WTMA commentary broadcast 1/11/08:

While John F. Kennedy is considered by most to be America’s first “TV president,” even the King of Camelot would no doubt be shocked at what passes for hard journalism in 2008. We learn from watching the major news outlets that Hillary Clinton is a woman. That Barack Obama believes in “change.” That Mike Huckabee plays a mean bass and likes church. That John McCain is a “maverick.” Mitt Romney is from the business world. Ron Paul is a long-shot. And Fred Thompson is a serious contender. We know the ins-and-outs of “who said what about whom” and how it might affect their campaign. And we even know many of the candidates’ spouses, not to mention the coverage of candidates’ wives and husbands on the campaign trail themselves.   

But where does Clinton stand on Social Security? As a Democrat you might assume she might want to preserve it for infinity, but does her plan differ from Obama’s? If so, how? Where does Huckabee stand on affirmative action? Does his brand of so-called “compassionate conservatism” embrace it along with other social engineering, and if so, how do the other candidates differ? If McCain is for the current war and is comfortable perpetuating it for 100 years, yet is against tax cuts, what are his plans to help improve the economy? Do McCain’s ideas differ from Romney’s, and why do the Democrats seem to disagree? On what basis?

If the viewer is lucky enough to get a glimpse or a graphic on television of where a particular candidate stands, it is dwarfed by the amount of time covering the personalities involved. What should be peripheral news is not only the predominant news – but the only news. We hear more about Hillary crying during the campaign than how her policies might make voters cry if she were to become elected. We know Rudy fancies himself as “tough” on terrorism, but how tough would he be on America as president, as evidenced by the scores of NYC policemen and firemen who consider him a failed mayor? Take even an issue like the Fair Tax, which is of interest to many voters and has been a hot topic this election year. If you’re lucky, a voter might understand that it means beyond abolishing the income tax and replacing it with a sales tax, which excites some and scares others. Wouldn’t offering a detailed analysis help voters to form a more informed opinion? Exactly what are the details of Hillary’s health care plan, which also excites some and scares others?

The most basic duty of a serious journalist is to keep the public informed, yet when it comes to electing our leaders we are told every trivial tidbit about them except the most important thing – their issues. Of course, the presidential “horse race” itself is newsworthy, as even JFK and Richard Nixon’s demeanor during their famous 1960 television debate is still talked about today. But the more important news in the end was how the Cuban Missile Crisis was handled under Kennedy and how Nixon got us out of Vietnam. How the current crop of candidates might handle such crises is less known to the average voter than their current poll numbers and their celebrity endorsements.

I remember taking a journalism course at the College of Charleston years ago, where I was told that reporters should never write above an 8th grade level. It was explained to me that this made the news accessible to the widest possible audience, which makes sense.

Unfortunately today, not simply the presentation, but the actual content of the news has been reduced to an 8th grade level, where presidential campaigns more closely resemble schoolgirl gossip than republican democracy. The Founding Fathers thought that a free press was so important to a free society that the very first amendment to the Constitution was designed to protect it. One could only imagine what the Founders would think of the press today that feels no duty and has no interest in challenging the public to think at all.