(As usual, the arrangement with the syndicators means this column appears here at least a week after its newspaper release)
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PRESSING THE PRESS
BY BOB FRANKEN
Here's a little nugget that was buried in President Barack Obama's address before the joint session of Congress last week: “Already, the media has proclaimed that it's impossible to bridge our differences.”
Right you are, Mr. President. Given how some Republicans boycotted your address and one held up a protest sign, it's not hard to suspect that the partisan gap is too wide for any meaningful cooperation. Feel free to prove us wrong.
Then there's Newt Gingrich who, the night before the speech at the GOP debate, when host Brian Williams asked him about differences over health care among the party's presidential candidates, replied: “Well, I'm frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting each other.”
Call me crazy, but isn't that what a debate is about, Newt? According to the dictionary, it's “a discussion of opposing viewpoints.” One would assume you knew this. Is this how you're hoping to breathe some life into your campaign, what's left of it?
Come to think of it, maybe Messrs. Obama and Gingrich are onto something. They have seized on one of the few remaining bipartisan issues, because whatever their political persuasion, our leaders generally come to dislike the reporters and the organizations who cover them.
Frankly, a lot of the scorn is deserved. It's true that we in the media often don't do the job we should in applying aggressive skepticism to what our officeholders and candidates dish out. Instead, we go for the cheap-shot, mindless stories about scandals and personality clashes. But if we did perform adequately, they'd really despise us.
To be honest, I usually shy away from writing about “us.” First of all, we are too self-involved. Look no further than the coverage of 9/11's anniversary, which so often degraded into our reflections about what we were doing and thinking that day. Who cares? In addition, those of us in the news biz get far too sensitive about professional animosity when we should wear it as a badge of honor.
If we did our job the way we should -- the way politicians don't want us to -- maybe public figures would be spooked into really dealing with the messes they've had a huge hand in creating and sustaining. Maybe, if we held their feet to the fire, they would tiptoe around some of their more outrageous deceptions instead of just jumping into obfuscation whenever it seems to suit their purposes.
I have a consistent response when an official or wannabe challenges a question from me or my right to ask it: “Excuse me, (insert name), but am I incorrect that it is the reporter's job to ask and the reportee's responsibility to answer?” It usually brings a response. Of one sort or another.
But presidents, speakers of the House, sanitation commissioners, you name it, they all get tired of being held accountable, particularly by a group of riffraffish smart alecks. It's the same reason the military forces and those who cover them have so many problems. They are authority; we are supposed to challenge authority.
The very politicians who take off on us surround themselves with consultants and other spinners whose sole job is to distort and otherwise manipulate the coverage. Methods include bullying that ranges from denying access and not returning phone calls to intimidation tactics like turning crowds against those covering them. Frankly, a lot of people win elections by making sure the public doesn't know what it should or that reality has been twisted into the unreal.
If all else fails, trash the media. We're easy targets for the cheap shot that can be delivered by Democrats and Republicans alike, as evidenced by what we heard from Obama and Gingrich. They have a lot in common. It's called ambition. If we do our job, we're a threat to that. When we don't, the entire nation is threatened.
© 2011 Bob Franken
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.