlets. Cops, the mainstay of Court TV, not only deftly shows how boring the lives of most policemen are, but now the endless episodes have acquired the cachet of documentaries. In short, there has been a leveling out of the information industry, which wouldn't have been a bad thing if it weren't for the fact that, in compliance with my mother's dictum, the leveling was in a downward direction. To reduce your standards of taste is one thing, but to do the same to the level of accuracy in reporting and inquiry is wholly another.

I was recently reminded about the plummeting competency of many reporters and editors by one of their own. In a piece titled "Lies, Sighs and Politics" in The New York Times on June 8th of this year, Paul Krugman recalled the campaign of 2000, and the chilling reality that we may be in for a reprise in 2008 from the point of view of the coverage that it produces. His concern centered around the recent debates by the presidential candidates of both parties, and the way that the misinformation (aka, lies) that many of them put forward was never followed up upon by the men and women of the press. Krugman wrote: "As far as I can tell, no major news organization did any fact-checking of either debate. And post-debate analyses tended to be horse-race stuff mingled with theater criticism: assessments not of what the candidates said, but of how they 'came across.'"

A couple of years ago I wrote a book about the paparazzi. Although some of their stories are amazing I am not particularly interested in their exploits, but what does fascinate me is why we as a culture are obsessed with celebrity. There is nothing wrong with idle gossip about the foibles of a few overpaid entertainers, provided we don't apply the same standards to those whose role in our society is of more consequence. We get into real trouble when journalists cover Barak Obama in the same manner that they write about Paris Hilton, or should I say Inmate Number 9818783. One of the reasons that W got such an easy time early on in the media was that he was deemed to be the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with, as opposed to Al Gore, with whom you would probably rather drink lye than socialize. Speaking personally, I would much prefer that the president of my country was far too busy competently running affairs of state to ever consider having a cold one with me. The price we have paid for extending celebrity journalism into all our affairs is the reduction of debates into sound bites, and candidates into beings whose personal lives are much more interesting than their political philosophies. In the Style over Substance Department, John Edwards' $400 haircuts have received as many column inches as his health-care proposals, and we seem to know more about the amount of money Hillary Clinton has raised and the ditty she has chosen for her campaign theme song as we do about the platform upon which she's running. In this case, of course, it may be as much the fault of Clinton as the media.

What the press in America has let Bush get away with in the last six and a half years is astonishing. The lies went unchallenged; the arrogance was barely criticized, while at the same time the media was overly defensive about being the bearer of bad news. Another problem with an administration this opaque and a press equally compliant is that instead of genuine investigation into the chicanery in the White House we get loony-tunes conspiracy theories from the fringes of journalism, especially in the blogosphere. Do you remember in one of the television debates between Bush and Kerry, the television cameras did a shot from the back of the president that showed what appeared to be a small box between his shoulders and under his jacket? Instantly theories mushroomed on the Internet that Bush was wired, with Karl Rove giving him the correct answers to difficult questions (in Bush's case, almost any question falls into this category). The theories were supported by strong circumstantial evidence that, during a 90-minute press conference with Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, Bush knew what he was talking about. While on this face of it this is a compelling indication that something was afoot, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe discounted the possibility when he pointed out that Bush did so poorly in the first debate with Kerry that anyone on the other end of the wire would have been fired instantly. The end result was that we never found out what the strange lump in the president's back was, as far as I know.

Paul Krugman ends his piece by saying:

"For if there's one thing I hope we've learned from the calamity of the last six and a half years, it's that it matters who becomes president — and that listening to what candidates say about substantive issues offers a much better way to judge potential presidents than superficial character judgments. Mr. Bush's tax lies, not his surface amiability, were the true guide to how he would govern.

"And I don't know if this country can survive another four years of Bush-quality leadership."

Added to that I don't know if this country can survive another four years of the nation's news outlets treating politics as if it was another form of American Idol.

© Peter Howe
Contributing Editor