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Where have you gone, Walter Cronkite?

John Everett | Thursday, January 17, 2008

Last week Stephen Colbert, in his typical offhand manner, made one of the most trenchant observations on the manner in which this year’s presidential campaign is being conducted. Discussing the off-putting “wait for Florida” strategy of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Colbert speculated that Giuliani would govern in a similar fashion, letting the terrorists win a few rounds to build up their confidence before sweeping in to take the day.

What Colbert’s witticism points to is the growing trend, especially in the realm of the three giant 24-hour cable news networks, of viewing the electoral process in this country as a game. Giuliani’s large-state strategy is merely one permutation of ways in which candidates for the president of all 50 United States, with the media giddily tagging along for the ride, have thwarted and neglected the mission of campaigning to all the people of those 50 states in favor of gaming the system, showcasing and being hugely rewarded for skills which have little – if anything – to do with the awesome responsibilities of governing this nation.

The greatest problem resulting from a campaign structure which so easily invites dodges and misdirection is that the media become more interested in the gamesmanship than the game. Aside from the possible exceptions of Senator John McCain’s well-publicized collaboration with Ted Kennedy on illegal immigration and Mike Huckabee’s oddly-intriguing support of the Fair Tax, no issues have really garnered traction in the primary election coverage.

MSNBC might be the worst offender of the three major networks. After Iowa, I suggested that they change the station’s acronym to represent “Must Say Nothing Besides Change.” The network’s talking heads spent hour after hour reiterating how each campaign had made use of the desire for change, how Hillary Clinton had perhaps erred in Iowa by trying to make herself out as a “change agent,” when most voters really saw Barack Obama as the apparent true candidate of change. What was lost in the discussion was any sense of what was going to be changed, why change was necessary, and how one candidate’s version of change would be different from any other candidate’s.

The core of the problem is lazy journalism. Chris Matthews is not really interested in the economy, or healthcare, or anything really, because he doesn’t find those things fun. Elections are fun for him for the same reasons they are alienating to an increasing portion of Americans. Matthews laughs at negative attack ads that torture logic to the breaking point. He smiles at the underhanded tactics employed with virtuoso precision by Hillary Clinton, wherein campaign staff members make the less dignified attacks on the opposition, such as bringing up Barack Obama’s drug use or the idea that Obama’s support is a symptom of white guilt, giving the candidate herself distance from these unsavory remarks. Meanwhile, I doubt Matthews, or Brit Hume, or Anderson Cooper with his “Best Political Team on Television” even knows what Mitt Romney thinks about anything. I mean, of course, what Mitt Romney thinks now, not what he may have thought yesterday, which could be wildly different.

The sad thing is that the proliferation of news on television has somehow, almost inexplicably, led to the public being less well-informed about the world around it. There is so much time to fill on these networks, and yet we get the same people talking about the same few things over and over again, with the election and its intrigues taking over this year from missing white teenagers and murdered wives. In all this coverage, there is so little that could pass muster as true journalism or reporting as to be funny if the stakes weren’t the identity of the leader of the free world. Arbitrarily assigning blame for the discrepancy between the exit polls and the actual results in New Hampshire is not reporting, it is guessing. Crediting Hillary Clinton’s rise to her tearing up mildly at a rally is baseless and uninformative, the definition of the antithesis of news.

Instead of having campaign staff members on to disingenuously “analyze” the election process or defend their candidate’s decision on which states and voters to ignore, the news networks could have people on to discuss the actual positions the candidates have. I would like to see leading economists on the air discussing the advantages and disadvantages of the Fair Tax. I want national security experts talking about Iraq, and whether we can end the war, as many Democratic candidates want to, or whether we may be there for 100 years or more.

I understand that there are avenues for me to discern this information on my own, through the Internet or elsewhere. I humbly submit that I am ashamed of my own lack of knowledge on certain topics, and while I am the most responsible for this, I do believe that there is a tacit social contract being largely ignored by the news media to actually report facts, not speculation. We in America need our news media to rise to the level of seriousness we would like to see in the campaign itself.

John Everett is a senior English major. He is thought to be somewhere between 21 and 45 years of age. He is armed only with a sharp wit and is considered cantankerous. If you have any information regarding his whereabouts, please contact [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.