This may come to nothing, but we think we need to alert the media — especially the television and cable networks — what the real jobs of newscasters and commentators are.
Monday we watched the “secret tape” as Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC calls it, of Mitt Romney in Boca Raton last spring. We stayed to watch Romney’s California press conference where, in three responses to questions from the press, he tried to walk back some of the harshness of his world view.
Tuesday morning we watched “Morning Joe” and got our first panic-stricken Republican take on what Romney had said. Later that day Chris Matthews enlightened us further, for an entire hour. Reverend Al Sharpton chirped in at six. Ed Shultz blustered from eight to nine. Sean Hannity begged and pleaded from nine to ten while Rachel Maddow did her patented Cassandra number as the same time. Then Lawrence O’Donnell, the most egregious and slimey commentator on the air (and that includes Rush Limbaugh) regaled us with his celebrated wit and wisdom from ten to eleven.
Wednesday morning back to “Morning Joe.” Same stuff. That night, MSNBC and FOX gave us breathless updates, and Lawrence O’Donnell turned positively gleeful at the car wreck he saw as the Romney campaign.
Thursday Bill O’Reilly began to sound a little less critical and more philosophical about it all. But “Morning Joe” carried on, with Joe Scarborough reminding us (as he usually does) what he did and said and saw while he was in Congress for a brief two terms.
Throughout the entire week commentators insisted on telling listeners and viewers what Romney was really saying, how detrimental it was to his campaign and how wrong he was, how America believes in hope and Romney is a defeatist. They explained endlessly what an insult to 47 million hard-working Americans Romney’s view was, how one is president of the entire nation, not only selected pockets of success.
And when these well-meaning men and women stopped to take a breath, it was only to flash back another week to replay Romney’s ineptitude in foreign affairs in the Mideast, in which he has had no experience.
Only dedicated devotees of the American political scene, like ourselves, continued to listen. Who says this job is easy?
But as we did, it became clearer than ever before that the press doesn’t like Mr. Romney. By the end of the week, this statement would have to be altered to read that the Republican conservative right didn’t like Romney any more than the liberal Democratic left.
So, after the millions of critical words dumped on the Romney campaign, what have we learned?
Simply that with our current 24/7 cycles of news coverage, commentators have no longer any idea of what their true role in society should be.
As a friend asked the other evening, where does one go just to listen to the news, unfiltered?
In our minds, the answer should include the aforementioned television and cable news channels, but it doesn’t. These sources are no longer content to report the happenings of the day and, should details be a little confusing, to explicate them simply and directly, and then let the public react and consider them and, if necessary, make its own decisions.
Basic journalism still requires the facts: who, what, where, when, and how? Anything else is decoration.
What we are getting now in mid-campaign is personality building. Those broadcasters who do not already have their own shows are bucking for them. FOX is employing as commentators advisors to the Romney campaign so that every discussion on Fox about the campaign is informed by Romney’s point of view. Just one example: Elaine Chow, former Secretary of Labor under George Bush, is married to Mitch McConnell, senate minority leader. Yet she too has been hired by FOX as a commentator, so that whatever she says comes from both Mitch and Mitt. You can’t get better Republican insights than what she has to offer.
But is this news?
And what of the vaunted ability of America to listen and learn and make up its own mind about matters political?
Clearly television and cable don’t trust the intelligence of their audience. We venture to say that most people, on hearing Romney’s Boca rant for the first time, can disagree and feel insulted all on their own. But just in case they don’t get how badly they are being characterized, commentators are nailing these realizations into their heads.
Who, what, where, when and how? If a battle erupts somewhere in the world, or forces come face to face either ideologically or physically, a chart. The rest is as far from journalism as it can be.
And this makes us unhappy. Make that angry. With social media in the ascendant, including basic email, any person with a strong point of view can be as good a commentator as those who are paid to entertain us on FOX and MSNBC. It’s hard to believe how vivid, vicious, and vituperative emails that reach us are. And they are about as accurate as what we hear night after night, morning after morning, on our tiny screens.
We could ask why the press has it in for Romney. The only answers we can find are: he’s rich, good-looking, has a lovely family, and has had success in his chosen field. Plus this one: he isn’t giving them anything to work with. The press has to devise, in lieu of actual information from the candidate or his staff, campaign strategies and targets. That’s not easy. Remember, Romney still hasn’t released his tax returns. So there is a real push/pull content to this criticism. If Romney were more forthcoming, the press wouldn’t have to work so hard making things up. And the more fanciful details of Romneys’ career and life the press invents bring only continued silence from the campaign. The whole affair is frustrating.
Just as we have advocated for civility in Congress, we now have to advocate for civility in the press.
Just as voters feel there are few adults on Capitol Hill, voters feel equally there is no adult presence working for the candidate in Boston.
And the cable and television press is acting like twelve year olds, shouting nyah, nyah, nyah at every opportunity.
For our money, the most that cable and television should be doing is reporting that Mr. Romney has changed his position about question one. That statement alone tells us volumes. We don’t need further explanation or supposition about what this might do to his electoral chances. We can understand perfectly well what another change might portend, and whether or not it will help, hinder, or sink the candidate’s ship.
Endless reminders of the gender gap, the abortion exceptions, increased financing for the Defense Department, voter suppression, for example, exhaust television and cable’s audience.
One unforeseen consequence of the media’s return to its real job might be fewer viewers and listeners. And fewer viewers and listeners might allow advertising rates on these shows to tumble. And that possibility might even eventually lower our own cable bills, leaving all of us with greater disposable income. Which would help shore up our flailing economy.
So maybe we should all just sit still a while longer and let the media do itself in.