Down the Rabbit Hole
2014 Hugh Sidey Scholarship in Print Journalism Essay
By: Lissandra Villa
Every news organization that covers politics in America has something in common: Washington. All eyes are on the East, carefully scrutinizing the U.S. Supreme Court, Congress and, perhaps more than any of the others, the White House. The White House contains the leader of the free world, and therefore, “the most sought-after, analyzed and scrutinized” of all American politicians, as Hugh Sidey would say. Things have changed since the beginning of Sidey’s time as a reporter covering the presidency, most significantly because American society is falling down a seemingly bottomless hole.
Americans are deprived of critical information when the press’s attention is glued to the latest scandal and finger-pointing rather than on the real politics. Henry Fairlie, a political journalist, made a similar point in his essay “The Politician’s Art.”
“Politics itself is in danger of being depoliticized,” Fairlie wrote, honing in on the American presidency. Instead of leaving campaign members on their turf, presidents today have a higher tendency to bring them into office with them. They surround the president and protect his image. Fairlie calls these people “centurions,” guards of the president. A true politician, Fairlie holds, does not need these protectors. A real politician can handle any situation sent his way. The consequence of having a president surrounded by centurions is that he is no longer a politician but a media star.
The presence of centurions is an indication that an unskillful politician is in office. Presidents that are true politicians are becoming few and far between. Americans no longer cringe at this idea because it is now the norm, and on top of that, they have a celebrity to worship. On the other side of the spectrum, many simply brush politics aside because of all of the negative connotations politicians are associated with today. Having an audience that has had its taste soured in this way makes it difficult for reporters to engage the audience with stories that are political in nature.
It would be ignorant to say the only things that have changed since Sidey’s time are officeholders and the public’s perception of politics. In full disclosure, the press has its share of the blame as well.
There is a clear difference between media and journalism that is lost on too many Americans today. Journalism’s purpose is to report the essential facts; media fills airtime with fluff. Sidey covered the presidency in a time when a reporter could sit down and have a conversation with the president. Today, reporters have their hands full trying to get past the press secretary holding the talking points. Worse still, some reporters do not even attempt to dig beyond the press release handed to them.
The point here is not that journalism has ceased to exist; that is not the case. Journalism has been pushed aside by media, and its intended audience is not demanding its return. Truth is being run over by the superfluous coverage of the horserace.
“The legions of reporters who cover politics don’t want to quit the clash and thunder of electoral combat for the dry duty of analyzing the federal budget. As a consequence, we have created the perpetual presidential campaign,” Sidey once said, evidence he saw the cultural change that has resulted in modern media coming.
Walter Cronkite, once known as the most trusted man in America, had a similar line of thinking. Instead of analyzing “the steak,” media now focuses on “the sizzle.” Public opinion, which is not a true concept according to many theorists, is measured by polls, and the results are stripped across the top of the front page of newspapers all over the nation. This gives members of the public no relevant information to base their individual opinions off of except what everyone else appears to think. The catch is there is no guarantee everyone else’s opinion is an informed one.
The horserace for the Republican nomination in 2012 is a good example. Rather than analyzing whether Ron Paul’s proposal of returning to a gold standard was practical, major networks would not move beyond the fact that Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum were competing for first, second and third in the Iowa caucuses. Rather than spending all evening scrutinizing these numbers, these news outlets should have taken the time to give facts about the candidates’ specific platforms and then report the final numbers once they had come in.
“The loss of the sense of the strange is a sign of adjustment, and the extent to which we have adjusted is a measure of the extent to which we have been changed,” wrote Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death. The type of coverage just exemplified is not only what the public has grown accustomed to, but it is what the press has grown used to producing as well. Politics and media are being turned into show business.
Covering the presidency is important because in that capacity he is entirely indebted to the American people. The president is chosen by the people and can only be held accountable by them. Assuming that a president is not a true politician, it is only through the efforts of journalism that transparency will prevail.
“Some things are true and some things are not, and any nation that can’t tell the difference is in trouble,” wrote Mark Crispin Miller in The Bush Dyslexicon. The only people left equipped to sort out the difference between the truth and everything else are real journalists.
In a sense, real politicians and journalists have been replaced. What used to be a symbiotic relationship between journalism and politics has nearly disappeared because of the appearance of politicians who see what they do as a means to an end and talking heads who value ratings over content.
To inform people, to provide them with meaningful information in an understandable fashion, is the job of a journalist. Interwoven into this job definition is a commitment to truth, and that goes beyond telling something that is not a lie. A reporter is ethically responsible for pursuing a story that is relevant and meaningful to the American public. To produce content that is anything less than this is to compromise the principles that underlie the entire profession of journalism.
American society is Alice; it has fallen down a rabbit hole. The average citizen in America functions most comfortably at a middle school level. Most tragically, the average citizen has no idea that it is reasonable to demand a higher standard. The media and politicians are major contributors to the steady crumbling of active citizenship among the everyday American.
“The media are the child of the public; the public then becomes the child of the media,” Fairlie wrote. Today’s politicians are playing to the media, the media are hyping unnecessary topics and the public suffers from this Narcissistic trap. What American society needs now more than ever are journalists like Hugh Sidey: reporters that will open the public’s eyes to the faults it has accepted as the norm. Only this way will American society stop tumbling down the rabbit hole and reemerge from the darkness that is today’s age of uninformed, unengaged citizens.