The message to the media might be one of beware, the public is watching


Mass mediaTHUNDER BAY – Editorial – The message to the media might be one of beware, the public is watching. During last night’s Republican Presidential Debate in the key primary state of South Carolina, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich went on the attack early. CNN host John King opened the evening’s debate asking Gingrich about an ABC News Report that his wife claimed he had asked her to have an “open marriage”. “To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine,” charged Speaker Gingrich. The Speaker received standing ovations from the audience.

American politics is often the scene of battles over the personal lives of the country’s political leaders. In many ways, the gloves came off in how the media reported on presidential politics after the Kennedy administration in the 1960s. The media often in the past had not reported personal failings in the leadership of the country. With the death of President Kennedy in 1963, that started to change.

Perhaps the standing ovation from the audience to Gingrich’s assertions on the media should come as a signal that things have gone too far. It used to be, fifty years ago, that the media would never report on the private lives of celebrities and politicians. The parties, the affairs, and the goings on were held as secrets that the media would never tell the public.

President John F. Kennedy, if he were running for office today would likely be gone in the blink of an eye as the public learned of his infidelity. With the assassination of President Kennedy, in many ways, perhaps it was the start of serious shifting within the media. News departments are often expensive to run. The gathering of news can be very costly, involving travel, and lots of hours of time. Contrast that to the reporting of celebrity news. Often on major American networks, there is a half hour of news followed by an hour long show featuring the latest happenings in Hollywood, and the music and entertainment industries.

As writer Stan Thompson shared, polling is an issue too. Thompson said, “Polls insulate reporters from the arduous, messy work of understanding and presenting people, events and issues. When subscribed by media, polls are fabricated news, part of a system that reduces participatory democracy to the ‘reality TV’ business model. The business logic is that if the results of elections are marketable news, why settle for just the civil ones? The more, the merrier! Pollsters can declare as many commercial elections as can be crammed into the ramp-up period before the civil vote”. Voters are in effect told, ahead of elections who is going to win, and who is going to lose.

It is however symtoms of a deeper problem. Often in the media, and often in the communications efforts of some government officials and agencies, there is a combined arrogance. Some in the media feel that their views are somehow just what the “great unwashed” need in order that they can live their lives. Some in government take similar attitudes. The number of politicians who, once elected seem to seek a disconnect from the people who elected them is a sign of an ailing democracy. Worse yet are government officials taking the approach that somehow they know and can dictate to the public what little information they want to share.

Over time, and with technology, people are able to gather their own information, and come to their own conclusions. People are no longer accepting that they be spoon feed the truth in drips and drops.

The problem for media today, and for politicians and officials, as well is that there no longer is control of the airwaves. Those seeking to invest the time, and dig into issues can find out far more than at any time in history. Today, through the Internet it is a far easier task to gather information and to examine it. Yet often it seems some in both the media and in government seek to keep control over information from the public. Now not to suggest that all information should be made public, but rather that often it seems that there is a desire to control information that doesn’t really rank as secret.

When governments, politicians, and especially the media as witnessed last night come under attack, it is the media not the public who suffer. That is not good for democracy.

As Saturday’s primary vote in South Carolina is counted, should Speaker Newt Gingrich win, it is likely that the message to the media might be one of beware, the public is watching.

James Murray
Chief Content Officer

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