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From AJR,   June/July 2012  issue

A Call for More Thoughtful Campaign Coverage   

Itís past time for the news media to stop enabling practitioners of our toxic politics. Mon., August 13, 2012.


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

A recent 17-day trip abroad brought almost cold-turkey separation from American news media and a reaction I didn't expect.

Relief.

As someone who began the daily newspaper habit at age 7 and has spent nearly five decades as a news junkie and professional, I was surprised when, after a few days mostly off the news grid, I didn't feel much withdrawal pain.

In France, I had little connection except, for some odd reason, Olympics television coverage in German. In England, even the notoriously loud tabloids weren't bothering with much beyond the Olympics.

I soon realized that little I saw in print or on TV seemed nearly as frantic as American news. The slowdown did my blood pressure good.

The biggest thing I didn't miss was the trivialized coverage of this year's presidential race.

It was actually pleasant not to encounter the nasty ads and negativity that infect our politics.

It was also striking to get a vivid sense, from the media and from other things we saw and heard, that Europe seems in less denial than America about the fragile global economy.

Europe's press has long been more analytical and essayish than America's, and the contrast between this "journalism of ideas" vs. "journalism of information" remains strong. European journalism certainly isn't exemplary, and the British press is in especially bad odor following the Murdoch paper scandals. But I sensed serious concern there for the magnitude of challenges facing the world.

My return to this country just underlined how much U.S. coverage frames politics as a game, with Democrats and Republicans saying almost anything to win and dodging serious policy discussions.

Too often our press foments this bogus adversarialism rather than demanding a more responsible approach to problem solving.

In their recent piece, "Let's just say it: The Republicans are the problem," Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann argue persuasively that Republican extremism and intransigence undermine constructive debate and governance. But they also blame the press for failing to make this point clear. ††

Without venturing into partisanship at all, it seems clear that both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are decent, intelligent people fully capable of having serious discussions about the world's serious problems.

But do you sense much of that going on?

Neither do I. Could the press make things better?

I see nothing to stop American reporters from asking better questions, digging deeper on tough issues, calling attention to demagoguery, and forcing debate away from silly bickering and toward more thorough consideration of truly weighty issues.

Perhaps it would help if reporters themselves got away from it all for a couple of weeks and realized how little they missed the name calling, baiting and mockery of today's political sphere.

Would the public go along with deeper coverage? I don't know, but what would it hurt to try? Journalism-as-usual isn't exactly being worshipped these days.

As we passed through customs from France to England one day, a bored immigration officer looked at my paperwork, where I'd listed my job as college professor. "What do you teach?" he asked perfunctorily.

"Journalism," I said.

His eyes lit up. "Journalism," he almost sneered. "I think all journalists should be in jail."