Sensationalist Journalism Legitimizes Debates That Never Should Be Legitimized


This video was posted on CNN yesterday with the headline, “Is Obama an Islamic Sympathizer?”  The sub-description of the video is, “CNN’s Anderson Cooper talks with a panel about whether President Obama’s views are ‘un-American.'”

The several-minute video is Anderson Cooper hosting 4 panelists: Paul Begala, Ari Fleischer, David Gergen, and Fareed Zakaria.  Cooper’s lead-in to the piece, and presumably the genesis of the entire video, is this poll:

A poll worthy of discussion, apparently

Cooper asks each panelist in turn what they make of this.  The first two, Begala and Fleischer, both agree that it shouldn’t be taken seriously and is nothing more than an indicator of the bitterness of America’s current political landscape.  The following two, Gergen and Zakaria, turn the conversation into a brief discussion of America’s tolerance or intolerance for Muslims and Obama’s role in that.  As you might expect, nobody really agrees with anyone, different viewpoints are offered, and the impression you get at the end is that America is a big country and some people really don’t like Obama but most Americans are reasonable.  Astounding!

What drives me up the wall about this video is the branding.  I clicked on the video because of the title, “Is Obama an Islamic Sympathizer?”  CNN’s webmasters gave it that title precisely so that it would draw page views, which generate revenue.  Of course, no one in the video agrees with that question, and they pretty soon stop talking about entirely.*  But the title legitimizes a debate which, in my view, should not be legitimized.

*(Not before Cooper offers this leading question to the first panelist: “Or do you really think that the numbers say that people think the President of the United States supports Sharia law?”  Which is, of course, very different than being an ‘Islamic sympathizer.’  I’m a doormouse sympathizer but I don’t let them eat my cereal.)  

Does the video discuss the various ways one can be “sympathetic” to Islam?  Does it discuss what it means to have “un-American views?”  No.*  Does anyone in the video even bring up the concept of a President with un-American views?  No.  The video would more accurately be titled, “Is American Politics Religiously Divided?”  But in going for the controversy and ad revenue, CNN legitimizes the “debate” over Obama’s patriotism and whether being “sympathetic” to Islam is an acceptable stance in this country.  It doesn’t matter that the content of the video mostly ignores the question and certainly doesn’t endorse it.  It is merely the presence of the question, prominently displayed on CNN.com, which legitimizes it as a question worthy of national discussion.

*(Again, the damage is done in the asking.  The question is raised by the headline, and you have to watch the video to find out that no, ultimately, Obama’s views are not un-American.  Or you would find that out, if they even addressed the question.  Perhaps we should post this discussion: “Is CNN Run by the Mob?”  Inclined readers can wade through 4 pages of comment board posts to find out that no, it isn’t.)

There are people in this country who fervently believe Obama wants to impose Sharia Law.  They point to CNN and say, “See?  The debate continues.”  I believe in freedom of speech, but the attention being given to that viewpoint and similar views is out of proportion to the number of people who legitimately believe it.  I believe others do not actually believe such things, but stoke this fire because it furthers their own political agenda.  The debate over Obama’s secret Islamic objectives is even less of a debate than the “debate” over global warming.  Yet a mainstream news outlet like CNN legitimizes the “other side” of the debate for…what?  Ad revenue.  And the national political debate suffers for it.

The problem is that the wackos don’t give the rest of us the same deal.  If you went to a website trumpeting the Obama-as-Muslim cause, you would not see a video called, “Three Reasons Why Obama May Be Christian.”  Even FoxNews does not have videos titled, “Is Obama’s Economic Policy Paying Dividends?”  No, at Fox you get links like, “How Much Will the Transition to Digital Medical Records Cost You?” and “Stimulus Plan in Hindsight: Did Obama’s Agenda Hobble Economic Recovery?”

The New York Times or CNN would not be muckraking to report on the Obama-as-Muslim conspiracy theories, or the elected officials who doubt global warming, or any other sign of these nutty times.  But there is a way to cover such trends and people that does not legitimize their viewpoints.  When the paper covers a house fire, it doesn’t use the headline, “Was House Meant To Burn Down?”

I believe the Obama-as-Muslim theorists are not only wrong, but the promotion of that debate materially hurts America’s pursuit of our diplomatic objectives and increases anti-American sentiment abroad.  There are stakes here.  But the media’s pursuit of bad news and provocative opinion creates a positive feedback loop which gives these fringe perspectives more clout than they deserve.  They can then point to the phantom debate created by the media coverage as a retroactive legitimization of what we dun been sayin’ since way back when Grandpop told us that de Foundin Fathers knew that dark-skinned folk ain’t mean to live in democracy.  Now we just glad we’s gettin some attentun fer it.

We need and deserve more sophisticated consideration from those organizations and individuals who, in these divisive times, sit in the control room of our national attention.

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One thought on “Sensationalist Journalism Legitimizes Debates That Never Should Be Legitimized

  1. Radical Conversationalist

    i can’t tell you how sick I am of mainstream media ENABLING this sort of discussion. I don’t think this would be been okay 5 or 10 years ago. Just seems as if the more extreme and bigoted the more attention you get.

    I wanted to share a good resource on Islam from an event that took place in DC sponsored by the Congr Muslim Staff Assn.

    http://radicalconversationalist.wordpress.com/2010/08/31/muslims-are-speaking-inshallah-we-will-listen-briefing-on-islam/

    Reply

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