Were the subject matter not so serious, the media outcry against the frenzy surrounding Pastor Terry Jones would not only be laughable but high comedy. It would be worthy of one of those British movies starring Alec Guinness or Peter Sellers, films like “The Man in the White Suit,” “The Lady Killers,” or “The Mouse That Roared.”
Think of it: an obscure, pastor with a congregation of 50 members announces that he will burn copies of the Koran on 9/11. The drooling media rushes to his side, setting up a garden of microphones to hear his rhetoric; he denounces Islam with Moses-like passion; the media spreads his words like wildfire; radical Muslims threaten dire consequences; General Petraeus and the Secretary of Defense intervene; and the pastor backs down, sinking slowly back into the swamps of Florida, soon to be forgotten.
The irony of course is that the media—television, newspapers, the internet—created the frenzy and now condemn it from the Olympian heights where opinion makers dwell. If these media minions were stockbrokers, they were they would be prosecuted for a pump-and-dump scheme. Eliot Spitzer would have nailed them long ago.
I guess we can blame it on the globalization not only of economics but also of news. And with cable news thirsting 24 hours a day for news—any news apparently—almost any yahoo with an outrageous idea can get his mug on TV and be seen all over the world.
What happened to dignity and restraint in the media? There was a time when editors would have looked at Pastor Jones’s nonsensical strutting and decided that it did not deserve a place on their pages or airtime. Of course, now we have the internet, where anybody can spread ideas and rumors with lightning speed and few or no consequences if they are incorrect or malicious, as so often is the case. Newspapers and television must feel they must compete with the internet. Not anything goes, but it’s getting there.
Many decades ago, when I looked up to The New York Times, the word was that its publisher appeared in the newsroom one day to seek reassurance that a newsworthy celebrity story (about Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe, as I recall) would not be overplayed on the front page. I was a fledgling newsman then and understood that there were restraints. That’s the way it was and the way it was supposed to be. I could accept it when I was chewed out for putting on the front page of the Saturday edition a story about the famous fan dancer Lili St. Cyr with a modest (by today’s standards) photo.
Beyond restraint, however, was the idea of objective reporting. Just the facts, Ma’am. I understood early on that ripping any event out of the fabric of daily life was itself a distortion, but still the idea was to merely tell the facts and let the reader decide what it all meant. Opinion pieces were labeled as such.
Perhaps real objectivity was an illusion, but the press did its best. Then came advocacy journalism. It was born in the Sixties amidst the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. It culminated in the 1968 worldwide revolution (a fascinating era worth serious study). Suddenly it was all right for reporters and editors to have agendas. After all, the public needed to be led to Truth and Justice. They were incapable of finding them on their own.
No doubt some worthy goals were achieved with the help of advocacy journalism, but it is equally clear that something important was lost. Reporters started calling themselves journalists, and as they increasingly became better educated, they developed a tendency to look down on their readers.
Unfortunately, along with the condescension, the sense that publishing and broadcasting were dignified professions with a duty to balance the news and prevent charlatans from stealing the spotlight began to ebb.
We seem to have arrived at a state where the media, when it is not seeking to impose its own social and political agenda on a naïve public, is pandering to the basest emotions of the “unwashed masses.” Look at the newspaper classified ads these days. The internet, with its Craigslist goodies, leads the way. At least the newspapers and TV stations in their news departments attempt to check their facts. And there are pockets of responsible journalism, including the Livingston County papers. One can only wish them luck and perseverance.
None of this is to suggest that anybody should put the media in a straitjacket (though the thought is tempting). These feeding frenzies are a price we pay for freedom of speech. We probably err on the side of too much freedom, but the other side of the coin is a scary proposition. Whose idea of truth and dignity should prevail?
The answer, I believe, is in education of the public, and that has to start in our schools. First of all, our teachers must learn that their political views have no place in the classroom. They are not there to shape young minds to their liberal or conservative ways of thinking.
The job of teachers at any level, aside from reading, writing, and arithmetic, is to teach our children how to think. That includes not only how to evaluate advertising so as to make judgments about the emotions ads evoke, but also how to apply that same critical thinking to the news media. How did this story get so big? Is it really worth all this attention? Did the editor or anchor choose this story for a partisan reason? What viewpoint does this news outlet have and how does it influence its choice of stories and the words used?
(Well do I recall that when George Romney, Mitt’s dad, was running for Michigan governor, my employer’s headlines always spoke of a “Crusade,” while the Democrat was running only a “campaign.”).
Pastor Jones will soon sink into oblivion, and the media will so endow someone else with his or her 15 minutes of fame. Or a Mel Gibson or Britney Spears will stumble or fall and the media wolves will move in.
So it goes. Tune in a 11.