Op-ed: The unpopularity contest

  • By Bob Franken
  • Saturday, November 14, 2015 4:50pm
  • Opinion

Could it be that Donald Trump has gotten boring? Is his shtick getting shtuck in predictability and his insult act wearing thin? One certainly could get that impression after the past couple GOP debates, where he was the real headliner. But at the fourth Republican primary debate in Milwaukee, others stole the show: Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson made the biggest impact. Maybe that’s why he has suddenly exploded with rants against Ben Carson that, among other things, question Carson’s sanity and whether his fans are “stupid.”

As for the debates, maybe the idea of a moderator is, uh, stupid. I’m serious. I’ve argued that media organizations should end their production relationships with the parties, since these deals put them in cahoots with the people they’re supposed to be skeptically covering. But let’s go the extra step and get rid of the questioners entirely, except perhaps someone to enforce time limitations on the candidates. Maybe we just let one of the players start off with comments about whatever he or she wants to discuss, and then the rest chime in as they want.

Yes, it would be chaos, but it would be preferable to self-centered snark from journalists trying to make a name for themselves, or what we got with the last debate: Fox Business reporters being so obsequious that they didn’t serve any real function whatsoever. Besides, that might make it more difficult for the various candidates to attack the media as their fallback way to avoid answering an uncomfortable question. Trump, Cruz and now Carson have turned that into an art form.

Let’s say it again: Those of us who report are not supposed to be popular. We are supposed to be held in low regard. It’s a badge of honor when it’s because we are trying to puncture someone’s balloon. All too often, though, we become advocates for one side or the other … actually shills, lackeys for a particular point of view. Those who take that easy approach forget what we’re about. Journalism is supposed to be the skeptical conscience of our democracy. People who are selling a bill of goods don’t like to be challenged. Those who are trying to con us absolutely don’t like it.

It’s actually more complicated than that, but that’s what we’re taught in school. Oh, wait a minute: Apparently some of our teachers haven’t learned that lesson. I’m obviously referring to what happened at the University of Missouri after students there, some of them anyway, won a victory over rampant bigotry on campus and an administration that didn’t deal with it forcefully enough. On the very same day that, with the help of a boycott by the football team, students succeeded in forcing the resignation of the university president and chancellor, some of the protestors decided to block the media from covering their activities on public space.

One would think that the First Amendment arguments made by a student journalist who was doing his job and pushing back would have been obvious. But apparently they weren’t clear enough to Melissa Click. What’s bizarre is that Ms. Click is an assistant professor, a faculty member who was attached to the university’s highly celebrated journalism department. But there she was, not only blocking reporters, but when the press didn’t bend to her will, calling out for some enforcers to add “some muscle” to her efforts.

She has been apologizing left and right, and she was encouraged to beat a hasty retreat from the journalism department. That’s probably because someone caught her on video and put it up for the world to see. But one has to wonder whether she had any business teaching media courses in the first place. She was no better than the thugs, to say nothing of the cops who try and stop journalists from doing their jobs for fear of having their misbehavior exposed.

The politicians don’t usually resort to physical violence. They try to neutralize the media by complaining that we’re unfair, so we make a big mistake when we enable them by participating in the debates. Let them run their popularity contests how they want; let us continue to do our jobs as outsiders and embrace our unpopularity with Trump, Carson and all the others.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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