About three weeks ago, I’d had enough. As a respite from the idiocy of what’s passed for our election-year debate, I time traveled, watching a few documentaries that hearkened back to a different era in America, when pop culture and inspecting issues of national importance weren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. One was Dick Cavett’s Watergate, a PBS chronicle of how the presidential crimes and misdemeanors in the 1970s were consistently laid bare on a literate and entertaining primetime TV talk show. The other was The Best of Enemies, which traced the (sometimes) high-minded feud of two very public intellectuals, William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal.
Seriously, stuff like this once filled America’s public airwaves? Its absence nowadays just might be proof of the unintended consequence of technological advance; more programming equals more desperate attempts to capture eyeballs equals a depressing race to the bottom. In less than half a century, we’ve gone from Cavett, James Baldwin and Gloria Steinem dominating our airwaves to Kim Kardashian, Anne Coulter and, now, Donald Trump, whose “I’m going to keep you in suspense” debate moment seemed straight from the insipidness of reality TV.
Philly’s own Michael Smerconish—one of the few talking heads in the punditocracy still valiantly trying to prove that reasonableness can attract an audience—recently provided proof that this denouement was upon us. One morning, on his Sirius XM radio program, Smerconish referenced a stunning poll result: 10 percent of college graduates think Judge Judy is on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Journalism at its best—the integrity of our public narrative—is like clean air and clean water: A public good.
Self, meet breaking point. I began to pen a screed: The results are in, and stupid has won. My self-righteousness aligned just so, I pecked away, avenging, more than mourning, our collective dearth of thoughtfulness. A quick Google search, however, brought me up short. Turns out, quite predictably, the poll in question made headlines across cyberspace last January. Search it yourself and you’ll see the onslaught: CNN, the New York Times, U.S. News, Fox News, and countless others—all screaming this latest dispatch from the frontlines of the apocalypse. But then came a Washington Post piece debunking the story that was baiting all those clicks. Turns out, the poll was conducted for a group called the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and here was the question:
Q: Which of the following serves on the U.S. Supreme Court?
There were four possible multiple choice answers: a). Elena Kagan. b). [Retired U.S. Court of Appeals Judge] Lawrence Warren Pierce. c). [Secretary of State] John Kerry, and d). Judith Sheindlin.
Of course, Elena Kagan sits on the Court, and 66 percent of respondents correctly chose her. 22 percent chose Pierce and 6 percent chose Kerry. Notice that the fourth choice—chosen by 10 percent of respondents—doesn’t read “Judge Judy.” It is, instead, Judge Judy’s given name, Judy Sheindlin. The only reasonable inference, then, is that the 10 percent voting for her were not expressing the belief that “Judge Judy” is a Supreme Court justice. No, they were among those who didn’t know Elena Kagan sits on the Court—so they were simply guessing. An accurate headline, then, would have been: “34 Percent of Recent College Graduates Don’t Know Elena Kagan Is A Supreme Court Justice.” But how many clicks would that generate?
There I was, all exercised about the dumbing down of America, and, by buying into this manufactured story, I was about to perpetuate it. I had stumbled upon a case study in the perils of click-bait journalism, something with which I have had personal experience. When I was editor of The Daily News, there were daily commercial pressures to capture eyeballs and clicks — without regard to what type of civic narrative our body politic needs. I’m not being holier than thou here; I willingly, even enthusiastically, published countless covers with bloated images of then-Eagles coach Andy Reid, along with some double entendre juxtaposing his weight with his team’s fortunes. But at some point you start to realize: I’m just part of the noise. Which is precisely what I would have been had this column been just another lament about how stupid we are because 10 percent of our fellow citizens think Judge Judy is a Supreme Court justice.
That’s how insidious pack and clickbait journalism can be. I was buying into a manufactured storyline without even knowing it, a storyline designed to simplistically endorse conventional wisdom rather than, in keeping with journalism’s finest tradition, challenge it. I was about to write a column that betrayed the very reason we started The Citizen in the first place, the notion that journalism at its best—the integrity of our public narrative—is like clean air and clean water: A public good.
Maybe Facts can be revived. How? One way is for those of us who have cut our teeth as authors of the first draft of our collective history to bring more introspection to our role. Instead of breathlessly chasing readers and users, let’s embrace nuance. Instead of appealing to preconceived notions, let’s challenge them. Instead of striving to be first, let’s aspire to be smart.
These are perilous times for that public narrative. We’ve got a whole lotta shouting going on, but a dearth of wisdom and insight. Perhaps most disturbing, as evidenced by this election season, it is incontrovertible that we’ve entered a post-fact era. A column by Rex Huppke in The Chicago Tribune cleverly eulogized the passing of Facts in 2012. “To the shock of most sentient beings, Facts died Wednesday, April 18, after a long battle for relevancy with the 24-hour news cycle, blogs and the Internet,” Huppke wrote. “Though few expected Facts to pull out of its years-long downward spiral, the official cause of death was from injuries suffered last week when Florida Republican Rep. Allen West steadfastly declared that as many as 81 of his fellow members of the U.S. House of Representatives are Communists. Facts held on for several days after that assault—brought on without a scrap of evidence or reason—before expiring peacefully at its home in a high school physics book. Facts was 2,372.”
Huppke was right then, and he’s even more right today. That said, I’m not quite prepared to concede that Facts has passed on, despite the best efforts of the journalism-industrial complex, which perpetuates stories like the Judge Judy meme. Maybe Facts can be revived. How? One way is for those of us who have cut our teeth as authors of the first draft of our collective history to bring more introspection to our role. Instead of breathlessly chasing readers and users, let’s embrace nuance. Instead of appealing to preconceived notions, let’s challenge them. Instead of striving to be first, let’s aspire to be smart. When, after all, was the last time you read something in a major American newspaper and said to yourself, “Hmmm. I never thought that before—what an interesting idea!” Most of all, let’s slow down. Information may want to be free, as the saying goes, but does it have to travel at the speed of light?
I know, I know. I’m a dinosaur, pining for a thoughtfulness that is as antiquated as eight-track stereo and VHS. Maybe that’s true. But is anyone happy with the level of discourse this political season has bestowed upon us? How’s the information status quo working out for you?Photo header: Former Senator Howard Baker talking to talk show host Dick Cavett about Watergate.