The media are lobbing softballs

A TV interview these days is little but a PR opportunity for politicians

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As post-mortems on the breakdown of the deficit-reduction "supercommittee" finger the president and Congress, the press -- particularly broadcast media -- have escaped blame for its failure to provide the news the American public needs to understand what went, and is going, wrong.

My gripe is not only with the shallow, horse-race reportage of the committee's work, or even with the partisan divide among the cable talking heads, but also with how the major network folks can't even pull off a decent, basic journalism interview.

A Q-and-A with a television correspondent has become the easiest public relations ticket going for today's politicians. The questioners lob softballs, inviting not only obfuscation, but lies that go unchallenged. To present themselves as fair and balanced, they then invite similarly murky pronouncements, counter-lies and name-calling from the opposition. Missing, though, is truth and evidence -- the stuff that used to comprise watchdog journalism.

Christiane Amanpour's "This Week" on ABC provided a glaring example in an interview this month with Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio. Early on, Ms. Amanpour invited Mr. Boehner to explain his opposition to increasing taxes on the wealthy. Mr. Boehner responded that the primary targets of these taxes would be "small business people ... the very people that we're hoping will reinvest in our economy and create jobs." He argued that the nation has "done all this stimulus spending the last couple of years, and clearly it has not worked."

Ms. Amanpour let those claims pass as fact without asking the necessary follow-up questions: Why have these businesses not provided more jobs in the current tax environment? And what is the evidence that stimulus spending of the last couple years did not work when the Congressional Budget Office estimated that it had created 3.3 million jobs?

Ms. Amanpour moved on to the prospect of the "rather draconian" cuts, including some to the Defense Department, if the supercommittee failed. She did not ask Mr. Boehner about reports that some members of his caucus intend to pursue legislation to avoid Defense Department budget slashing, but she did let him go on about how important it is "for our government to solve our deficit and our debt problem."

Now there's some insight.

The grand finale of this interview was the speaker's foray into class warfare, which he accused the president of waging "every day." But isn't Occupy Wall Street really more about shared sacrifice and fairness? Ms. Amanpour asked. To which Mr. Boehner replied that "the top 1 percent pay 38 percent of the income taxes in America. You know, how much more do you want them to pay?"

Yes, but ah, I thought, this is where she'll point out -- as recently reported in the Post-Gazette -- that the income tax rate has declined from 59 percent for earnings between $330,191 and $390,225 in 1961 to 35 percent on earnings above $379,150 in 2011. Or she'll ask him about the recent finding by professors at Harvard and Duke universities that the richest 20 percent of U.S. citizens possess more than 80 percent of the nation's wealth and the poorest 20 percent just one-tenth of 1 percent.

She didn't. Instead, she moved on to the low approval rating of Congress.

A week later on NBC's "Meet the Press," Democratic National Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was telling host David Gregory that President Barack Obama, after inheriting two wars and a crashing economy, had begun to turn things around and was responsible for "20 straight months of growth in the private sector; ... he stopped the decline."

Mr. Gregory chose not to seek or cite evidence, nor did he ask about the policies that had brought about this turnaround. Instead, he took the interview into a discussion of what Republicans have identified as the major economic problem facing the nation: the national debt.

Another opportunity to inform was missed -- which, it seems, is the case with most of the so-called interviews that pass for hard news in today's media marketplace of ideas. It is a marketplace laden with political gamesmanship and seriously depleted of substance. Television journalism, in particular, founded on the stated principle to provide information that promotes the public good, is failing its responsibility.

This failure comes at a cost that is dear -- not to the bottom line of network owners, who have transformed their news departments from public service stewards to profit-margin commodities -- but to the public and our democracy.

Steve Hallock is director of the School of Communication at Point Park University and author of a forthcoming book on press coverage during the buildup to wars since the end of World War II ( ).


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