The 24-hour news cycle, and the morphing of the mainstream news and information media into something just short of tabloid journalism may eliminate any chance this country has of ever electing a truly great president again. How can it be otherwise when a candidate's every comment and every gesture and every flaw is put under a microscope while the important issues of the day are viewed by the media as nothing more than boring afterthoughts, something to be covered absent a more titillating story?
Ratings have replaced responsibility as the heart beat of the news media; integrity is no longer the benchmark of success, advertising revenue has taken its place. As a result, instead of detailed accounts of a candidate's views on the myriad topics facing the next president, we are treated to a year-long soap opera, with all the inherent melodrama, gossip, and inuendo. What a tremendous disservice to the country. The votes of many will be based solely on the shallow observations of biased pundits, or on the over-inflated opinion of newspeople desperate to make a name for themselves.
Making matters worse, information is easily disseminated today, making the news media's responsibility (or lack thereof) even greater. All it takes is one news outlet posting a flimsy, shallow, titillating story, and soon, all outlets have the story, running it to death, even if it's not factually true (such as the McCain story in the New York Times about a month ago). As long as one outlet is running with the story, it must be news! Then, if the website or network posting that initial story gets a surge in hits or ratings, spiking the ad revenue, money, money, money, other sites or networks try to replicate the feat, digging for anything and everything that might do the trick. How is today's candidate supposed to survive this kind of coverage?
How would some of our country's most celebrated presidents have fared in today's news coverage? Would this country have elected a crippled president? What would today's media say about an ugly, unrefined candidate?
I can almost hear Chris Matthews commenting on George Washington:
"What's with this guy? He never smiles. He may have given this country its freedom, but people want a president they can talk to. He doesn't seem approachable. He doesn't look like the kind of guy you'd want to have a beer with. And what about his teeth; who wants a president with smelly, wooden teeth? That's disgusting."
Or, how about Abraham Lincoln:
"With me now is Pat Buchanan. Pat, what do you think about this guy Lincoln."
"Chris, there is no way that Lincoln can connect with the average voter. I mean, have you heard him speak? That high, whiny voice of his, ha, ha, ha. That may play in Illinois, but I'd like to see him try to go to Altoona, Pennsylvania. It just won't play there."
"Some say that he's too odd looking, Pat; what do you think."
"I think they're right. He just doesn't look like the average Joe. He's not cut in the same mold as a Washington or a Jefferson. He's not presidential enough. He has that back-country, 'aw shucks' mentality, and voters are turned off by that."
"I think you're right. People don't want to vote for someone who may potentially embarrass the country."
It doesn't take a well-stretched imagination to believe that these comments would be made about an Abraham Lincoln or a George Washington if they had lived in our time. Would today's media have agreed not to divulge the fact that FDR didn't have the use of his legs? No. This is too good a story; they'd cover it from top to bottom. FDR might never have become president in today's society. What a loss that would have been.
To be sure, some candidates thrive on such coverage; candidates who specialize in parsing or pandering, candidates who always say the right thing because they never say anything at all. It is the candidate who tries to speak the truth who gets tripped up by current mainstream news media, because the truth is bound to anger someone, and it the negative reaction to the truth that the press loves the most. Outrage sells better than anything in todays news market, and the media supplies what is in demand.
What is the solution? It isn't enough for a small number to boycott the mainstream news media, the vast majority needs it. The populace is lazy; people don't have the time to think for themselves, they don't want to think for themselves, they want to be told what to think. The people want self-serve, microwave news -- they want it fast and tasteless. The people get what they want in the 24-hour news cycle; the news is always on, even when there is no news.
Perhaps America's last best chance lies in the newest manifestation of news coverage, the blog. Without time contraints or reliance upon ratings driven ad revenue, news web-blogs provide unfiltered information for those who want to look beyond the shallow and the meaningless. While not perfect, blogs provide an alternative to the talking heads on television, the talking mouths on radio, and the typing hacks in print. However, in the end, it may not be enough. Good people, good candidates eager to make lasting change in this country will most likely be stymied by the style of news coverage that dominates the market. Only through a tremendous effort by a unique individual, and perhaps a bit of luck as well, can America ever have a truly great president again.