It’s easy, and appropriate, to feel gloom mixed with contempt at the way some right-wing flamethrowers, abetted by mass media’s love of conflict, have turned President Obama’s webcast to the nation’s schoolchildren into a new socialist manifesto. They cherry-picked an innocuous idea from a lesson plan — the president asking kids to help him do his job better — and claimed it was radical ideology.
That’s the lost opportunity in the Obama talk. Teachers and administrators in the districts that have banned the webcast could have used it in ways that would have put their fear into context. They could have shown it to students and then had a conversation about it.
The Obama critics do have one thing right, though they don’t seem clear on the concept. They’re skeptical of what people in authority say. In this case skepticism has morphed into paranoia, as they claim children watching the talk could be indoctrinated by an authority figure who, in their view, is wrong on policy and morality.
Attempting to prevent children from hearing the president’s words is not just foolish, but counterproductive. I’m betting this has backfired, given kids’ tendency to seek out what adults tell them to stay away from.
The administration seems to believe that if all the information on a given issue is on the table — or in this case, on the Web — then the truth, or at least their version of it, will win out. (The president announced on Friday that with certain exceptions, the names of visitors to the White House would be posted for all to see). For all his modern impulses, President Obama’s press operation seems mired in a high school civics debate version of governance, where points are given for logic and argument.
That is not how the media works, however, in an environment that prizes engagement and conflict. The long town-hall process over health care, for example, has given ordinary citizens a voice but it has also produced hundreds of video clips of angry, scared Americans. For every aging secretary who can’t afford prescriptions, there is a small business owner who wants less government in their life, not more. Tropes like “death panels” may lack substance, but they make for pretty compelling viewing day after day.
In part, the outrage and hyperbole work because the mainstream media, insecure about their own status in an atomizing world, play into the tyranny of split-screen coverage where almost any claim — no matter how outlandish — becomes one side in “an interesting debate.” When not listening to talking heads, the traditional news outlets go to great efforts to get a microphone on vox populi. If the people, even if it is some unknown number, are hopping mad, we don’t want to be the last to tell you about it.
Bingo. Too bad Carr doesn’t take his own logic to a logical conclusion. He merely notes “how the media works” but doesn’t even suggest that journalists who cover these issues bear any responsibility for their preference to feed the lie machine instead of counter it. Oh, there have been a few stories pointing out the fundamental unreality on which the protests have been based, but vastly more on the protests themselves.
The most important concept, which Carr misses, is the one the media have abandoned in recent times: responsibility. Look again at the White House graphic at the top of this piece. The president is urging students “to take responsibility for their educations” because all the good teaching and parenting won’t be enough if the students themselves don’t care.
We share responsibility for knowing what we’re talking about. The traditional media’s unwillingness to help — part of its general collapse — means that, more and more, it’s up to the rest of us to figure things out for ourselves.