I’m writing this on election day and I’d like to indulge in a small rant.
The First Amendment, that wonderful compendium, guarantees us Freedom of the Press. On a fairly regular basis, we are assured (by the press) that the very existence of our democracy depends on that freedom. That our free press is the watchdog of government, protecting us from the evil urges of those who would steal away our rights. Our media are the ones who make sure our government tells the truth. It is their job, as it has been for the last couple of hundred years, to keep the government honest.
Maybe so…but maybe not so much.
Let’s look at television news. With the newspapers fading away, it is television that has become the primary source of information for most people. It’s now split into the older network news and the newer cable outlets, but they share some of the same problems.
I could (as my friends will tell you) go on and on about how the current crop of news shows provide platforms for talking heads who just come on and lie in their teeth. (It’s euphemistically called “spin.”) And I could rant about how the moderators, who know their guests are perpetrating frauds on the public, are so afraid of losing their all-important access that they never challenge the gross inaccuracies of their guests. De facto, they become accessories to the process of misleading the public.
The lust for “access” to news sources, and the problems it creates, deserves a rant of its own. I think it is fairly clear that the talking heads need access to the media outlets more than the media needs access to them. But for some reason the media seems to think if they challenge their sources to tell the truth the talking heads would refuse to come on their shows.
But that’s not what I want to rant about. Instead, in this election time, what I want to rant about is the cozy and incestuously elitist attitude that both sides share. George Bernard Shaw once said that all professions are conspiracies against the laity. We know why the pundits lie. We know why the politicians lie. The question is, why do our “watchdogs” think it is OK to let them lie? Why do they aid and abet the process? Why do they allow the false ads and the dishonest arguments to go almost entirely unchallenged?
In short, why do they allow our elections to be fought on specious grounds? Access is one problem, but I think there is a deeper one.
I used to enjoy watching a TV show called This Week with David Brinkley. It featured Washington press corps members reviewing the week’s events. I particularly enjoyed listening to Cokie Roberts. Having been brought up in politics, her insider’s perspective was often especially illuminating.
However, I found one habit she had really irritating: Whenever the topic was some underhanded political tactic, Cokie could be relied upon to comment, “Oh well, that the way the game is played.”
Another character who likes to use that phrase is the person with arguably the most annoying manners on cable, Chris Matthews. About politics, he is incredibly knowledgeable. He is one of those people who fell in love with politics as a child. He can quote statistics on practically every election since. But, as the name of his show, Hardball tells you, it is the gamesmanship of politics that really fascinates him. His own dismissal of the world of dirty tricks is, “But that’s just hardball politics.”
How do you explain to someone that politics is not just a game? That elections are not games? Above all, how do you explain to them that all this is not their game? That the media are not supposed to be on the inside, helping to cheat the laity?
I’ve tried to imagine what I’d say to wake them up if I ever met one of these good folks, and here’s the best I’ve come up with:
Imagine that you are in the hospital. You are dying. If you don’t get a transfusion, you will certainly die. Unfortunately, you have AB Negative blood, the rarest type, and there is only one unit of AB Negative in the entire city. Your doctor locates it and has it rushed over in a special ambulance.
When it arrives at the hospital, he sends two orderlies down to meet the ambulance and bring it up to save you. But when they get it and bring it upstairs, the orderlies won’t give it to him. Instead, they play a game of Keep-Away, tossing it over his head, from one to the other, as he desperately tries to catch it.
Finally, one of them looks over at you and sees that your are sobbing. He says, “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you see that it’s just a game?”
And you say, “Not to me, it isn’t. That’s my life’s blood you’re playing with.”