It was Ted Koppel, formerly the icon associated with the long-running ABC public affairs program, Nightline, appearing yesterday on NBC's Meet the Press with Chuck Todd, who reminded his viewers of the addiction of the news media in the U.S. to a "story" of conflict, any conflict, that generates both ratings and personal career enhancement. The reference was made during discussion of the potential of a "floor fight" at the Republican national convention next summer. Given the wild swings in poll numbers, and the large size of the class of 'candidates' seeking the nomination, there is a chance that, for the first time in decades, a party convention could include a contested nomination process, with all the drama that could emerge from the wheeling and dealing among the candidates and their "camps".
However, it is not only nomination conventions for presidential candidates that serve like polar magnets for the crass, self-serving and narcissistic media. All expressions of difference especially when those differences are personalized by attaching a face and name to the conflicting actors, serve like honey to swarming insects, who then pour their collected morsels of gossip, essentially little more than tweets, through their cameras and screens. Personal conflict, like war between combatants, not only feeds the Everready bunny appetites and ambitions of those who consider themselves journalists.
In Canada, for example, immediately after the October 19 election, the news media talking heads persisted in asking "when" the new government would complete its over 200 commitments. The barrage of both sycophantic and impertinent questions, on all networks, in attempting to expose the unpreparedness of the newly elected government ministers, served primarily to expose the crass and unseemly vacuity of timing and imagination of those asking the questions. At one point, the newly elected and just appointed House Leader of the government, Dominic LeBlanc, became so irritated, legitimately, with the "when" questions, that he responded to Robert Fife, on CTV's Question Period, "I was born at night, but I was not born last night!". He formally, publicly and assertively embarrassed his interviewer. And the retort spoke for the whole government caucus.
The news media, on a different and far more significant front, serves to enhance the recruitment efforts of the hated and despised ISIS. Ted Koppel, in the same television appearance, dubbed "Donald Trump the chief recruitment operative of ISIS" through his pandering to the fear among a segment of the American populace. Announcing his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States, Trump obviously fueled public opinion around the world, enhancing the contempt all Muslims have for some parts of the U.S. perspective, and likely generating recruits for the radical terrorists. Furthermore, it is Trump himself, in his Barnun and Bailey hawking and barking for voter support, who is playing the media as his personal trumpet. Wall to wall coverage seems a guarantee for his every hiccup, belch and vomit. So fixated is the media on the 'storm' that Trump generates, through his guile, manipulation and contriving, that no matter the time of day, and no matter the network, his face and voice like talking wall paper, comprise what the news media vacuously calls responsible news coverage.
Koppel slapped the wrist of both Trump and the media, in his caution 'that we listen to what ISIS wants and not give it to them'.
His gentile, reflective and penetrating comment, of course, will wash over the glazed-over eyes and ears of the editors in the news rooms of the United States, like a gentle breeze, rather than the sharp and biting insight it is.
Public policy, coping with existential threats that confront humanity, needs the caution and the reflective perspective that Koppel's comments bring to the decision makers, along with the news audience. And his perspective is at odds with a corporate business model that demands ratings on which to base advertising sales, and on which to base career promotions and demotions of the scribes enmeshed in the corporate net.
When the strength of the combatant's pugilistic manipulation of both the facts and the emotions of the cowering political audiences trumps the truth and the authenticity and the seriousness of the thoughts and the proposals of political candidates, as it seems to do in the current campaign for the presidency (now the longest running soap opera to emerge from a reality-television national sound stage) then the world is being treated to the most profound dose of political cynicism and the most serious form of patronizing insult one expects from the adolescent bullies in fringe gangs.
We are tired of such a co-dependent diet of political candy floss; it endangers the cardiac health of the body politic; exposes the vacuity of the expectations of the citizenry, and it endangers the transparent, accountable and transcendent leadership that the world so desperately needs.
How can the world expect a climate agreement that includes both "shoulds" and "musts" with penalties, when all negotiators know that the fine print will be read by a minority of less than 1% of the world's people, and an even lower percent of the worlds journalists?
How can the world expect a serious, thoughtful and potentially successful coalition to reduce ISIS to ashes, if both the political leaders and the co-dependent media are addicted to a diet of military violence?
How can the poetry and the insight of all the Malalas in the world, advocating that a book and pen are more powerful than all the guns and all the bombs, like birdsong, be heard amid the cacophony of all the "hard-power" militants?
We are not only facing a needed transformation of our sources of energy that drive our cars, trains, planes and factories; we are also facing a needed transformation of our conceptions of real power, at both the personal and the political levels, from bully-infested superiority linked to the corporate-political axis that operates as national conventional wisdom in too many countries, to a much more modest, more moderate, more paradoxical and sustainable power of vulnerability.
We cannot sustain either the level of our hubris in our accomplishments and our conventions, nor our dependence on numbers, size, obliteration of our enemies, and our complicity in sustaining a mammoth machine of propaganda that reinforces profit, hard power, bombs and the decimation of the human element in all our endeavours.
We are deeply embedded, all of us, in feeding on a fast-food diet of gossip headlines, vacuous bullies vying for important political power, and a media machine that runs on the energy of corporate buying power. And complicit in our own self-sabotage are our television and movie empires, our political elites, our news media and increasingly our academic institutions.
The call for peace, security and a healthy and safe environment must include our conscious acknowledgement of our dangerous dependence on status, power, money, and superiority as the keys to a happy life. And there are so many faces of these demons: superiority includes, for example, seniority, tradition, and length of life. While we need not disrespect our elderly, we must make way for new people and new ideas that expose the dangers of our complacency and our complicity in what are obviously counter-productive attitudes, beliefs, perceptions and exercises of power over.
We need to develop curricula that exposes our social and political subservience to image of traditional power and status. We have to expose the superficiality of our access to detailed information, information that is needed, for example, to deter the power structure from embedding us all in the deep internet, to deter the power structure from expecting the minimal exposure of their agendas, their attitudes and their beliefs. And those beliefs cannot and must not be reduced to a mere slogan of a religious affiliation. We need to be much more sophisticated in our "reading" of the intentions of our leaders, the connections of their networks, their dependence on traditional sources of power, money and 'conventional wisdom.