We’ve watched it hundreds of times: the verbal chess match between reporters and politicians. One trying to corner the other into admitting something the audience already knows. The purpose of these interviews is less about substance and more about gamesmanship. As long as the politician keeps arguing – no matter how disingenuous or irrational the argument – the news media continues to treat him as credible. In turn, the politician is able to distract the public while legitimizing his position.
The comment by Senator Tim Scott and other Republicans that, “America is not a racist country,” is like saying humans beings aren’t violent. It is meant to provide an answer without addressing the substance of the question. If we look at America as a collection of ideals then, sure, you could argue it’s not inherently racist. However, in practical terms, the America we live in is not functioning according to these ideals. This is the politics of semantics – or “spin” as it’s commonly called, and it’s one of the main reasons why this country finds itself so divided.
The problem is not reporters, per se. It’s their model of reporting. The slow and methodical workings of the three branches of government – executive, legislative and judicial – don’t suit the demands of a 24/7 news cycle. So journalism has been turned into something that feels like news but isn’t. News outlets provide instant gratification in the form of insider information and political analysis. Contributors share cloak room conversations like gossip. Legislative progress is framed in terms of winners and losers. To what end? What can the average viewer do with this information except satisfy a curiosity? What does this incessant political analysis accomplish except (mis)lead us deeper into the abyss?
What’s the alternative? Well, for one, news outlets should stop giving airtime to guests that refuse to directly answer questions. They should either cut them off (which they do occasionally) or stop inviting them. News outlets should also stop reporting political soundbites as news. “So-and-so said this” is not news. It’s propaganda. Senator Mitch McConnell, for example, gets the best of both worlds when his comments make headlines; he gets to avoid tough questions while getting his deceptive messages into the public domain. If McConnell wants to promote a position beyond a right-wing audience, mainstream reporters should require an interview.
Throughout Donald Trump’s tenure, Republican lawmakers reportedly made fun of him in private while praising him publicly (as though their refusal to admit the obvious meant it didn’t exist). Nevertheless, not once did I see a reporter confront one of these Republicans for their hypocrisy. Nor did I see a single reporter ask Republican officials about Donald Trump’s obvious mental pathology. Under the guise of journalism, who were these commentators protecting except their own careers? This dereliction in reporting is perpetuated, I believe, because news programs have become political themselves. They’re afraid of being ostracized by their peers, losing viewers and ad revenue.
News should be about politicians doing the work of the American people. Except when covering campaigns, the news media should stop covering politicians who use their bully pulpit simply to retain power. Of course, this won’t happen until we, the viewers, stop accepting this as productive.