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Media Beat

When the news is unhinged



People often tell me that they find the news – and the news media – to be “surreal.” Or words to that effect. We might describe the sensation differently, but reactions are widely similar. There’s a widespread feeling that what gets served up as ostensibly the best journalism in the land is apt to be nonsensical, arbitrary, deplorable or just plain insulting to minimal intelligence.

Looking at the cover of Time magazine’s May 21 edition, I had that kind of unsettling reaction. Most of the slick surface was covered with the face of a leading contender for president of the United States. “Sure, He Looks Like a President,” said the headline just above his right ear. “But What Does Mitt Romney Really Believe?”

What grabbed my attention was not the question but the declaration that preceded it – stating to a certainty that Romney “looks like a president.” A corollary was unspoken, implicit and powerful: For sure, Hillary Clinton does not look like a president. For sure, Barack Obama does not look like a president. And so forth.

Such unstated, implicit assertions from media are often the most powerful. They say without quite saying. They convey without quite taking responsibility for what is conveyed.

The U.S. media emphasis on the costs of the war in Iraq frequently walks a similar line between telling us what really matters without quite coming out and saying it. The human tolls are toted up overwhelmingly in terms of Americans killed and wounded. (In this emphasis, journalists are routinely joined by members of Congress and other top officials in Washington.) The political calculus is routinely through the eyes of Uncle Sam. The lives and outlooks of others, for the most part, are devalued.

If Mitt Romney looks like a president, and American casualties of war look like the most important human sufferers in a conflagration triggered by the U.S. invasion and occupation, what about the others?

In this day and media age, it would be hard to imagine the country’s largest-circulation newsweekly putting a woman on the cover next to the headline, “Sure, She Doesn’t Look Like a President.” But the same message can be conveyed more subtly.

The latest Time cover does more than describe history. It helps to perpetuate expectations. It gives the public cues as to what we should continue to assume.

Likewise, when a listing in a newspaper or magazine appears under a headline like “Deaths in Iraq” – and the people mentioned are all Americans – the exclusive visibility of some reinforces the invisibility of others. The message need not be directly stated to be powerful: Some human beings count. Some don’t.

This is one of the reasons that “the news” so often seems disorienting rather than informing. For long stretches, in recent decades, pundits on television and in the press have proclaimed the nation’s economy to be doing very well. For millions of Americans – unemployed at any one time – those sweeping statements from journalists make little sense. For tens of millions of Americans living below the official poverty line, those statements are ridiculous.

But those statements are easy to make – especially when ample rewards of the social order are manifest in personal and professional lives of the journalists making them. The news media ignore huge swaths of humanity as a matter of course. No wonder so many people follow the news in a cloud of perplexed amazement that straddles the border between non-comprehension and disgust.

At our most optimistic, we look to the news media to help us make sense of the world. But – to the great extent that news outlets are owned by companies just interested in making money – our hopes for helpful news coverage are continually dashed.

A new wave of mergers now appears to be underway among media conglomerates that specialize in financial and business news. According to the bigmoney analysts, that’s where the greatest profits are being realized by news-and-information firms. In contrast, we’re told, “general news” is offering lackluster returns for investors.

Maybe the civic realms of journalism aren’t the media cash cows of this era. But the public needs a flow of news, information and opinion that aspires to higher values than greed.

©2007 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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