Gotcha Politics and Its Journalistic Enablers

After years of attack dog politics, the American people may not be able to let go of constant invectives and dueling gotchas. The latest example is the case of Illinois’s corrupt Governor Rod R. Blagojevich. His crimes seem real enough and – should he be convicted of the alleged wrongdoings – he deserves punishment for his malfeasance. Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has laid out the charges in clear terms, and has also been unambiguous about the president-elect’s lack of involvement.

Yet in news cycle after news cycle, the drumbeat continues about a “shadow” over the Obama presidency and about “distractions” that are frustrating the incoming president’s preparations to govern the nation on January 20. The political opposition takes it from there, attacking the incoming president for not saying enough, for a lack of transparency, or simply for shady behavior indistinct from the shady behavior that started the process.

Who casts these shadows? Who has witnessed a “distracted” President-elect Obama unable to fill his cabinet posts? It feels trite to say.

I am a strict defender of the media’s place in the overall checks and balances of a democratic society, but
the media are responsible. The 24-hour news cycle has had a definitively corrosive effect, in which even the most innocuous of events can rise to the level of Breaking News and every public scandal, however meaningless, is treated as the second coming of Watergate.

Reporters on cable news channels often replace interviewing with a series of leading questions that bully the respondents into the answers they were seeking in the first place. Actually, many reporters taking positions are not reporters at all, but op-ed columnists or commentators, and should be labeled as such. There is nothing wrong with having opinions and sharing them with whoever will listen, but dressing them up as fair, balanced or even smart journalism is ridiculous and a disservice to the profession.

One of the major problems plaguing straightforward journalism is that it tends to be boring in light of our action-packed, video-game-fueled world, whereas controversy and reports of high-level wrongdoings are exciting. Alternatively, much straightforward reporting on television is so weightless that it almost becomes elevator music. When there’s nothing better to say, the networks tout their news teams as “the best team in … (name the area that’s being covered).” Do these journalists understand the difference between marketing and journalism? I don’t remember a single course in journalism school on how to position your media outlet for greater credibility and the resultant higher ratings and increased advertising.

Newspapers, the bastion of solid, in-depth reporting, are no longer read by the majority of the population, and the Web emphasizes the new and brief over depth and accuracy. So the news most of us see is little different from “Access Hollywood” or “Entertainment Tonight,” and reporters are becoming little different from paparazzi.

This modern reality encourages news outlets to focus on the spectacular rather than the important, and to cover political marketing as if it were the Gettysburg Address. It’s no wonder the politicians unabashedly fabricate their “gotcha” moments when the media invariably leads with them and further energizes them with insistent questioning on the issue.

In the final analysis, it is up to citizens to separate reality from political posturing, but it doesn’t help that the media in its current form seek anything “new” versus anything “news,” and highlights any hint of controversy over the intellectually honest reporting of what truly drives America and the world.