Connect to share and comment
After 27 years on the other side of the pond, a political correspondent returns stateside just in time for the Republican National Convention.
LONDON—The longer I live abroad, the more disorienting my rare visits back to America become. After 27 years away you expect changes but so few touchstones of my life in the US. are left, I feel like a tourist. Except, of course, I'm not.
That explains why my first trip back home in a year, which coincided with the Republican Convention, has left me feeling distraught. There is much that had me concerned about the state of the nation, but on this trip it was more personal than ever because—given the story of the week—my focus was on my profession. I had no idea just how bad political journalism had become. I mean, I read the major American press on-line every day. I catch tidbits of cable news when Facebook friends point me in certain directions but to be immersed, the way I would be if I still lived in the US., was profoundly shocking.
American society is in crisis and the political journalism aggravates this crisis because at this moment it is—I could try and write something clever but I need to say it simply—it is just awful. Yes, there are colleagues who do an excellent job, but their work is overwhelmed by the tide of stupidity and gossip with a dangerous undertow of pusillanimous conformity that passes as political "journalism" today.
I suppose things have been headed this way for a while. The last time I was in America for a convention season was in 2004. I was co-hosting the NPR program Here and Now's Democratic Convention coverage and then traveled to the Deep South to make a documentary on why that region remained the crucible of American politics.
As an insider, the things that I found disquieting then in the way news media reported what are essentially staged infomercials have now become standard practice. 2004 was the year that comics supplanted journalists as the skeptics in the room. I interviewed Lewis Black for Here and Now and he was quite trenchant and funny but Lewis is not a journalist, he's like your ranting best friend who's had a few too many drinks. Now comic bar room chat has been elevated to the level of analysis (in a real bar room on the set of Morning Joe in Tampa). Comic skepticism, not journalistic skepticism, rules.
And, of course, journalistic skepticism is what's required now that conventions simply parrot the propaganda that super-PACs are paying for. No room here to define "journalistic skepticism" in theory and practice but Claud Cockburn's definition works as short hand. The first question any journalist should ask himself when talking to a politician, according to Cockburn, is, "Why is this bastard lying to me?"
Who is asking that when they are in the spin room at the convention center?
Meanwhile, propaganda floods the airwaves in a country where newspapers are dying, the traditional network newscasts are still hemorrhaging viewers, and cable news outlets have doubled down on partisanship or bizarre personalities like Piers Morgan.
More from GlobalPost: Fact checking the conventions: Top 6 dishonest moments
And NPR, the only broadcast outfit to grow audience since 2004, buffeted from all sides, plays it so safe as to be almost non-informative. NPR is like a car driven by pensioners cruising along in the slow lane at 55 mph because it's safer and better for the environment.
Look: you have to cover conventions even if they are news-free events. I understand that. But they can be occasions for journalists to provide good summary features that provide a bit of historical context on how the country arrived at this political moment. You've got the attention of most of the nation on its big quadrennial political decision for a few days: use it to deepen understanding.
Instead, context seems to have gone out the window. For example, one meme surrounding the Republican Convention was "introducing Mitt Romney to the country." Exactly a year ago, the Republicans were in the midst of an unprecedented series of pre-primary season debates. There would be 13 in all. Romney participated in 12 of them. What's left to introduce?
In the hours of broadcasting I was awash in, and in the thousands of words of print journalism I read, no reporter challenged the assumption that