Communication Studies

Department Spotlight

As published in the September 23, 2006 issue of The Spokesman-Review

Political Power in Our Hands, Not Media's

Guest Opinion
by James Mcpherson, Ph.D.
Special to The Spokesman-Review

Another election, another dismal turnout. Thanks to relatively few area voters, taxes may go up or down, roads may be fixed or disintegrate, and community services will thrive, limp along or die. Most locals have no idea – and little apparent interest in – how the primary elections will affect them. More will cast ballots in November's election, when an "R" or "D" after a candidate's name will tell them how to vote, but those new voters likely won't be much smarter than the non-voters.

Blame the news media.

After all, aren't the media responsible for the right-wing theocracy under which we now live? And for the liberal decay of society? Aren't they too critical of our leaders? And don't they ignore the misdeeds of those in power?

The fact is, our area news media are neither liberal nor conservative in ways that matter much. True, most are essentially useless in serving what should be their primary purpose, that of helping us govern ourselves. But media users are more to blame than are media producers. We tend to get the media and the politics that we deserve.

Unfortunately, too much political "knowledge" comes from one-sided political advertising and talk radio, and from television news. Considering how little news now appears on network television, that's worrisome. But of even more concern is the number of people who rely on local television. One local station's motto, "Where news comes first," should more accurately state "Where really cool fire pictures come first," but other local stations are no better.

Don't get me wrong; I know and like some local newscasters. They're nice people, their job is tougher than it looks and they're generally pretty good at it. Unfortunately, that's much like being good at competitive eating: Neither contributes much to democracy, and either can sicken a discerning audience.

Local TV news throughout the country has degenerated into a quick-cut mishmash of lurid but largely irrelevant crime stories, briefs plagiarized from newspapers, video of car crashes and fires, government and corporate video news releases, weather graphics, sports highlights and "happy talk." Our ability to govern ourselves suffers because we see little about local governmental initiatives and policy. Meaningful political or historical context is virtually nonexistent. Admittedly, if a local TV station began devoting coverage to more important local news stories, many viewers would switch the channel to catch the latest California car-chase footage.

As with most cities, we'd be better off if Spokane had a second daily newspaper, or even a weekly with the money to compete better in digging up news. We do have a good daily for a city this size (though not quite as good in some ways as a few years ago, when it had more reporters and editors).

Still, the Spokesman critically covers local politics and might do so even more if readers showed they cared. The paper frequently (too frequently, I think) reaches out to ask what readers want, but too much of what we want is garbage. The new "transparent newsroom" is a great idea, and more people should take advantage of it.

Of course, more also should watch the City Council on public-access television, attend candidates' forums, read magazines that emphasize text over pictures, and spend more time considering the arguments of opponents while looking for original sources to help them make up their own minds.

Bashing the press is easy and frequently justified, but in many respects we have the best news media we've ever had. Some devote significant space to public affairs. Even local television stations often provide links via their Internet sites so you can bypass the 12-second sound bites of politicians to see the full text of speeches – or better yet, of the bills they're discussing.

Oddly, not only are most people apathetic about politics in general, they're least interested in the local issues they could most influence and which usually affect them most. They're much more likely to vote in national elections, especially if political ads and talk-show spin generate enough heat (though rarely much light) about inflammatory "threats" such as flag burning, homosexuality, immigration and terrorism.

When it comes to democracy, local television is almost worthless. But we need not be, and responsible news media provide necessary information that we would not otherwise get. It's our job as citizens – and as media users – to demand meaningful information, to seek it out, to appreciate it and to use it. Whining is easy. Democracy is hard. And fragile.

James McPherson is an associate professor of communication studies at Whitworth University and the author of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-present (Praeger, 2006). McPherson's forthcoming book Getting the News Right: The Rise of Conservatism in the Press, is scheduled for publication in 2007 by Northwestern University Press.

Note: The opinions expressed in works written by Whitworth faculty and staff do not necessarily represent the views of Whitworth University or members of its community. They are, however, symbolic of Whitworth’s commitment as a Christian college to the free exchange of ideas.

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