May 29th, 2010 16:16 EST
Obama Press Conference on BP Shows Sordid Underside of Journalism
When I was a kid in West Islip, New York, during World War II the children at our school used to line up to take turns hand-cranking ice cream. We had to transit from one kid to another as smoothly as possible.
Today`s news presentation reminds me of hand-cranking ice cream. Each anchor on television, each headline seems to say, Wait till you hear this, You`re not gonna believe this! The tone is always, Things are bad and they`re getting worse, whoopdeedoo! And the subtext is, If things aren`t bad enough, we`re gonna make them worse with our breathless delivery and smart-ass asides.
And so we get news served up with jitters. That`s how we`re marshaled for a war parade. A jittery nation is inclined to see war as a solution.
There has to be a bad guy. There has to be Republican vs. Democrat consequences. There has to a winner and a loser. There has to be a dire consequence on the one hand and a direr consequence on the other. The anchors and pundits are like racetrack touts. Issues become jockeying for position. Somebody has to be right and somebody wrong.
The logical consequence of reporting issues of vital concern to the republic in this way is stalemate. Pretending to inform us while actually jerking us around hardens the political arteries. Compromise is seen as wimpy; the important thing is to be self-righteous and score points. Winning is more important than serving the public.
Ignorance, then, is no longer the enemy. Low ratings are the enemy. It doesn`t matter what you say as long as it`s said in such a way as to fray our nerves and polarize us in our preconceptions.
This horse-race mentality encourages stampedes at Wal-Mart, extremism, and the overarching commercializing of the mind. It`s like bending statistics to preconceived conclusions. It can be done, it`s often done, but it`s dishonest. Information, when it`s treated as a commodity or a race horse, becomes fragmented. This way of presenting it discourages putting information together to form a larger picture. Discourse becomes impossible because information is shot at us rather than shared, and consequently we emulate the way we received the information by shooting it at someone else. Information then becomes ballistic.
When everything is seen as a lottery or a competition to score points, the good of the culture sinks from view and all that is left is hoopla and hype.
I couldn`t help thinking of that hand-cranked ice cream yesterday as I watched President Obama`s hour-long news conference. Here we had a thoughtful president whose answers tracked, a man in command of his facts, and yet the emphasis was on the bait in the questions of the press, which were invariably less informed and thoughtful than the President`s answers.
For eight years the commentariat churned out tomes of complaint about George W. Bush`s public utterances. The knock was that his answers didn`t track, he didn`t get his facts straight, and his demeanor might be described as, Look at how cute I am, look at how tough I am, look at how folksy I am. Whatever he said or didn`t say, the commentariat found it unworthy. Now we have a president who exhibits few of those failings, who confesses to mistakes, who admits not knowing something, and the press calls him weak and ineffectual.
The press doesn`t really like the kind of calming, thoughtful responses we got from Barack Obama yesterday because they are calming, because there wasn`t much to quarrel with and his responses didn`t promise the kind of controversies on which the press thrives. So we need to ask ourselves whether the press reflects us and our attitudes or whether it`s making markets for its toxic wares "wares, like those of convenience stores, that are hazardous to our well-being. Can there be decent journalism that is not namby-pamby and yet is not incitatory? Of course there can be. The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor do it every day. Whose interests are really represented by trash-`em, bash-`em journalism?
Is it the role of the press to be perverse? Yes, I think a case could be made for perversity as a virtue. But is it the role of a 21st Century press to keep on playing gotcha games? If society worries about the effect of winner-loser video games on children, what is the effect of these adolescent gotcha games on our political life?
Here we had a president whose sentences parsed, who eventually got around to addressing reporters` questions, who said I don`t know when he didn`t "and a few minutes later on CNN, David Gergen, an Ã©minence grise if ever there was one, said he thought the president didn`t seem in command, seemed shaky, didn`t project the right image. Oh come on! Was the right image a jut-jawed dissembler playing cute and blathering about a mission accomplished? Was the right image a sly Dick Cheney via Dashiell Hammett talking out of the side of his mouth like a gangster? Is truculence and bravado command and leadership? Are quiet, thoughtful men incapable of leadership? Does anybody remember the difference between the table-pounding of Nikita Kruschev and the deadly focus of Adlai Stevenson at the UN during the Cuban missile crisis?
Is the job of the media to pick nits, bait questions, wring out controversy, or is it their job to inquire, to encourage discourse, and to bring to bear the very best a society has within itself on the issues confronting us? I don`t have the answers, but I think the question is worth asking.
I think, unlike Mr. Gergen, that yesterday`s press conference was a disgrace for the press and a true glimpse at a man trying as best he can to wrestle with the issues and lead us to solutions.
What is the alternative? Mugging for the camera? Playing fast and loose with the facts? Lying? That is what dictators do. Is it what we want? Is it what our corporations want? Dictators, God knows, are easier to deal with than corrupt congresses and inconvenient democracy.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latte first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers New review of Far from Algiers
Artists Hill, Literal Latte fiction first prize
Djelloul Marbrook Blog
His mother`s art: www.juanitaguccione.com His aunt`s art: www.irenericepereira.com