Sarah Palin and Jon Stewart agree on this: News media are bad influence

The media are berated as 'corrupt' (per Sarah Palin) and as a 'conflictinator' (per Jon Stewart). Is it a case of shooting the messenger, or did news media miss the mark in Election 2010?

Scott McCloskey/The News Register/AP
Sarah Palin (r.) campaigns for GOP Senate candidate John Raese, on Oct. 30, in Wheeling, W.Va.
Carolyn Kaster/AP
Comedian Jon Stewart shouts to the crowd during the 'Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear' on the National Mall in Washington, on Oct. 30.

A familiar bogeyman leapt back into the news this weekend – the media itself. Tarring of the media and its election coverage came from Fox News commentator Sarah Palin, who called a team of Alaskan TV newsfolk “corrupt bastards,” as well as Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart, who closed his Saturday rally on the Washington Mall by saying the 24-hour news and media machine was “broke.” He coined a new term of derision for it: “conflictinator.”

Even the nonpartisan Wesleyan Media Project added some fuel to the critique: This election cycle has the most negative political ads ever, with more than half being pure attack ads, according to its new data released Monday. Many campaigns count on the far-out content to propel the ads into the media spotlight.

In the wake of such a barrage, Sunday's news talk shows had a field day of self-dissection. On NBC’s "Hardball with Chris Matthews," the host parried with columnist and Huffington Post founder Ariana Huffington in a high-pitched – if friendly – frenzy of proposed solutions. She called for no more demonizing by media personalities; he laughed at the idea that people should not argue. And The New York Times ran an op-ed piece chiding Mr. Stewart for berating the messenger rather than the message.

On the one hand, the flurry of criticism aimed at the media is indeed an exercise in shooting the messenger, says Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University political scientist. The media are full of depressing, difficult stories that people don’t understand or know how to tackle, he says, from Afghanistan to the financial breakdown.

“In ancient times, when a runner came back from the front with bad news about how the war was going, it was so much easier for the king to pull out his sword and cut off his head,” he says. In some fundamental ways, the media's obligation to keep hard news before the public's view is neither appreciated nor valued, he adds.

As people try to sort through an avalanche of finger-pointing and forceful opinions, the traditional values taught in journalism school are more important than ever, says Atlanta-based Republican strategist David Johnson. "Fairness and balance," he says, are what people need from the media.

On the other hand, says Mr. Schmidt with a laugh, the old-fashioned “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand” model is fraying at the edges of the New Media frontier. People are overloaded, depressed, and anxious about the overwhelming amount of information they take in, whether from TV, their mobile devices, or the Internet, he says. As the era of traditional broadcasting gives way to a future of narrowcasting, in which outlets target like-minded viewers rather than the entire demographic spectrum, expect more, not less, opining and position-taking in the media, he adds.

The overall impact of this trend toward more voices and less listening is to promote cynicism and apathy among the electorate, says Kevin Howley, associate professor of media studies at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. Don’t look for the media to correct their course any time soon, he adds. Too much is at stake in an election cycle. He points to a recent AP business story that noted TV stations and networks don’t mind all the political advertising – “even if their audiences are sick and tired of it all,” he says via e-mail. Those ad dollars – some $4 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics – amount to a “stimulus plan” for the TV industry. … [And] commercial media is unlikely to bite the hand that feeds them."

Americans are in a chaotic “wild west” media environment, says Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media." But the solution is not to clamp down or try to eliminate the disagreeable voices, he says.

Thomas Jefferson felt strongly that given all the information available, good or bad, that people would be able to discern what was true and what was false,” he says. Democracy is messy, but it is always preferable to neatly controlled dictatorships – whether in politics or the media, he adds.

Self-regulating forces have a way of emerging on their own, says Mr. Johnson, the GOP strategist. He points to a bright spot in his back yard. The local WSB-TV station – an Atlanta fixture since the days of “Gone with the Wind” – has been quietly taking on[[reporting on??]] big national stories. “Local stations are picking up national news issues because they know their viewers want it and they don’t trust other outlets,” he adds.

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