Tavis Talks, We Should Listen

Tavis Smiley hit the nail on the head in his recent take on the current public broadcasting brouhaha. The debate is about bias, but not the kind that is often talked about. In his Sunday Washington Post piece, entitled Left? Right? Wrong! The Misguided CPB Debate, Smiley wrote:

While Washington talks about ideological balance, Americans hunger to see programming that reflects their experience and inspires their lives.

Finally, we’re getting some place! For years my own studies of various news media, and my work with journalists in scores of newsrooms, has led me to believe that much of the debate over journalists’ bias has been misguided. For sure, in recent years, some news outlets, such as FOX, have a particular political bent.

But there is a more insidious bias in the new media, one that comes through clearly, for instance, in my upcoming book, Hope Unraveled, to be released this September.

What I have consistently heard Americans upset about when they talk about news bias is a discernable slant toward unnecessary conflict, hype and sensationalism. It is a bias that the positive things that happen in communities are not news, only the bad things. The bias concerns the horse race aspects of politics —who’s up, who’s down, who’s on the way out, and who’s coming in — and not on the essence of the issues that matter to people’s lives.

When working in newsrooms, I was always struck by how many journalists view citizens to be ignorant, and how often journalists seem to think that they must tell people what to think. And yet, what most people want is simply the information they need in order to make their own judgments and conclusions.

My experience also tells me that many of us – we readers, listeners, and viewers of the news – have too often become too lazy. We don’t avail ourselves enough of the good news sources that do exist. We rely on the crutch of saying that all news is biased or worthless or tainted, so what’s the use? This is a topic worth discussing some more.

But for now, let me simply say three cheers for Tavis Smiley stepping forward and setting the record straight. The current debate over public broadcasting merely reflects the same old approach to public discourse and political coverage that many Americans have come to hate. Let’s have a real debate. Let’s talk about whether public broadcasting is fulfilling its actual mission. And in the process, let the news media help us understand this issue and come to our own judgment.