The news media confront some of the most critical challenges when it comes to Cultural Maturity’s needed changes. We should appropriately be able to count on them to alert us to our time’s essential questions, to engage us in the needed depth and courage of conversation, and to help us identity and celebrate successes. More often than not, thus far, in this regard the news media have failed us.
Here I focus most on television news. Print news has been more diverse in its contribution, and news on the Internet is proving even more so. Arguably television news is losing its place of primary significance. But over past decades, the evening news has functioned as our “keeper of final truth”—a role that confers a kind of sacred trust.. Events became real only when we’d seen them on the evening news. As the particular media we draw on evolve, television news remains a good point of reference.
Leadership of a Culturally Mature sort has been strikingly rare on the evening news. The most obvious falling short is hardly an original observation—the way sensationalistic “if it bleeds it leads” journalism, content that appeals to the most adolescent of impulses, makes up the larger part of programming. But that it is so obvious, and that yet we let it pass only accentuates the appropriateness of concern.
Local television news is the worst offender. Some years back, in preparation for a speech at a media literacy conference, I taped a week of television news from each of Seattle’s local commercial stations. Two-thirds of the content—setting aside sports and weather—was either the latest killings, rapes, and natural disasters, or tabloid sensationalism—at that time, O.J. Simpson, Tonya Harding, and the like. What most struck me was how little of what I witnessed was actually news—in the sense of anything new, anything that could add to what people know. We can predict pretty accurately how many robberies and rapes are likely to happen in a year. Parading the latest examples before us each evening (often from locales far distant) really isn’t news—except in the unlikely chance that we know the people involved. Things have gotten no better of late.
The best of television news spares us from such exploitive diversion masquerading as significance, but when it comes to Cultural Maturity’s challenge, still, more often than not, it too falls short. How often does the news challenge us to confront the necessary hard choices before us, to address questions we might prefer to keep at arm’s length? Sometimes, but not often enough. How frequently does it require us—and inspire us—to see the big picture, to think long term, and to take needed responsibility for our human future? Very rarely.
One example has clear and direct pertinence to Cultural Maturity and calls into question even what we might consider the very best of journalism. The commonly articulated ideal where there is difference of opinion is “balanced reporting.” The concept of Cultural Maturity emphasizes that when it comes to concerns of any significance, not only do the reflex position of the Right or the Left fail us, simple compromise gets us no closer. The important challenges before us are systemic challenges and can be addressed creatively only from a systemic vantage. Yet political commentary, more often than not, translates into a usual suspect from the Left voicing the predictable party line response followed by a similarly numbing representative from the Right voicing equally tired and predictable rhetoric. If Left, Right, and somewhere in between are our only options, we can be confidant not only that useful policy will escape us, but that we have yet to ask the correct questions.
Culturally mature journalism shuns sensationalism and by its quality and integrity takes away its appeal. It helps us not just to accept that the important questions are difficult, but also to appreciate that greatest fulfillment and meaning lies in confronting such difficulty. And it takes us beyond easy answer advocacies—whether a particular polar ideological advocacy or the ultimately just as ideological easy out of “balanced” reporting. It models the courage, magnitude, and creativity of perspective our future requires.
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