Sunday, June 10, 2007

Tom Brokaw Explains It All

Updated below

In its annual roundup of highlights from college commencement addresses around the nation, the New York Times offers this excerpt from a speech delivered by a prominent figure from America's mainstream media: former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, speaking at Skidmore College:

You've been told during your high school years and your college years that you are now about to enter the real world, and you've been wondering what it's like. Let me tell you that the real world is not college. The real world is not high school. The real world, it turns out, is much more like junior high. You are going to encounter, for the rest of your life, the same petty jealousies, the same irrational juvenile behavior, the same uncertainty that you encountered during your adolescent years. That is your burden. We all share it with you. We wish you well.
I appreciate Brokaw's honesty. His speech doesn't reveal a lot about the "real world." But it does--unintentionally, I'm sure--reveal a lot about how the mainstream media tends to view the real world. It certainly helps to explain the giggly-gossip style of political coverage, in which the price of John Edwards' haircuts is more important than the substance of his views; the theatre-review approach to White House reporting, in which a presidential press conference is not analyzed in terms of the truth or falsehood of the factual assertions being made but rather in terms of how the president gestured, the tone of his voice, and the manliness of his demeanor; and the horse-race style of election coverage, in which popularity polls, fund-raising statistics, and the latest news about which consultants are on the rise or on the decline eclipses the question of who would make the best president.

If you view the "real world" as being just a better-paid version of junior high school, then you might as well report about it as if it is all a joke or a game. Judged in that light, our mainstream media are doing a fine, fine job.


After chatting about this with Mary-Jo, I realize that my point here could stand to be clarified.

Tom Brokaw is of course correct to say that the world is plagued by "petty jealousies" and "irrational juvenile behavior." But these aren't the only kind of behaviors we see in the world. There are people driven by passionate concerns about social, political, and economic problems; there are people with strong intellectual, moral, religious, and ideological convictions; there are people who are deeply ambitious to achieve success in business, academia, the arts, science, and many other serious fields. All of these motivations play important roles in shaping the world we live in. To ignore them all and say that the world is nothing more than junior high school redux is silly, simplistic, and false.

Unfortunately, this kind of reductionism is extremely common in the mainstream media. Next time a politician states a position on some kind of important issue, check out how it gets covered on the network news. It is overwhelmingly likely that the substance of the politician's position will be ignored in favor of "how it plays" in the political game: "This is an attempt to shore up his position with his party's base . . . " "He is trying a risky shift to the right in order to . . . " "He is building up his credentials as a . . ." etc. etc. etc. In other words, it's all a game--nothing more.

Naturally, political considerations play a role in everything a politician says and does. For some politicians, those considerations are always predominant. But not for all politicians. And to report politics as if only the game exists is to espouse an extreme cynicism in which government is solely a clash of egos centered on jockeying for position and popularity--"show business for ugly people," as someone once joked.

This kind of cynicism would be harmless if politics had no lasting consequences (like a junior-high-school popularity contest). But when we choose the wrong people to lead the country and allow them to behave irresponsibly, it really matters. People die.

So rather than declaring that life itself is nothing more than junior high school and chuckling about how sophisticated we are to say so, maybe we as a nation ought to be trying to grow up instead.

P.S. I know Tom Brokaw was just trying to make a joke. It's too bad that the joke happens to express so perfectly so much of what is wrong with the MSM where Tom Brokaw made his living . . .

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