"With friends like these . . .
“Soul destroying” was how one observer characterized the most recent CNN debate between Democratic candidates. Wolf Blitzer, he of the meticulously trimmed beard and bow-wow earnestness, played the role of moderator.
Then, last week, CNN brought us the Republican lineup, this time with the elegantly tailored Anderson Cooper, plus the added frisson that, as in a previous Democratic incarnation, all questions directed to the candidates were solicited via YouTube. This meant that the folks at home were given a chance to videotape themselves in any number of ways, from moon-faced to more calculated forms of undergraduate creativity, and submit their entries online for consideration.
This bit of techno-gimcrackery was weird on at least a couple of levels. While the YouTube conceit was doubtless meant to convey a sense of boundary-breaking, grass-roots spontaneity, it was anything but. The questions were carefully edited, with entries deemed inappropriate weeded out. What’s more, many of the selected questioners were actually sitting in the audience in real time. So, in fact, nothing was going on that couldn’t have been accomplished with a stack of index cards and a box of pencils. But then we wouldn’t have been treated to the grainy, Clutch Cargo-like, out-of-synch quality of the YouTube videos.
What’s going on here?
Well, for starters, if those Democrats and Republicans believe these exercises in verbal smash and grab are about them, they’ve got another thing coming. The candidates are merely players in the latest form of reality TV. Now you can add Campaign 2008 to American Idol and Dancing with the Stars. And whether the evening’s format happens to revolve around the pretentious posturing of a Wolf Blitzer or YouTube, the intended message is the same: The Media are on your side.
That certainly seemed to be the idea behind every one of Blitzer’s hoarse attempts at confrontation with the Democratic candidates. Above all else, he seemed to want us to know that he was there for us, demanding answers to questions he was sure we would have asked — if only we had his knowledge and insight.
People in the news business are used to thinking of themselves as big brothers and sisters for the rest of us. Traditionally, their role has been to give voice to those who are unable to speak for themselves. The concept of a free press is supposedly a cornerstone of our democracy — a watchdog constantly on the lookout for abuses of power. But as news has blurred into corporate entertainment, mainstream journalism has appeared to become more involved with explaining the ways of the powerful than in challenging the assumptions that keep them in their privileged positions. Indeed, it’s hard, if not impossible, to think of Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper as anything but members of a privileged class themselves.
The trouble is that, as entertainers, they are required to bring larger and larger numbers of us into their corporate tent, otherwise their claim to fame could be revoked. And so they sweat and strain to be our friends. On a local level we see this on display almost every Sunday in The Indianapolis Star, where Managing Editor Dennis Ryerson writes a column that invariably seeks to justify, apologize for or rationalize some policy or procedure that’s gotten on the wrong side of readers. The overall effect is like a visit to the principal’s office. Feel free to “let it out,” but don’t expect anything to get better.
Polls show that large numbers of us are losing the habit of getting our news from traditional sources like newspapers and television networks. This has become a story in itself in the corporate news-as-entertainment industry, as pundits who work for big, overextended media conglomerates worry about what this means. Their concern, of course, is always expressed in the most high-minded terms. Democracy, not stock options or vacation homes, is what they claim is at stake.
This came up not long ago in an interview the ever-unctuous Tim Russert conducted with mock news icon Stephen Colbert. When Russert asked Colbert what he thought of his fans getting their news from programs like The Daily Show and the Colbert Report, Colbert replied with a bracing bit of common sense. You have to be informed to get the jokes, he said. If his viewers weren’t getting news from other sources, they wouldn‘t find the show as funny.
Genuine entertainment is a life-affirming gift. True entertainers are treasures. But we don’t need corporate journalists to provide us with this stuff — any more than we need them to be our over-sized siblings.