MEDIA MUDDLES THE MESSAGE
BY ANTHONY RUDEL
When President Obama gave his first address before a joint session of Congress, but perhaps of greater import, his fifty-two minute talk was carried by every major television network, by a cadre of cable television outlets, over the internet, and by radio stations from coast to coast. But in reality President Obama was speaking not to the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives, but to the American people much in the way President Roosevelt chose to talk directly with the voters over the radio in his famous Fireside Chats. While we hear lots about the parallels between the Roosevelt era and the current time, there is a vast difference which is affecting the story and that difference is directly caused by the proliferation and abuse of electronic media.
Six days after Roosevelt’s first Fireside Chat, the New York Times wrote: “Radio traveling at the speed of sunlight across every State of the Union has fit into President Roosevelt’s plan for rapid-fire action in the war against depression. The White House is now equipped for quick contact with the populace on a few minutes notice. Already Mr. Roosevelt is being called ‘the Radio President.’” Back then, the President controlled the one instantaneous medium; this allowed Roosevelt to speak, unfiltered by blather, to the American people. While his first chat is the well-known banking talk, eight weeks later Roosevelt reprised the event and said; “Tonight, I come for the second time to give you my report—in the same spirit and by the same means—to tell you what we have been doing and what we plan to do.” Before he spoke those words over the radio, the American public had no idea what he was going to say; the speech was a highly guarded secret and thus its impact, once delivered, was tremendous and went a long way to reassure a worried America.
This week, long before President Obama said a single word, his speech was pre-chewed, analyzed, dissected, digested and regurgitated badly by a phalanx of pundits all of whom were putting forth their own agenda and, in some cases, the agendas of the companies that pay their salaries. While the President certainly had the spotlight, the pre-game chatter which usually included the phrase, “Well, here’s what I want to hear the President say,” had begun to color the American populace’s reaction. As if that were not damaging enough, his talk was followed by the Republican response also carried by an array of media outlets, and the post-game analysis, which most often included the phrase: “Well, I didn’t hear what I wanted to hear.” In essence, the President’s message was altered by the cherry-picking of certain phrases and the reactions by pundits and politicos to those excerpts. It is a miracle President Obama’s messages were able to get through this gauntlet at all.
Simultaneous with the proliferation of electronic media muddling and meddling, we have witnessed during the last few weeks the continuing slow death of the nation’s newspapers, places where citizens were once able to read the President’s words fully and without the filter of electronic punditry. Losing newspapers, though perhaps predictable in this instant gratification society we have become, is tremendously concerning. Newspapers provided a sober, thoughtful assessment vehicle that today has been swamped and badly supplanted by the immediacy of electronics.
Ironically President Hoover, who during his tenure as Commerce Secretary guided the growth of American radio, was prescient and concerned about the growing power of radio as a messenger and political weapon. In his memoirs, he assessed the positives and negatives of what radio was becoming. Wisely he wrote: “Truth is less carefully safeguarded on the radio than in the press. The control of slander, libel, malice, and smearing is far more difficult. The newspaper editor has a chance to see a statement before it goes to press. But on the radio it is often out before the station can stop it. A misstatement in the press can be corrected within twenty-four hours, and it reaches approximately the same people who read the original item and is open to all who have a grievance. There is little adequate answer to a lying microphone.”
If Hoover, a man who believed in limited government intervention, were around today, there is no doubt that he would urge the government to put in place strict regulations and rules to control the wild, willful, and frankly dangerous opining that fills the 24/7 media circus we have constructed. The line between commentator and entertainer has been obliterated and thought has been replaced by knee-jerk rants from those with agendas to promote. No one, especially Hoover would suggest that free speech should be restricted, but free speech gone wild has a price, a price that in the long run will be far greater than any stimulus package can pay. Media meddling needs to be reigned in, and the sooner it happens, the better off we will all be.