My mother and I view the world differently, which is not surprising. Her birth came barely a year after the end of World War I and a week into the failed 12-year political experiment in alcohol Prohibition. I arrived on the anniversary of Prohibition launching a massive criminal underworld and a few months after Chinese troops chased us out of North Korea during the Korean War. (Funny how this country measures time by its wars, but that’s another topic).
Mom’s attempts to keep me on the straight and narrow began early, kept me from becoming a derelict or a Democrat but not a free-thinking journalist and continued last Christmas with the gift of columnist-pundit Charles Krauthammer’s new book “Things That Matter” (Crown Forum, New York, 2013), a collection of past writings from the psychiatrist who morphed into an inside-the-Beltway espouser of all things conservative. He’s a regular on the pages of the Albuquerque Journal, which plops daily onto our gravel road, and his screeds mesh with the paper’s conservative/libertarian/antiunion editorial slant that flavors not only its opinion pages but taints its news columns as well. To oversimplify Krauthammer but a little, his columns in recent years sum as: conservatives good, liberals bad, Obama is the antichrist.
But, lo and behold and thanks to Mom, Krauthammer and I finally agree on something. In the introductory section of “Things That Matter,” he waxes poetic about numerous things that matter from science to art to chess to number theory but notes there is something more important.
In the end, they must bow to the sovereignty of politics. Politics, the crooked timber of our communal lives, dominates everything because, in the end, everything–high and low and, most especially, high–lives or dies by politics. You can have the most advanced and efflorescent of cultures. Get your politics wrong, however, and everything stands to be swept away. This is not ancient history. This is Germany 1933.” (p. 2)
So more power to this Fox News regular for touting politics as something communal beyond a blood sport aimed at leaving your opponent gut-shot in the dirt shaded only by buzzards circling above. Maybe he’ll have more success in evangelizing the real role of politics beyond his conservative echo chamber than I did within local TV where news managers and consultants give you the what-planet-are-you-from look and say nobody cares about politics. Or maybe it’s the news organizations that don’t care about engaging viewers with political coverage offering more relevance to their lives than flashing lights illuminating crime-scene tape. Whatever the reasons airtime trends toward real blood sports fed by criminal complaints, mugshots and police dash-cam video tempered by stories scratching the surface on issues like education, the economy and the environment. The rest of the newscast is pretty much weather, events staged for media coverage, more weather and 25-second stories lifted from the wire, network feeds and the websites of local newspapers.
The national picture isn’t much better:
The average story length on local television news decreased substantially over time. In a separate Pew Research Center analysis of local news content from 1998 to 2002, some 31% of the stories were more than a minute long and 42% were under 30 seconds. In 2012, only 20% of the local television stories exceeded a minute while 50% lasted less than 30 seconds. The already considerable amount of time devoted to sports, weather and traffic on local newscasts rose even higher in the snapshot of stations studied, from 32% 2005 to 40% in 2012. (The State of the News Media 2013, Pew Research Center)
Local political coverage favors one-shot gotchas featuring real or manufactured outrage, ax-grinding by someone with the station’s ear and issues that can’t be ignored after exposure by the Albuquerque Journal or the Santa Fe New Mexican. Local TV may even attempt to quash the political digging of a competitor as in the case of the alt-weekly Santa Fe Reporter reporting alleged skullduggery within the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez. Regardless viewers and website readers find virtually zero day-to-day coverage on state and local politicians (and their appointees, fixers, funders and lobbyists) whose actions generate tangible consequences for large blocs of people. Sessions of the Legislature appear within an annual bubble that pops when the citizen-legislators go home.
Elections fare little better for voters as news coverage yields to highly profitable commercials, many funded by secret sources pushing narrow and misleading messages like so many cures for erectile dysfunction. Even our ex-Gov. Gary Johnson (left) won scant coverage as local stations took a pass when the Libertarian Party convention nominated him for president–during a TV ratings period, no less–a cheap flight away near Las Vegas. The ho-hum coverage extended to his barnstorming the country in a hopeless campaign against the failed 75-year experiment in marijuana Prohibition and for getting the government out of people’s lives in those innocent days before Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency revelations. The national media and candidate debates dismissed him as well depriving voters of a wider airing of public issues and limiting coverage to the same old Democrat-Republican horse race. That local media pretty much ignored the homeboy at the top of a national ticket thereby missing a chance to have some fun bringing the big picture down to street level starring a legitimate politician many New Mexicans actually had met or at least felt they knew.
With most Americans relying on TV for local news, you’d think news management and ownership, whose entire enterprise relies on the freedoms of the First Amendment, would do more to support the republic and participatory democracy in their communities. After all, the Constitution begins with, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…” That’s a tall order any day especially if you get the politics wrong or simply ignore it altogether.