08/07/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Media: Mediocrity or Meaning?

There is a maxim in critiques of the media that the content of programming reflects what the audience wants. I find this hard to believe. Surely, even the most ardent Michael Jackson fan must tire of "experts" dissecting the autopsy, second guessing why he died and manufacturing hypothetical scenarios of what his will might or might not say. John Daley had a hilarious segment of would-be experts and reporters in a frenzy seeking some "degree of separation" with the famous man: "I met someone who knew someone who met him once at an airport...." Daley followed this with a spoof of a reporter walking through an empty house pointing to where (supposedly) Jackson's furniture used to be.

Until recently I assumed that this kind of coverage was simply banal and that one could simply turn it off. Unfortunately, all the channels now seem to follow the same programming formats -- a breaking story followed by days of drivel with experts "counterpointing" each other on whether Rush Limbaugh is really gay or whether Sarah Palin is really going to make a play for the presidency in 2012. Could it be that it is less costly to cover one story ad nauseum rather than maintain balance over a spectrum of relevant news?

I liked Al Sharpton's rebuke of the media in focusing on the questionable or bizarre aspects of Michael Jackson's life, in spite of the fact that he did a great deal of good in addition to the contributions of his prodigious talent. I was impressed that Anderson Cooper on CNN clearly agreed with him and was almost apologetic for CNN's role in fanning the flames of idle opining and gossip that serves no one and undermines the credibility of the media, an institution that is a central component of any democratic society.

To be sure, more and more people are expressing concern for a media that has lost its raison d'être. The fact is that not only do we need a free press (with all of its technological permutations), but we also need at least some of the media to be relatively objective. Otherwise, we have only organs of propaganda. In the crush for profit and market share, "infotainment" has replaced news and pundits have replaced reporters. I don't know if there was ever a totally objective media, but schools of journalism and men like Edward R. Morrow aspired to that ideal and had the courage to stand against the short-term interests of their publishers and producers.

I once wrote that, in my view, one of the most powerful aspects of our Constitution and American Democracy is that two institutions were explicitly set up to operate beyond the fray of daily affairs and allow "the people" to have a reasonably objective perspective on themselves and the consequences of their decisions. The press and the judiciary were seen to be the "mirrors" that could enable a free society to correct its mistakes and navigate in uncertain times. When those institutions become co-opted and sucked into the systems they are intended to "mirror," then we have lost the most important component in our guidance system. The result is governance by polling, media by pundits, and a society of spectators that becomes increasingly self-referential and disconnected from "reality." In this case, sooner or later, we will "hit bottom" and lose faith in our leaders and each other.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.