Commentary Magazine


Common Ground with Barney Frank

In an interview with New York’s Jason Zengerle, Representative Barney Frank said this:

It seems like you’re leaving in large part because of this dysfunctional atmosphere.

I’m 73 years old. I’ve been doing this since October of 1967, and I’ve seen too many people stay here beyond when they should. I don’t have the energy I used to have. I don’t like it anymore, I’m tired, and my nerves are frayed. And I dislike the negativism of the media. I think the media has gotten cynical and negative to a point where it’s unproductive.

Is that a recent development?

It’s been a progressive development, or a regressive development. And I include even Jon Stewart and Colbert in this. The negativism—it hurts liberals, it hurts Democrats. The more government is discredited, the harder it is to get things done. And the media, by constantly harping on the negative and ignoring anything positive, plays a very conservative role substantively.

But isn’t part of that just because the media is expected to be adversarial?

Who expects it to be adversarial? Where did you read that? Did you read that in the First Amendment? Where did you read that the media is expected to be adversarial? It should be skeptical, why adversarial? Adversarial means you’re the enemy. Seriously, where does that come from?

Okay, maybe “skeptical” is the better word.

But that’s a very different word. You reflect the attitude: adversarial. And there is nothing in any theory that I have ever seen that says when you report events that you’re supposed to think, I’m the adversary, so that means I want to defeat them, I want to undermine them, I want to discredit them. Why is that the media’s role? But you’ve accurately stated it, and I think it’s a great mistake.

Do you think I just showed my hand there?

No, I don’t think you showed your hand personally. I think you reflected the Weltschmerz.

But you know the old aphorism, “Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted.” I think that’s more what I was trying to get at.

When have you comforted the afflicted? I don’t see that in the media. I don’t see reporting that comforts low-income people or the environment. I think it’s negative about everybody.

But that’s a different problem. It’s the problem of sensationalism: The bad news is the stuff that gets the headlines.

That’s because you choose to give it the headlines.

I would add some amendments to what Representative Frank says. For example, the press, as a general matter, was hardly adversarial when it came to Barack Obama in 2008. As one intellectually honest reporter, Time magazine’s Mark Halperin, put it, “It was extreme bias, extreme pro-Obama coverage.”

That said, I think Barney Frank is onto something important. There is a kind of corrosive cynicism that exists among journalists specifically and the political class more broadly that is injurious to self-government. There is an eagerness to be drawn to negativism in a way that distorts reality. It’s not as if negative things don’t happen and shouldn’t be covered; it’s that selective coverage can make individuals and institutions out to be cartoon images.

Viewing oneself in an adversarial relationship with those in power also leads to a leakage of trust in our governing institutions, which is (from my viewpoint) problematic. And by concentrating their focus on what goes wrong – on the knaves and fools rather than on competent, low-key lawmakers — journalists create a kind of carnival mirror when it comes to politicians.

Most members of Congress, from both parties, are not jackasses – but you wouldn’t know that from how Congress is covered. And many who cover politics jump with glee on misstatements by politicians, as if a gaffe is more newsworthy than a serious policy address. We all know it’s much easier to comment on something controversial that’s said on “Morning Joe” or “Fox and Friends” than it is to read a CBO report on income inequality or the fiscal consequences of the Affordable Care Act. It’s easier to cover a pastor who is intent on burning a Koran than it is to read the latest research on the success of Head Start.

These aren’t always easy calls. Sometimes the press has to explore controversial events. And I would be among the last people in the world to discourage vigorous debate in politics. Nor should we expect a presidential campaign to resemble a Brookings Institution seminar. My point is that the role of journalists isn’t to focus almost exclusively on what’s controversial, or silly, or uncivilized; or to try to humble and expose the politically powerful. It is to provide a fair-minded appraisal of events and reality (which is what reporters are supposed to do) and to inform and provide perspective on public debates in an intelligent manner (which is what commentators are supposed to do).

I’d add one other observation: Many members of the press tend to promote what they bemoan. For example, they complain about how presidential campaigns focus on trivial matters even as they cannot resist covering trivial stories. (By the end of the Obama v. Romney campaign, for example, let’s see how much attention is paid to Mitt Romney’s dog Seamus and his trip to Canada in car-top carrier v. his Medicare plan.) The press – parts of it, anyway — hyper-focus on provocative statements by media personalities rather than on premium support as an alternative to the current fee-for-service system in health care.

There are of course impressive exceptions to what I’m describing. Many journalists are serious-minded individuals who have a command of issues that is impressive. But somehow the total is less than the sum of the parts. That is, I think, what Barney Frank was trying to say — and in this instance, I concur with the liberal representative from Massachusetts.


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