Discussions of media responsibility have reached a high in the past several weeks, starting with the CBS News fake document scandal in September, but exploding since “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart appeared on CNN’s show “Crossfire” on Oct. 15. On the show, Stewart criticized hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala for “hurting America” by participating in political theater and failing to act in the interest of the public. Begala and Carlson countered with the claim that Stewart is “too soft” on politicians and wasn’t being funny enough.
And now, an article in The New York Times (“If You Interview Kissinger, Are You Still a Comedian?” Oct. 24) has appeared discussing the need for Jon Stewart to take his “responsibility” more seriously, seeing how his program attracts more 18- to 34-year old viewers than network news shows do. Finally, the Northeastern University Student Government Association has voted to ban the free distribution of the Boston Herald on campus in light of a poor editorial decision to show a photograph of the face of a mutilated young woman, killed in the aftermath of the American League Championship Series.
Not all of these discussions are equal though. Most would agree that “news” programming like CBS’s “Evening News” with Dan Rather have a responsibility to provide accurate, objective coverage of events. But while the definition of objective coverage is open to debate, this responsibility is still much clearer than the responsibility an editor has to “protect” members of the public and clearer still than the responsibility that pundits, like Stewart, Carlson and Begala have. As “news analysis” programming proliferates cable news channels, the line between news and punditry becomes hazier, and the public suffers.
The idea that pundits have any responsibility at all to society is not a foregone conclusion. Punditry is a form of entertainment. While in an ideal world people read columns like this and watch programs like “Hardball” and “Crossfire” to gain new perspective and opinions on important issues to help form their own position, we know that a lot of times people read and watch for the drama: the controversy (ahem), the partisan fighting, the utter ridiculousness. The majority of people read and watch because they want to and enjoy doing so, not because of a desire to be informed and educated.
This does not absolve members of the media from their societal responsibilities. Yes, there is a practical need to entertain in order to keep one’s column space or time slot. But the traditional responsibilities of journalists to advocate and investigate on the public’s behalf are just as, if not more, important.
As someone who considers himself a pundit of sorts, I take what I see as the responsibilities of that position fairly seriously. Contrary to the claims of my critics, I believe opinion writing serves a greater purpose than venting one’s anger at a particular system, community or policy. Writing in a public setting is not about promoting one’s own self-interest, but about advancing one’s view of the public’s interest. While this can bring a writer praise or notoriety (or, when done correctly, both), that should not be the desired end.
In this country, media is acknowledged as a key part of the “policy triangle” (the other two legs being the public and politics). Mass media influences the public, and it influences political action, and the responsibility of a pundit is to keep this mind in every word he says or writes.
To some degree, I agree with those that argue that journalists, like doctors, should operate under the primary law of nonmalfeasance, or “First do no harm.” However, an important caveat must be added to that statement: While I agree that net societal harm should be avoided, sometimes to advance the interests of society, one must consciously harm an individual.
While this may sound controversial, an example may reduce concerns. Consider a scandal where a corrupt politician is misappropriating public funds for personal use, or even the case of an inept politician who has the power to imprison or free individuals, but exercises that right irresponsibly. Criticizing the actions or the character of either of these politicians could bring harm to their careers, or even their personal lives. However, to not reveal this information could bring far greater harm to the public, and would be violating a far greater journalistic responsibility than niceness.
So what does all of this have to do with anything? Well, over the past several weeks, many readers have approached me asking when I would write a scathing condemnation of my colleague Evan Cochran and his weekly column, “Down with the FCC.” Well, I think this as close you are going to get.
I am not quite sure what the point of Mr. Cochran’s columns are beyond being the talk of the campus for their inane nature and utter absurdity. But controversial ideas in and of themselves are no reason to condemn opinion writing. If, in fact, Mr. Cochran’s columns were truly in response to the Federal Communications Comm-ission’s censorship of “offensive” media content, I would applaud his writing.
But sadly, they are not. Mr. Cochran’s columns do not contain offensive content in the sense of the FCC. Rather, they are offensive to sensible, responsible individuals. While some of them have been benign, like his dissection of the best places on campus for fornication, others have been downright irresponsible. His promotion of drunk driving, cocaine use and binge drinking cannot be seen as productive to any important dialogue, yet may actually encourage unhealthy, dangerous behaviors.
Tufts is not the ideal setting for an “Animal House”-style college experience. But most of us knew that coming in here. So hopefully, these columns will not encourage anyone to regress to such immature, idiotic behavior. And hopefully, these columns are not meant to serve any value but an entertainment one, for I question the success of the Tufts admissions and academic processes if one can go through three years here and still truly believe their right to party is paramount.
To be fair, the responsibility for Mr. Cochran’s columns does not wholly lie with Mr. Cochran himself. Columnists are chosen by The Daily editorial board. I can only hope they saw some promise of responsible journalism in Mr. Cochran that he has yet to demonstrate to the campus.