Lack of depth taxes TV news

In order to be popular, casts offend no one, say nothing

Given the U.S. government’s near-default as Democrats and Republicans bickered over the debt ceiling, much has been made of the country’s political dysfunction. Yet the roles of two key elements in that sorry equation — a lazy media and ill-informed electorate — remain unexplored.

Underlying the economic debate are two key convictions: the need for government services, and near-religious resistance to paying taxes. Seldom, however, does broadcast media bother connecting the two — or the inherent contradiction of asking government to function properly without adequately funding its operation.

Politicians on both sides have every reason to pander and parse words. The broadcast media’s unenlightening role, however, can be traced to various factors that include: a desire to be liked, which prevents them from addressing the public’s lack of sophistication; a predilection toward verbal jousting, placing combat above the drudgery of fact-finding; and a beaten-dog mentality against unleashing fresh accusations of media bias.

A CNN/Opinion Research survey neatly captured the public’s two-faced approach to politics, concluding, “Americans have a split personality … when it comes to cutting the nation’s budget deficit.” Simply put, respondents favored reducing the size of government but also widely rejected slashing major programs.

In other words, “Fill that pothole and don’t touch Medicare, but for God’s sake, don’t raise my taxes.”

While politicians invariably present only the argument that benefits them, the media ought to lead their audience to contemplate tradeoffs and sacrifices — the intrusiveness of airline security, say, vs. fear of terrorism. Where does the public place its thumb in balancing the two?

Alas, most of the time, we get half the story. And one can posit that the derided naivete of the Tea Party — political novices whose intransigence weighs heavily on the current process — stemsin part from this long-standing failure to frame complex issues in more than bumper-sticker platitudes.

Admittedly, hardened ideologues will tune out information that doesn’t reinforce their views. The question is what’s on the menu for those in the middle who are presumably open to sobriety and sanity, but at risk of starving in the midst of a digital media buffet.

For its part, CBS News is pushing the idea that there’s an underserved appetite for hard news — hoping to expand the journalistic heft of “60 Minutes” to “The CBS Evening News” with “world-class original reporting every weeknight,” as the promos state.

“There’s a hunger in America for really good broadcast journalism” by genuinely fair brokers, CBS News chairman Jeff Fager told reporters at the TV Critics Assn. tour.

Clearly, the role Walter Cronkite occupied in the CBS anchor chair has been diluted by ceaseless waves of information and a cable space that magnifies braying from the shrillest of voices. Interviewers like Ted Koppel — who could punch holes in hollow arguments and still remain respectful — have given way to either intemperate partisans or neutered vessels like CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who blandly serves up dueling talking heads who essentially describe the same object as a bicycle and fire truck.

Who’s right? Hey, who can say, but we’re out of time, thanks for your insights.

Perhaps that’s why the most lacerating honesty frequently falls to comedians and nontraditional observers such as “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart or HBO’s more pugnacious Bill Maher. Although Stewart has made an art of skewering the media, Maher House Speak chides the public for its ignorance, recently challenging Americans to “come out of the closet” and admit their unspoken love for socialism by embracing programs like Medicare and Social Security.

Information-age technology, meanwhile, has become less a hoped-for panacea than merely another toy — often used in ways that obscure more than illuminate. Is it really a breakthrough, for example, to substitute Twitter comments for man-on-the-street interviews?

Interviewed on his network Current TV, former Vice President Al Gore joined in lamenting the debased nature of public discourse. “There was a massive change in the way political conversation in our democracy takes place,” he said. “What we have now is a lot of bad decisions that are based on flawed premises and illusions.”

If only there was some way to distinguish “flawed premises and illusions” from reality — starting with the fact there’s no such thing as a consequence-free tax cut.

Accomplishing that would begin with the kind of big-picture analysis that yields not just more ambitious news, but a better-informed public.

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