James Stotter

“If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read 'President Can't Swim'.” That was how Lyndon Johnson once described the media’s coverage of him and his presidency.

Over the past decades, the bias in news reporting has increased considerably. For example, both JFK and LBJ were well-known for their womanizing. Such dalliances rarely made the news and were certainly not a scandal. Nor would they have lead to some ridiculous impeachment proceedings. It’s not at all clear whether Bill Clinton is more of a womanizer than were JFK or LBJ. But the differences in coverage are more than striking.

It’s probably fair to say that generally speaking, JFK had possibly the best relationship with “the press” of any U.S. president. LBJ was nearly the opposite. Kennedy was smooth and not above some self-deprecating humor. JFK used his humor with the press, as seen below. Johnson was anything but smooth, very egotistical, thin-skinned about critical media, and other than some sarcasm usually didn’t get funnier than showing his gall bladder scar or picking-up Him/Her Beagle Johnson by their ears.

One classic example of Kennedy’s humor occurred at a press conference when a reporter asked Kennedy “...Now it is being written that you are going to eat those words and go to a summit...? JFK responded "Well, I'm going to have a dinner for all the people who have written it, and we will see who eats what."

By the time Clinton was elected president, dumbing-down was well-entrenched and news was regularly trivialized. That is, the emphasis was and remains on the easy-to-understand and amusing, such as human interest (especially the prurient), sports and other entertainment, and anything else that doesn’t require a lot of thinking or gets confusing with information. And most of these sports and entertainment reporters have elevated titles such as “analyst.” This may help explain why many college students over the past few decades don’t understand what analysis really is.

It should be added that by Clinton’s time, cable TV was a major player in the news business. And with cable came ratings wars. The great reporters and anchors, epitomized by Walter Cronkite, were replaced, very often with women thought to have sex appeal. Stories on crawlers, graphics, sound effects, etc., all contributed to the airs of hyping and rushing.

Sometime ago, a good friend of mine who is quite knowledgeable about the media said that one of the most powerful groups of people in America are those writing the headlines seen on the crawlers across TV screens. He believes their syntax plays a major role in shaping public opinion.

So yes, the media is certainly guilty of the kind of reporting that gives people sound bites instead of background and analysis. That is the superficiality people seem to want. And on TV, the situation is exacerbated by real world microeconomics. That is primarily deciding how to allocate a fixed amount of time, say precisely 30 minutes, for a news program. The mix of content and advertising is critical to determining the profitability of a program. Oh yes. Getting the right answer is more than superficially mathematical. And that is a justification for scripted conventions, even though the old-fashioned floor fights are more genuine and informative.

The key questions for this column are why, and how did this start, and what, if anything, should be done about it.? I don’t know all the answers. But my suspicion, briefly explained below, implicates a generation or more of parents.

During graduate school, I started teaching college level economics and related courses on an adjunct basis. I saw the student unrest resulting from the Free Speech movement, the Vietnam protests, the civil rights demonstrations and finally the movement long hoped for by male students...the sexual revolution.

The schools had very little to do with the actual causes being protested. But students very quickly learned schools could be intimidated by their boycotting classes for flimsy reasons such as allowing ROTC programs. No students equals no tuition and no subsidies. And that meant large scale academic unemployment.

Schools acquiesced. They started grade inflation (i.e.; dumbing-down grade standards), letting students evaluate teachers and using those evaluations to determine contract rehiring, and campus politics, both organizational and ideological, became even more political than they already were. As a result of liberal teachers prevailing on such a wide-spread basis, many colleges developed a liberal bias that in some cases still persists.

At some point, often referred to as the “tipping point,” trends become so deeply embedded that they are difficult—-if not impossible-—to change. That is the trend with dumbing-down so many things, like the way we receive information. This is a “Just say it fast, I have to get on with my life” attitude.

A reasonable question to ask is whether we as a society have dumbed-down what’s important and if our news coverage mirrors that. Or whether the media is fulfilling a role it prides itself in: guiding people’s thinking and behavior. In this case the media is guilty of the dumbing-down.

I don’t know the answer. However, in a recent column for Allvoices http://www.allvoices.com/contributed-news/12795717-electile-dysfunction on elections and the electoral process, I wrote:

Naturally, politics is part of this “dumbing-down” process. Statements of principle get reduced to sound bites for the same reason McDonald’s needed to invent a cash register for employees who are functionally illiterate and innumerate. But those employees can differentiate icons for Big Mac, Quarter Pounders with or without cheese, etc. Sound bites are the icons of politics. Political sound bites are often designed to be harder to differentiate than McDonald’s icons.

Two things the media can do to help are: a) Clarify in a neutral way, what the deliberately confusing sound bites really mean; and b) If all media agreed, they could hire a mutual fact checker, as suggested by the cartoon.

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