How The Media Makes Us Stupid
There are times these days watching the news when I feel I know less when I am finished than when I began. The people who ask the questions seem consistently to ask the wrong questions or to ask them in such a twisted and tendentious way that no possible answer could lead a viewer or reader any closer to the facts of the matter.
Two examples from the week just past. Rick Santorum appeared Monday on Fox News' Studio B with Shepard Smith. Smith challenged Santorum on his stand against gay marriage. Here's how Smith phrased the question:
How much longer is being anti-gay rights going to be something that's a conservative principle...? How long before you catch up with the rest of the country and realize everybody's okay?
Really? Is that what America needs to know about this issue? Santorum handled the question gracefully, pointing out that he wasn't attacking homosexual relationships but defending the institution of marriage. Still, it was a stupid question stupidly asked and aimed at creating stupidity in its audience. It presumed that marriage was a right; it presumed to know the opinion of the majority of the country; it presumed that that opinion was an advance on Santorum's, that he needed to "catch up" with it rather than the other way around; and worst of all, it presumed that Santorum could have no other basis for his stance than a sort of prejudice or ignorance that caused him to be blind to everybody's glowing okayness.
To be clear: the actual issue, gay marriage, has virtually nothing to do with it. Whether you think homosexuality is a sin per se or, like me, you believe that both homosexuals and heterosexuals can act either morally or immorally within the context of their desires — that doesn't matter here. Santorum is a candidate for high office who has shown a willingness to act on principle even when it might cost him politically. A media that conveyed information rather than distorted it would tell us what his principles are, what conclusions he draws from them, and how those conclusions would relate to his actions as president.
How hard is it to ask those questions? I mean, "everybody's okay"? Please!
Former Democrat operative and current Democrat-operative-pretending-to-be-a-journalist George Stephanopoulos was at it too during Saturday night's debate. The Clinton hatchet man asked Mitt Romney a (literally) out-of-left-field question about the 1965 Supreme Court decision that forbid states from banning contraception by discovering a hitherto unheard-of "right to privacy" in the U.S. Constitution. Taken aback by the question's irrelevance, Romney said he found the whole issue "kind of a silly thing." The studio audience clearly agreed and let Stephanopoulos know it by booing him.
In this case, it's not that Stephanopoulos asked the question in a particularly twisted way, it's that the question itself was intended not to elicit information but to play off audience emotionalism. It clearly had no other purpose than to deceive the listener by distorting the candidate's image. It was about a Democrat working for Democrats trying to discomfit a Republican candidate for the sake of the Democrats. Left-wing pundits caught the ball and carried it forward the next morning.
Our media — so many of them, like Stephanopoulos, Democrats working for Democrats for the good of the Democrats — consistently confuse principle with prejudice and process with purpose. They then attempt to obscure the confusion with hot button issues that arouse emotions rather than thoughts. They ask about abortion when they should be asking about the behavior of the courts. They ask about contraception when they should be asking about the reach of the federal government. They know we have strong feelings on these specific issues and hope those strong feelings might induce us to forget the terrible long-term price we pay for scuttling the Constitution in order to get our way short-term.
It doesn't have to be like this. There are questions that need to be asked and journalists could easily ask them. The fact that they don't speaks to their purposes. They make us stupid because stupid is how they want us.