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More on the Media from Charles Madigan

After our show on the state of the news media, guest Charles Madigan had some more thoughts on the topic, which he sent to us.  Here's what he wrote.

I was on On Point talking about media for a couple of minutes the other day and hung up the phone with lingering concerns and some unexpressed thoughts. The subject was propaganda and media and what the debacle of the Shirley Sherrod story shows us. I don’t think it shows us much at all that we don’t already know.

We are in an era that mimics developments in the early 19th Century, when pamphleteers and publishers alike were all about repeating the worst libels they could create about political figures. To argue that we have somehow “reached bottom” with the Sherrod story ignores our own history, the history of journalism and the nature of political discourse over time.

First, we are entitled to our opinions and they are not required to be correct. You can say and believe anything you want here, which is one of the great strengths of our republic. That being said, we are not required to pay attention to it at all, accept it, affirm it, embrace it, whatever. It may well just be the noise of democracy thundering out.

This process plays out left and right, now on a 24 hour news cycle that is so hungry it gobbles anything tossed into it. Blogger Andrew Breitbart’s decision to post the piece he had of that video of Sherrod was obviously politically motivated. What would you expect? Look at the chronology on Mediamatters.org and you can see exactly what happened.

None of this reflects the collapse of reality as we have known it. What it might reflect is, first, the fact that political talk has now been monetized to the point at which it has become an entertainment medium, not a medium of political discourse. Rush Limbaugh is not talking to the nation. He is talking to his audience. It self-selects. Glenn Beck, just the same. And I suspect Andrew Breitbart and Sarah Palin would fit handily in the same category.

Me too! I used to make a buck writing a column.

People were always accusing me of being a liberal. I had to point out that I am a gun owner and right to lifer just to challenge that conclusion. I don’t fit any of the handy descriptions. I think most people are that way. Those things did not inform my performance during 35 years as a reporter and editor. I was a pro.

I think we have to understand that the decline of the media we knew for so many years is breaking a lot of hearts, one of them mine, but that we don’t yet know what will replace it. It is evolving, and events like the Sherrod mess will help it to clarify its role as time passes. CNN and the Atlanta Journal Constitution did the right thing. Lots of other people didn’t.

My concern is not that a whole collection of partisans, right and left, now have carte blanche for the continuation of the bladder battle that defines them.

My concern is that most people don’t follow anything that closely (Look at the Pew Media center’s surveys on stories that get followed closely) so they might just have collected the wrong snippet in passing. We always make the mistake of assuming everyone is as interested in what we do as we. That is a Washington arrogance speaking. It has never been true. Lots of people only follow sports. Lots of people only do the crossword puzzles. Lots of people only read horoscopes. Lots of people only listen to Rush or Glenn or Keith or Rachel, all of whom are getting from rich to fantastically rich from it.

That, unfortunately, is how our society is informed in these days of transition. Badly. But we have never had a golden era. Was it better when Eric Sevareid told us how he felt? Or James Reston? Those were glory years of media for some people. I loved them. But not for all people.

We get the media we deserve. Some of us get NPR, which I believe is wonderful, and some of us get tabloids at the supermarket, which is where we find out who is carrying whose baby.

But we need to have some faith that good people always survive in the end. Journalists are here to do what journalists have always done. They take the measure of life and present the best versions of it they can support.

I would argue that commentary—and that is what the whole Sherrod story amounts to--is nowhere to turn for a recitation of facts. The Agriculture Department certainly should have known that. But then, who ever expected the Agriculture Department to get mixed up in something like this? Perhaps that lesson has been learned.

It could be that as this era proceeds through the next two messy election cycles, a lot more attention will be paid to the obligation to get things right before we get them out. This is not going to deter people on the right or left. Reporters need to be more careful about that. If you want better media, first you have to support it, and second, you have to demand it.

This program aired on July 29, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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