Adam Fisher: A modest media proposal



Last modified: Monday, August 27, 2012

NORTHAMPTON - Veteran CBS television newscaster Walter Cronkite was once asked why it was that nightly news was so unremittingly bad news. With a serene authority, the man who was once voted "the most trusted voice in America" replied, "News isn't about how many cats did not get up on the garage roof."

The response was deliciously home-spun and true - the kind of response that walking-around citizens could easily understand in their own lives: The conversations of daily life do not focus on the fact that Aunt Sally tied her shoe or Uncle Henry watched a Red Sox game. What is interesting and worthy of a good gab is the fact that Aunt Sally, while tying her shoe, fell out of her chair and broke her wrist or the fact that Uncle Henry got so peeved at a bonehead play that he put a can of Schlitz through his neighbor's TV screen.

But the question that Cronkite was not asked and therefore did not answer was this: If all the neighborhood cats get up on the garage roof, is it any longer news?

It was with this in mind that I sent a suggestion to the PBS NewsHour the other night. I am not in the habit of writing letters to politicians or corporations which respond with computer-generated missives thanking me for my interest and ignoring what I have to say. And I wasn't picking on the Public Broadcasting System as the one and only source of my petulance. I wrote to PBS because I found an email address easily and PBS was the closest television screen through which to throw a can of beer. And somehow I cannot imagine that I am alone in my frustration.

On Friday nights, the PBS NewsHour devotes four or five minutes to analysis of the week's news, usually with the assistance of New York Times columnist David Brooks and political commentator and columnist Mark Shields. The segment touches the tops of the waves of the week's news and, since the country is in the midst of a presidential campaign, a good deal of time is spent on the candidates and their adventures.

My suggestion was this: At the beginning of each analysis of campaign news, devote one minute - just one minute - to the substantive issues the candidates did not address during the week - education, climate change, job-creation, structural banking reform, the Pentagon budget, agriculture, air pollution, industrial out-sourcing, war, mortgage defaults, etc. The list could be kept short and sweet, but would reflect the topics that touch people's lives and yet evoked no policy statement, no positive planning, no political plank asserting how and why the candidate might, as the leader of the country, actually lead.

After such a one-minute introduction, the analysts could return to the regularly scheduled discussions of the latest political gaffe, the negative ad campaigns that candidates find so "effective," whether someone owns a horse and the unveiling of tax returns.

The obvious sarcasm of this modest proposal carries with it a serious message to the candidates, the media and the electorate. When the cats that get up on the garage roof are just the cats that get up there over and over and over again, well, then it is time to consider the cats that did not.

In the Middle Ages, there were three "estates" (societal or political forces) recognized within countries: the clergy, the nobility and the commoners ... or, more broadly, those with power and those without. In the 18th century, the term "Fourth Estate" was born, when the press was first allowed to report on the British House of Commons. Implicitly, it was the Fourth Estate that assisted the electorate in understanding, and perhaps doing something about, the activities of the other three estates.

In Water Cronkite's era, the Fourth Estate still carried with it a certain honorable cachet. It was the Fourth Estate that winkled out the scoundrels and took care to inform those who had no time or wherewithal to assess and perhaps defend against the activities of their leaders.

But when, as today, the Fourth Estate is battered by reduced ad revenue and a dwindling news staff and thereafter abdicates its role as a defender and nurturer of the "commoners," then I think it is time to ask for a little reflection and revision. Is it enough to succumb to the obscenely well-heeled blandishments and legerdemain of those who might lead the country? Is it enough to play along with all those cats on the garage roof? Is it enough to hang the electorate out to dry?

I don't drink beer, but if I did, I think I might emulate Uncle Henry.

Adam Fisher of Northampton, a regular contributor, is the author of "Answer Your Love Letters: Footnotes to a Zen Practice."


 


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