Substance over sound bites

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to free speech and free press. It is incredibly beneficial to have a free flow of ideas and opinions in a democratic society. Moreover, expressing those ideas in the form of a debate can be intellectually stimulating and quite entertaining. Unfortunately, the way in which views are exchanged in American media are often extremely combative. The debate over important topics becomes more of a show than an interchange of intelligent thoughts and beliefs. The structure and format of political media creates an atmosphere where the intense argument between conflicting viewpoints overshadows the ideas themselves.

Television shows like The O’Reilly Factor that are meant to discuss relevant news topics, turn political discussion into a warzone when the screen is filled with three to five talking heads all viciously competing to talk over one another in an attempt to get their points across. The integrity of the debate is tarnished when these individuals clearly show their contempt for the opinions of others, and sometimes make a spectacle of themselves as their emotions start to control their words and actions. This is not because journalists or political figures are naturally angry people, but because the format of the show they are on fuels their intense reactions. The creators or hosts of the show bring on guests who possess radically conflicting ideologies to discuss extremely controversial topics to spark a debate that will attract viewers who are drawn to fierce quarrels, rather than the substance of the dispute. It becomes a theater. The purpose is to entertain, not inform. CNN’s Crossfire literally constructed the desk used on the show in a shape that forces the speakers to face each other directly, in order to create a head-on atmosphere. This encouragement of confrontation creates escalated conflict that takes away from the real issues that are being discussed. Seeing the correspondents point their fingers, raise their voices and shake their heads makes it clear that in each episode, they are more focused on defeating their opponents than building on facts and finding solutions to problems. Verbally trashing the opposing political party on television or the radio does nothing but deepen party divisions.

Of course there is always a place for entertainment in politics. Certain comedians, journalists and television hosts use their intelligence to satirize and mock the American political system in a way that everyone can enjoy. However, those people are clear about their intentions when reporting and discussing issues. Networks and newspapers that claim to be leaders in broadcasting political news have an obligation to do so in a manner that is tasteful and appropriate to their role in the media. It is admirable to see reporters and columnists who are passionate about the affairs of our nation, but it has reached a point where the line between passion and fury is difficult to discern. When a discussion becomes violent and riddled with hate, open discussion becomes a detrimental aspect of the American political system. Political debate can be fervent, and those who believe strongly in their ideas certainly have the right to speak ardently about them. But when the expression of ideas becomes so heated that it takes away from the substance of the argument, debate brings down the American political system, rather than lifting it up.

Journalists have the responsibility to report important topics and discuss their views on them. They should challenge politicians and government officials. Sometimes, that requires being pretty rough in order to hold people accountable and speak the truth. However, they should strive to remain focused on using their influence to find answers and inspire people, rather than tear others down. The media is an important tool in American society, and it should be used for valuable purposes: to spread information and provide a channel for the free flow of ideas.

David Hourin ’17 is from Austin, Texas. He lives in Morgan.