Featured: Top of Home Page

My beef with the media

Edward Wasserman

What's the worst thing about the media?

Everybody has a favorite peeve: Bias in reporting, hyper-commercialization, encouraging people to buy things they don't need and can't afford, undermining core values, nurturing cynicism.

There are others, and Web sites are refilled daily with fresh angles on the case you can make against the media -- here, I mean specifically the U.S. media. A case can also be made for the media, but that's not my interest today.

I'm interested in introducing my nominee for the very worst thing about the U.S. media, the single greatest harm the media do to American society. That, in my opinion, is to hang a for-rent sign on our political system.

The latest in that story came in a recent article that reported on the growing battle between TV broadcasters and cable owners over the record amounts candidates, parties and interest groups are poised to spend on campaign advertising in the current electoral cycle, which began moments after the last one ended.

The article estimates 2008 spending by candidates and interest groups on TV alone will top $2 billion, out of total expenditures on advertising and marketing of all kinds of $4.5 billion. That's up 64 percent from 2004, in part because this will be the first race for the White House since 1928 without a sitting president or vice president -- a presumed front-runner -- among the candidates.

Those estimates, staggering as they are, may be on the low side -- if a major independent enters the presidential race, if control of either congressional chamber hangs in the balance, if local candidates take advantage of cheap production costs and divert money from producing ads to buying more airtime, if interest groups heavy up on advertising right before the vote, which is now legal thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling.

Now that windfall is great news for the companies that own local TV stations or cable operations, which will be the main beneficiaries, and to a lesser extent for newspaper publishers and local radio.

It's the rest of us who pay. We pay by living under an electoral system that at every level is shaped by an unrelenting obligation among elected public servants to raise fabulous amounts of money. As a result, months or even years before they come before us for final selection, candidates must be pre-approved by tiny numbers of very rich donors in Hollywood, on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, in the oil patch. It is from those early signs of fundraising prowess that the viability of a candidacy is assessed, and it is only by continuing to bring in money that anyone can hope to succeed.

That's all well known. But somehow this problem, of an insatiable need for campaign dollars, has been turned into an indictment of politicians: It is their fault, it's their greed and hunger for money, that has turned electoral democracy into a livestock auction in which public policy is led around by the nose.

But, in fact, politicians aren't the problem at all, for once. To get re-elected the average senator must raise $20,000 every week in office, members of Congress a half-million a year. (That was for the last election cycle. We're looking at a nearly two-thirds increase this time.) They don't keep the money, and they don't spend it on luxuries. They don't get rich -- not until they leave office. For now, all they get is to keep their jobs.

Where does the money go? Most of it goes to media, to making and airing those sharp, memorable, exquisitely produced and invariably deceitful TV spots that are the hard currency of modern, pay-as-you-go electoral jihad. In that respect we pay again, through a debased campaign discourse that is compressed, refined and distorted to comply with a corporate-owned media commons that ladles out opportunities to address the public in fractions of a second.

Tweaking the rules of raising money is a perennial cause among reformers, but doing something about why anybody needs all that money rarely comes up. Every once in a while some no-hope politician raises the possibility that media might actually be compelled -- in exchange for all the public largesse they feast on, whether airwaves or terrestrial rights-of-way -- to do what media do in other republican systems, and provide real, serious, free air time for office-seekers to talk to each other and to us.

And surprise -- when those proposals are floated, the media ignore them.

Edward Wasserman

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

The Durutti Column's 'Vini Reilly' Is the Post-Punk's Band's Definitive Statement

Mancunian guitarist/texturalist Vini Reilly parlayed the momentum from his famous Morrissey collaboration into an essential, definitive statement for the Durutti Column.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

What Will Come? COVID-19 and the Politics of Economic Depression

The financial crash of 2008-2010 reemphasized that traumatic economic shifts drive political change, so what might we imagine — or fear — will emerge from the COVID-19 depression?

Music

Datura4 Take Us Down the "West Coast Highway Cosmic" (premiere)

Australia's Datura4 deliver a highway anthem for a new generation with "West Coast Highway Cosmic". Take a trip without leaving the couch.

Music

Teddy Thompson Sings About Love on 'Heartbreaker Please'

Teddy Thompson's Heartbreaker Please raises one's spirits by accepting the end as a new beginning. He's re-joining the world and out looking for love.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Little Protests Everywhere

Wherever you are, let's invite our neighbors not to look away from police violence against African Americans and others. Let's encourage them not to forget about George Floyd and so many before him.

Music

Carey Mercer's New Band Soft Plastics Score Big with Debut '5 Dreams'

Two years after Frog Eyes dissolved, Carey Mercer is back with a new band, Soft Plastics. 5 Dreams and Mercer's surreal sense of incongruity should be welcomed with open arms and open ears.

Music

Sondre Lerche Rewards 'Patience' with Clever and Sophisticated Indie Pop

Patience joins its predecessors, Please and Pleasure, to form a loose trilogy that stands as the finest work of Sondre Lerche's career.

Film

Ruben Fleischer's 'Venom' Has No Bite

Ruben Fleischer's toothless antihero film, Venom is like a blockbuster from 15 years earlier: one-dimensional, loose plot, inconsistent tone, and packaged in the least-offensive, most mass appeal way possible. Sigh.

Books

Cordelia Strube's 'Misconduct of the Heart' Palpitates with Dysfunction

Cordelia Strube's 11th novel, Misconduct of the Heart, depicts trauma survivors in a form that's compelling but difficult to digest.

Music

Reaching For the Vibe: Sonic Boom Fears for the Planet on 'All Things Being Equal'

Sonic Boom is Peter Kember, a veteran of 1980s indie space rockers Spacemen 3, as well as Spectrum, E.A.R., and a whole bunch of other fascinating stuff. On his first solo album in 30 years, he urges us all to take our foot off the gas pedal.

Film

Old British Films, Boring? Pshaw!

The passage of time tends to make old films more interesting, such as these seven films of the late '40s and '50s from British directors John Boulting, Carol Reed, David Lean, Anthony Kimmins, Charles Frend, Guy Hamilton, and Leslie Norman.

Music

Inventions' 'Continuous Portrait' Blurs the Grandiose and the Intimate

Explosions in the Sky and Eluvium side project, Inventions are best when they are navigating the distinction between modes in real-time on Continuous Portrait.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.