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How do you know that the 2012 presidential campaign is underway? One cable news pundit’s called GOP candidate Michele Bachmann a “flake,” while another says President Obama is a “dick.”
What’s next, a Jerry Springer-style chair-throwing melee?
It’s certainly a strange way for the establishment media to welcome former Utah governor Jon Huntsman to the race. Obama’s mild-mannered ex-China envoy has been calling on politicians in both parties to show greater “civility.” But how can you ask politicians to behave when even journalists can’t?
Chris Wallace, the Fox TV news host who suggested to Bachmann’s face that she might not be presidential kindling – let alone timber – apologized on air, after viewers complained. But Time magazine’s Mark Halperin has been suspended indefinitely, for comparing the president to a “member” – and not even, like Bachmann, a congressional one.
With the rise of cable news, and its ever-deepening politicization, there’s been a definite coarsening of the public discourse ? and an expectation of media misbehavior. Halperin even warned his two hosts, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinksi of the immensely popular MSNBC morning talk show, “Morning Joe,” that he was about to say something harsh about Obama’s handling of the budget talks with Republicans. And neither of them batted an eyelash ? or rushed to place their hands over their ears.
In fact, Scarborough, whose use of the “f-word” on-air last year forced MSNBC to institute a 7-second delay on its news broadcasting, told Halperin “fire away.” So did Brzezinski, who caused a separate controversy when she once mispronounced the word “dip” as “dick” in a story about gender roles, causing uproarious laughter in the MSNBC studio.
But both looked stunned when Halperin, known for his “insider’ political analysis, proceeded to say that he thought “Obama’s acting like a dick.”
Even worse, it turns out that the MSNBC directors responsible for managing the fail-safe “delay” device inexplicably bungled the job – so Halperin’s comment was heard by millions.
It’s not just the coarsening of language that’s so apparent ? it’s also the brazenness of the news pundits, who have morphed from mere talking heads into full-fledged millionaire celebrities. Some with substantial name recognition seem to think they’re not just public watchdogs, but publicly endorsed spokespersons, and even self-appointed office holders, free to castigate or disparage at will those they ostensibly “report” on, even if their target is sitting right next to them.
A recent Gallup poll indicates that more and more Americans are watching political news regularly, and other polls show that an increasing number are getting their political news from cable news channels like MSNBC, CNN and Fox.
Roughly half of CNN and MSNBC viewers are Democrats, but less than a fifth are Republicans. At Fox, four in ten are Republican, and just a third are Democrats. Some blame Fox, which promotes itself as “fair and balanced,” but allows Sarah Palin and other staunch conservatives to function as news anchors and political commentator, for starting the politicization trend. But every news channel has faced challenges on this same score.
MSNBC, for example, decided to fire Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews in 2008 after viewers complained that both men were too political to serve as “impartial”news anchors. Both went on to host their own popular talk shows, though Olbermann was later fired after it was revealed that he’d donated to Democratic political campaigns and failed to notify his MSNBC superiors, in accordance with the company’s policies.
America, of course, may be one of the few countries that’s still upholding the idea that news can or should be free of political “bias,” or “slanting,” to say nothing of vitriol. Countries with parliamentary systems, or with a stronger tradition of social and political conflict, seem to accept the idea that different news organs will reflect distinct political tendencies, or even openly support different political parties.
It could be that the breakdown of the American model ? or myth ? of “objective journalism” is suggestive of the increasingly partisan nature of American politics, which seems to have rendered the country hopelessly deadlocked ? indeed practically ungovernable – on some of its most important business ? from approving a national budget to passing an immigration bill.
But it could just be the influence of the marketplace, and the demand for news, like television generally, to entertain as well as to enlighten. Jerry Springer, of course, became a pop icon of sorts for the rough-and-tumble antics of the bizarre guests he invited on to his show to hector and humiliate, before they generally turned on each other and had to be separated by force.
Springer’s previous job? He was the Mayor of Cincinnati in the 1970s before becoming the city’s most popular news anchor.
Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, DC-based an immigration policy specialist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org