Sunday, October 17, 2010

Culture of scandal

Journalism and politics are in a sorry state -- there can be little debate there.

How we got here is a more open question. Any student of history will know that the days of civil public discourse, or universally good-faith practitioners of either journalism or politics, are mostly mythical. While many good people have labored in both vocations over our country’s history, there have been all too many villains.

Author Mark Feldstein has skillfully and carefully (his footnotes and bibliography run to more than 70 pages) laid a portion of this history out in his excellent new book, “Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture.”

In his prologue, Feldstein writes:
“In the modern era … predatory politics and merciless media returned with a vengeance. Policy differences effectively became criminalized as partisans used investigative machinery of government and the press to wage political battle. In the same way that war was diplomacy by other means, so attack journalism became politics by other means, and the news media became the crucial vehicle by which this guerrilla warfare was waged.”
And so it is. Journalism and politics are increasingly intertwined and the victims are truth and facts.

In my apparently na├»ve and outdated view, journalism’s aim should be to put information into the hands of the people with context, perspective, substance and, to the degree humans can provide it, objectivity. I’m not alone, of course.
America is blessed with thousands of journalists who have the same goals.

Likewise, our country is blessed with many thousands of elected officials whose main goal is to make their country, their state, their county, their city a better place. I’ve met many of them.

Unfortunately, power and greed are hard to resist for both journalists and politicians. Perhaps even more sinister is the tendency for people of either vocation to convince themselves that the ends justify the means, that so long as they sincerely believe they are striving for a good outcome they may pursue an unethical path.

While there’s no doubt that neither journalists nor politicians have uniformly upheld their highest ideals over the years, it’s equally clear that our circumstances today are more dire. Cynicism runs both deep and wide -- too many in our country either accept and embrace the scandal culture or have become so angered by it that they believe threats or pursuit of violence are the only options.

The solutions rest not with either journalists or politicians, but with the people. When you demand that your elected officials and providers of information clean up their act, it will begin to happen. Until then, smarmy politicians and purveyors of bad information will thrive.

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