spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people
Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known
international lecturer. She is founder and executive director of
Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality,
and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses
and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Sister Joan has
been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work
for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.
She is an active member of the International Peace Council.
|By Joan Chittister, OSB
Election year politics is always the biggest game in town. But this year, election year media coverage may be, if truth were known, the even bigger story than the candidates themselves. After all, most of what we know about the candidates we get from the media, and the media is not giving much.
There are some basic editorial themes, of course. Every news program includes them. Every commentator repeats them.
Theme number one is that the public considers George Bush better equipped than John Kerry to deal with terrorism. But no one ever seems to bother with the follow-up story of what "dealing with terrorism" means. Is it engaging in global slaughter or extending our political negotiations? Does it involve eliminating support for terrorists by developing new foreign policies or sealing our borders to foreigners or putting on more guards at airports?
We keep hearing the same words -- terrorists, al-Qaeda, coalition, allies, intel -- over and over again, but very little of the mainstream media bothers to explore the meaning of them in any depth. There are no panels of academic experts invited to discuss the research, the history, let alone the response options to any of them for us. There is little or no opportunity for average viewers to weigh their own analyses of these subjects against a wider range of historical or philosophical considerations of an issue.
Theme number two is that the public doesn't know John Kerry. What the Democrats really need to do, we're told over and over again, is to "introduce Kerry to the public."
With an almost $100 million difference between the Bush and Kerry campaign war chests, just how that is supposed to get done in a country where a person may be born poor but better grow up rich if s/he wants to be able to buy enough media time to run for political office, is unclear.
After weeks of underscoring the obscurity of John Kerry, for instance, the major networks in the United States decided that political conventions aren't news. "They're scripted," they concluded, "and so not newsworthy." As a result, eight days of policy speeches and platform concerns and political postures and positions were left blanked out in the United States of America, that largest town hall meeting place in the world. Key news channels never carried the very speeches that might have provided what they insisted we lack: a picture of John Kerry.
They called such introductory material necessary news on one program and then blacked it out with situation comedies and reality shows. All of which, apparently, are more important in the minds of the schedulers than national political conventions. Then, after an hour of public coverage, commentators come back the day after the event and have the nerve to question why no "bounce" occurred as a result of it.
Cable news, in its quiet, plodding way, carried the conventions, of course. But, the news media seems to have forgotten, everybody does not get cable news. They can't afford it. So the situation is clear: The Democrats may be right. There may indeed be two Americas, the one that can educate itself politically via cable, and the one that needs that education, according to the prime time news programs, but can't get it on prime time channels.
One thing's for sure: We won't find much to help us answer questions about the real meaning of terrorism or the identity of John Kerry from the mainstream media itself.
In fact, discussion of issues is a dying art in the United States, if it ever existed here at all. For a country that prides itself on freedom of speech, we pay very little attention at all to the quality of the speeches we're free to make.
Our talk shows are built on contention not on conversation. News services hire opposites, ostensibly to provide editorial balance, actually to assure the public just one more kind of violence. Like cockfights, which we have the sense to outlaw, we throw contenders at one another, both rabid in their views and rigid in their loyalties, and wait to see where the money falls.
As a result, we know the answers we'll get to every question before we hear the program, because we know the cast of characters. Robert Novak is always against anything born Democrat, and sarcastic about it. James Carville is always opposed to anything with a history of Republican support, and loud about it. It makes good theater. It also makes poor thinking.
We have turned American politics into another kind of athletic competition rather than into a pursuit of philosophical and political possibilities.
It isn't that political partisanship and intellectual jousting is not a value in itself. Debate is a time-honored intellectual practice, promulgated and honed centuries ago as the basis for democratic participation in the Greek city-states. Debate is meant to clarify the arguments that underlie a position. They answer one position with another, they lay out the boundaries of an issue so we can judge between them, so we can make up our own minds. But, though meant to persuade, debate does little to analyze the positions on which the debaters make their case. As a result, intellectual jousting is no substitute for discursive thinking, the painstaking analysis of probability.
Jousting gives us ready arguments. Thinking helps us see the weaknesses as well as the strengths on both sides of an argument. It teaches us to consider context and consequences as well as solutions. It eliminates smoke from a discussion so we can benefit from the heat of it.
But we don't get much of that. Our talk shows throw multiple subjects into the center of a circle of experts, like red meat to guard dogs, give them all 120 seconds to respond to it, and shout at them while they're trying to do it.
From where I stand, it looks as if the media has surrendered to the lowest possible level of political reporting. Ideas don't interest them; only argument satisfies. Anything else, they tell us, is not worthy of their attention. And these are the same people who will show us day after day and hour after hour of pole vaults, high dives and balance beam routines when the Olympics return -- scripted, repetitious and highly politicized. Interesting, isn't it?
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