Reflection 73: Making Broadcast News More Radically Decent

Radical Decency focuses on replacing the value system, predominant in our culture – compete and win, dominate and control – with a new set of values: Respect, understanding, empathy, acceptance, appreciation, fairness, and justice.  To succeed in this daunting task, it also challenges us to apply these values in every relationship from the most intimate to the most public and political.  Adopting this approach, things that are easy to overlook become more visible including, very importantly, the quality of more remote interactions that vitally affect our lives.

When this different values-based focus is directed toward the broadcast news media, it is just stunning to realize how dismal its “normal” ways of interacting are – if the goal, in Radical Decency terms, is to cultivate a meaningful and mutually respectful dialogue.  Quite simply, listening and responding isn’t the goal.  Instead, the participants are collecting ammunition so that, as soon as the other person stops talking – or sooner, since interruptions are chronic – they can fire back, reiterating why they are right and he or she is wrong.

Indeed, the typical “conversation” is so far gone that candidates eagerly seek coaching on how to dominate the agenda, ignoring questions and systematically returning to their pre-planned talking points.  And, when it comes to “candidate debates,” an added goal is to interject carefully rehearsed zingers, designed to make the other candidate look like a loser. In other words, the self-conscious goal is to avoid any meaningful interaction at all.

It is easy to see why even the best-intentioned politicians would feel trapped within this system.  Failing to play the game, the next election as well as their credibility as effective and reliable political operatives would be at great risk. So while I have deep misgivings about the choices our mainstream politicians make, I have some sympathy for the dilemma they would face if they sought to change the rules of the game.

When it comes to the media, however, the need to play by these rules is far less compelling and, thus, more difficult to understand.  What would happen if CNN, CBS, and other news outlets that – at least publicly – aspire to independence and objectivity took meaningful steps to buck the system?  They would probably lose some access: Fewer A listers on Meet the Press; not as many one-on-one interviews with “unnamed senior officials.”  They might also lose some advertisers and viewers.  But would they go out of business or cripple their bottom lines? Doubtful.

So what are some of the things that these news outlets might do if they got serious about gathering and reporting news in more radically decent ways? Here are a few possibilities.

1.     Acknowledge what’s happening.

How would it be if a reporter, when his or her question is ignored, said so?  “Just to be clear, you haven’t answered the question.  No need to, but I want to be clear about that before we move on.”  Another commonly occurring moment, when naming what is happening would help to create accountability, is when the response to a fellow guest’s point is an ad hominem attack: “I notice you didn’t address your opponent’s point.  Are you content to limit your answer to an attack on his trustworthiness?

At first blush, these sorts of responses may seem jarring, even rude, but that is only because they diverge so dramatically from the dismal norms that are now so pervasive in broadcast journalism.  To me, what is truly weird is when so-called moderators and interviewers accept our current charade, without comment.

Years ago, I heard an inspiring example of this approach. The hot issue, at that time, was whether President Reagan should visit a cemetery in Bitbourg, Germany where a number of SS officers were buried.  Elie Weisl spoke against and was “rebutted” by attack on his credibility, based on statements he had made in unrelated writings.  Weisl response:  “Shame of you. There are important things that need to be said on your side of the argument and your response dishonors them.” 

The effect of Weisl’s response was dramatic, completely altering the tone and arc of the conversation.  So yes, this kind of initiative can take place and, used well, can have a powerful, positive effect on the quality of the dialogue that broadcasters are – or should be – seeking to foster.

2.     Focus on facts.

I always wonder why, in the networks’ typical point/counterpoint format, a nonpartisan factual expert isn’t routinely made a part of the dialogue – or put on remote access. 

Wouldn’t the quality of the conversation improve if the moderator, after a key factual assertion, referred to such a person for confirmation, refutation, or modification?  Doing so, partisans would no longer have carte blanche to play fast and loose with the facts. 

And, surely, in our star struck, media crazed culture, networks would be able to locate qualified experts, whatever the subject, who are also entertaining enough to hold the interest of the audience. 

As I see it, not making such an obvious choice confirms the worst about the networks. Notwithstanding their fine words about professional integrity, entertaining television and ratings always come first.  And any initiative that might have even the slightest negative effect on this goal seems to be off the table.

3.     Offer leadership in setting the agenda.

There are complex and deeply consequential issues that cry out for sustained attention –embedded poverty and injustice; environmental degradation; the collateral damage caused by ever larger institutions, exploiting the public and the planet in the pursuit of private profit.  The list of stories such as these – that need to be told and, then, retold in fresh and newly insightful ways – is endless.

But instead of being grounded in these kinds of stories, the news narrative is strikingly biased toward circuses, disasters, horse races, and feel good stories: 

  •  Wall-to-wall coverage of the latest natural disaster – or political scandal – or high profile trial;
  • Endless stories about how politicians and candidates are doing – who is up, who is down – a bias that even extends to issues, where the focus is not on substance, but on how candidates’ positions are playing with various constituencies; and
  •  A steady diet of feel good stories that, as they accumulate, leave the distorted sense that there is no systemic oppression; that good people simply overcome the odds, and, by implication, that anyone who doesn’t is somehow flawed. 

For me, the degree to which even the more responsible networks have sold their soul to this audience pleasing agenda crystalized when I witnessed the following CNN moment, highlighted by John Stuart:  Wolf Blitzer, about to cut away to a Nancy Pelosi press conference, presumably dealing with the Anthony Weiner scandal, piously apologized for “having to” to divert coverage from more important news.  But when Pelosi unexpectedly announced that she would be talking about the current budget crisis, and not about Weiner, CNN’s coverage of the press conference was instantaneously terminated! Faced with the choice between the Democratic House leader’s comments on the economy and the latest “Weiner eruption,” the network’s priority couldn’t have been clearer.


Needless to say, my three proposals are suggestive and not exhaustive.  In addition, I am not arguing for an immediate, dramatic divergence from the status quo since media companies need to be reasonably protective of their investment in their current ways of operating. 

But I am urging leadership: A carefully planned but persistent push for more radically decent approaches. Creating a different and better world requires thoughtful initiatives in every area of our culture. And it is just not acceptable for media elites – or any other group of people with significant power – to fall back on the easy excuse that, since “everyone is doing it, we have to do it too, to remain competitive.”