The intra-party civil wars that weren’t
No one likes a good fight more than our ubiquitous news media.
This is key to understanding how media operate, why some substantial stories never see the light of day, while seemingly trivial controversies are repeated over and over by every outlet in the country.
The fight for the Democratic nomination between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is a prime example. Since there was little difference in their policy views, the news coverage of this contest focused on every trivial detail that could provoke conflict and drama. If you are running a 24-hour cable news channel, you must have drama to keep viewers from switching over to the Home Shopping Network.
Media loves conflict. William Randolph Hearst understood this well. When artist Frederick Remington sent him a message from Cuba in 1898 that there was no war on the island, Hearst famously replied, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.” Conflict sells, even if you have to manufacture it.
So as this year’s presidential primary season wore on, the contest between Clinton and Obama became a war, with every little nuance being dissected to determine if it was an attack, whether it was racist or sexist, if they landed a blow, or if the punch backfired. Photographers supplied the pictures, while the pundits supplied the war.
And while media were obsessed with Obama and Clinton, they pretty much ignored Republican nominee John McCain, President George W. Bush, the war in Iraq, and just about everything else. Too many storylines ruin a good drama.
But now that Clinton has agreed to concede the race and start working to help Obama, we can see that that civil war being drummed up by the talking heads was not the reality. It’s been just a few days and already the gaping wounds alluded to in the news were already healing.
Sorry Mr. Hearst, but there is no war here.
Neither was there a war on the GOP side. Remember just a few months ago when conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter were openly mocking McCain and saying he would destroy the party? It didn’t take long for that rhetoric to transform into support for their party’s nominee.
Why do media so love conflict? Because we, the members of the audience, love conflict. Conflict takes a nuanced, complicated world and makes it black and white. But it’s not reality. The real world is immensely complicated and nuanced, and becomes more so each day. No person can fully grasp the complexities of this world, so we try to simplify our viewpoint to one we can understand.
And media helps us do this in not-so-helpful ways.
We depend on media to inform us about what is happening in the world, to hold accountable our leaders, and supply us with the data necessary to be responsible citizens overseeing our democratic government.
But too often we are treated to a Roman Coliseum-like spectacle of gladiators fighting to the death and Christians being fed to the lions for our amusement. But while we are busy being entertained, the empire is crumbling around us.
We pay little attention to the corruption of the system, yet we can’t get enough of the latest sex scandal.
If our leaders would do an honest, competent job and serve the needs of the people whom they represent in the best interests of democracy, I wouldn’t care if they engaged in nightly drunken orgies on the Washington Mall. But I doubt any of us would be immune to the allure of seeing that video on the evening news, properly edited to protect our decency and fuel our outrage.
There will always be conflicts in this world, many of them important. But not all need to be covered 24/7 to the exclusion of important news. We can point our fingers at media for this problem, but not without pointing many more fingers back at ourselves.
I’m not sure how we solve the problem of media’s focus on the trivial at the expense of good journalism, other than to resist those urges to become just another voyeur in our culture of scandal.
That promises to be a tough fight. Maybe we can get some news coverage of that.
• Kirk Caraway writes for Swift Communications, Inc. He can be reached through his blog at http://kirkcaraway.com.