Friday, November 2, 2007

Bernstein Blames "Idiot Culture" for Political Mess, and I Agree

It’s so simple and tempting. You are on a news Web site, you see the link “Court Papers Reveal How Spears Spends,” and you think to yourself, “Why not?” I’ll admit it. I saw that headline and was tempted. A part of me wondered, “How does that talentless waste of flesh, bone and spandex blow her ill-gotten gain?” In the past, from time to time, I’d indulge my morbid curiosity and click on a story like that. Not anymore. It’s time to make a stand.

I was inspired by an article I read today about a speech given at a Connecticut prep school by Carl Bernstein, known to a generation as “the guy Dustin Hoffman played in ‘All the President’s Men,’” and, more importantly, a longtime editor and reporter for the Washington Post responsible for breaking the Watergate story. In the lecture, Bernstein partially defended the news media, blaming the “idiot culture” in the U.S. for creating a dysfunctional political environment in the country. He noted that news organizations are devoting more resources to celebrity stories, so serious issues, like Iraq and the Bush administration’s assault on the Constitution, have been shunted to the side.

I am a frequent basher of the news outlets, especially CNN, for wasting so much of their air time and/or space on sensational and celebrity-driven stories that are not really news. And I stand by my position. But it’s interesting that Bernstein has approached the issue from the other side, putting the blame at the feet of the culture that demands that the media cover nonsense. I have not let Americans off the hook, but, again, I find it remarkable (and, frankly, refreshing) that he has taken aim directly at the consumers of trash news.

“You can't separate the appetites and demands of the people themselves and what they are given," Bernstein was quoted as saying in an AP/Yahoo! News article. "The blame simply can't all be put at the feet of those who present news."

Bernstein admits that the “problems we have in news and journalism are about us not doing our job well enough." But he notes that the "ideal of providing the best available version of the truth is being affected by the dominance of a journalistic culture that has less and less to do with reality and context.”

And that is why I didn’t click on the article about Britney’s spending habits. I won’t be responsible for pumping up the number of clicks on the story, nor will I allow Yahoo! to earn one more penny of ad revenue from the companies putting banners next to the article. Below the Britney link, there were headlines for stories on the confirmation of the Attorney General nominee and a report identifying the source of bad pre-war intelligence on Iraq. These are the articles that need to be clicked. Of course, I have no doubt that their click-through numbers were dwarfed by the Britney story.

People should click important news headlines, and bypass the trashy ones, every day, much like some people do on those sites that purport to donate a specified amount of money to a certain charity for each person that clicks on a designated icon. We live in a time (and under the rule of an administration) that values profits above all else. Money talks, and, well, everything else (product safety, national security and our national soul, just to name three things) walks. Let’s turn that idea on its head. If the American people made important news stories more profitable than tales of celebrities and their rehab trips, late night partying, and penchant for appearing in public sans underwear, then the news outlets would give us more news on Iraq and the daily misdeeds of the Bush administration.

Do I think this will ever happen? Of course not. The behavior Bernstein decries is not a passing fad, but rather what the nation has become. The values of American society have shifted. But you have to try, right? For those people who are unhappy with living in a world where Paris, Lindsay and Britney get more scrutiny than George, Dick and Condi, the least you can do is act with your mouse and remote control to send a message.

The story goes that thousands of years ago, while Rome burned, its emperor, Nero, did nothing, other than play his violin. How times have changed. Now, the American empire is burning, our emperor started the fire, and it is the American people who are sitting around doing nothing, only instead of fiddling, they’re playing video games, wasting time on MySpace and reading celebrity news.

That is why it’s not okay to just check and see where Britney has crashed her SUV today, or which bar Lindsay tried to get a drink in (yes, I know Lindsay was in a bar with her friends despite spending a baseball season in rehab, that’s how deeply this crap permeates the national culture). Mindless entertainment has become mindless politics, with calamitous results. Don’t be one of the masses telling the news outlets that it’s okay to cover garbage. As Nancy Reagan once famously said, “Just say no.” Although, I have no illusions that my campaign will be as unsuccessful as hers was.

NOTE: After I posted this article, I clicked on Yahoo!, and saw this headline:

U.S. driving Turkey, Iran together, former U.S. envoy warns

Essentially, the Bush administration's failure to confront the Kurdistan Workers' Party is pushing Turkey towards military action in Iraq, as well as driving our long-time ally away from us and toward Iran.

Stories like this are appearing daily. We live in a time in which we have a president that is making one horrendous decision after another (some "decider," huh?), all while providing attack sound bites with no basis in reality to ward off criticism. Isn't it time we started paying attention?