Insurmountable Odds: Cynicism or Reality?

There’s no question that W. Lance Bennett is a bright guy, borderline brilliant even.  He is able to turn a critical eye inward to question the tenets upon which his own profession is built.  His goal in the book News: The Politics of Illusion is to challenge the status quo in media today, specifically politically-related media and modern American journalism.  With such an ambitious scope, Bennett’s book inevitably contains a few contradictions and inconsistencies.

Bennett outlines several categories of “proposals” he believes would serve to alleviate problems with the current system of source-driven, top-down information distribution in political news.  These problems include the four information biases identified earlier in the book, the increasingly sensational nature of political campaigning, and the gradual breakdown of journalistic objectivity, constrained as it has become by the more powerful need to perform competitively in a rapidly evolving media market.

Bennett’s proposals aim at three targets: the citizen, the journalist, and the politician.  Many of these ideas are sound, and I agree their successful implementation would improve upon the state of citizen involvement and self-education in politics.  In fact, some of them have occurred to me before.  The ability for citizens to recognize plot formulas, spin, and the symptoms of each is vital for proper understanding of politics in today’s world.  The suggestions to seek additional sources of information and to beware of limiting news consumption to channels which only verify an existing opinion make sense in the ideal.  I like to think thoughtful citizens make a practice of accounting for political and information biases when formulating specific opinions about a topic.

While idealistic guidelines provide commendable goals for citizens, journalists and politicians, Bennett’s scholarly approach is sometimes detached from the practicality of his solutions.  For example, Bennett advocates thinking critically about news, reading between the lines, decoding the news to discover the causes and consequences of events.  Conversely, he pleads with journalists to emphasize the “so-what” of a news story, to boil events down for the busy, working-class reader who has little time for article cross-referencing or big-picture analysis.

This apparent conflict in procedure leads me to wonder which ideal Bennett finds preferable?  Should we require reporters to tell us what the story is, or should we provide the consumer with the information and let her draw her own conclusions?  He seems to support both approaches, though they seem to me to be mutually exclusive.

Bennett’s recommendations for politicians appear to be the most sensible and specific of his proposals, though the probability of their adoption is equally remote.   The objectives of transparency in campaign funding and limiting the influence of major media conglomerates on high-profile politics are simply infeasible in America’s present political atmosphere. Ideals such as political transparency and limiting candidate funding can only be subsumed by the realities of government’s treacherous spectacle and journalism’s decline into unprincipled entertainment fodder.

Bennett also appeals to citizens to avoid cynicism in favor of criticism.  But given a vast and complex system to decipher and analyze critically, cynicism is the refuge of the bewildered individual; we are buried beneath the deceit and misdirection, the avarice of the politicians and the self-serving nature of news media.  At least Bennett condones the so-called 5th Estate in government, the sharply satirical perspectives of comedians in our culture (who routinely employ cynicism as a vehicle for exposing politicians and pundits as hypocrites and liars).

While I admire W. Lance Bennett as a political media scholar, he is sometimes the prisoner of his own idealism.  The Politics of Illusion was in many ways an enlightening book, as was my Politics & Media course this semester, but the status quo is an immense obstacle in America today.  Technologies advance far more rapidly than does the standard of public opinion.  Unfortunately, the only hope of addressing the overwhelming trials facing us at the dawn of a crucial era in human history rests squarely on the shoulders of the common citizen, whose connection with reality diminishes every day.

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2 thoughts on “Insurmountable Odds: Cynicism or Reality?

  1. I enjoyed reading about your summary of Bennett’s book. In regard to the conflict between the citizens’ and journalists’ proposal, I think Bennett was trying to give citizens proposals of what they can do now to understand news better–assuming that journalists do not change their ways. The journalists’ proposals will take longer to implement because organizational and professional routines are harder to change than one person’s own personal media habits. If journalists do apply the proposals, then yes, citizens will have an easier time understanding the news and will not need to engage in all of those citizen proposals. But, we aren’t there yet. I enjoyed having you in the class too!

    • I really liked your class this semester, too. I’ll see you semester after next for Online Journalism! Have a great break, Kristen. UW is lucky to have you on board!

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