American media need psychotherapy

"Our press risks losing its cherished status as the guardian of our democracy, and along with it democracy itself."

December 6, 2016 22:04
American media

‘IT IS imperative for American mainstream media – even in this economy of attention – to prioritize capturing the complex truth over chasing the simple headline.’. (photo credit: REUTERS)

If you want to fix a broken relationship, you need to look deeply within yourself. If mainstream media wants to repair its damaged relationship with the American public, it should not limit itself to blaming Russian seducers like RT and Sputnik for luring its readers and viewers away. “Russian Propaganda Efforts Helped Spread ‘Fake News’” that may have altered the 2016 election results, according to a recent Washington Post article. Investigation of foreign interference should not preclude the media investigating what it did to push Americans into alien arms. Having grown up in communist Romania where everyone ignored the state’s fake news in favor of Radio Free Europe’s “real news,” I’m alarmed at the prospect of Americans trading mainstream media’s relatively free if not always unbiased news for social media’s unadulterated counterfeits.

You might have heard some mea culpas several weeks ago on CNN’s Reliable Sources, where a distinguished panel debated “How the Media Failed This Election” and bashed itself for misleading the public. By the end of the 2016 campaign, the panel admitted, not only was the media getting lower favorability ratings than the two candidates, but the public so distrusted it “that when the media actually reported bad stuff, people didn’t believe it.”

There is only one way, according to The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway, for the media to regain its credibility. “Stop the bullying!” she cried out on Reliable Sources. “We take people’s views and we bully them, and people are sick of being bullied.”

I agree with her about the bullying, but disagree it was only directed at Republicans. A Hillary supporter, I often found myself wincing in pain as I watched my candidate pummeled by the very people who cried over her defeat on November 8. For as Dan Rather noted on Reliable Sources, Hillary’s initial reaction to the bullying – to withdraw and avoid news conferences like the plague – might have cost her the election just as much as Trump’s attention-grabbing tweets.

The bullying compulsion is a symptom of a larger problem – an existential problem – that needs to be treated and cured. After Googling the symptoms, I confidently diagnose Borderline Personality Disorder, which triggers dangerous and self-destructive behaviors with a high suicide risk. Sufferers from this affliction “either vilify or extol others, a habit that psychiatrists call splitting. Their intense attachments may be followed by sudden rejection. One person in the life of a borderline personality is a saint, another a monster and these roles may be exchanged when the favored person does not fulfill impossible expectations.” ( html).

Last week, while driving home on Sunset Boulevard from my communication class at Touro College, I witnessed a perfect example of “splitting.” I tuned my radio to CNN, and heard the cries of a woman under intense interrogation. “You will have to ask my husband,” she fought off her assailant. But he insisted on extracting some kind of confession against her will.

Such scenes make me nervous. When I was five years old, my mother refused to denounce my father, who was imprisoned for criticizing our government. So just listening to this, I tensed up. The woman’s husband had refused to admit what the interrogator had wanted him to admit and the bully was now trying to squeeze it out of the wife. “Let me play a clip from last night’s interview with your husband,” the reporter threatened. “It never crossed your mind you could have done better?” he had pressed the tortured spouse the night before. An agonized voice cried out, “What good does it do now?”

The interrogator let the pain sink in and then continued to assault the wife. Hadn’t it crossed her husband’s mind that he could have done better? Hadn’t it? Hadn’t it? For a second she weakened and said, “Absolutely,” and then tried to escape. But he wouldn’t let her. “And then looking back in hindsight, that it wasn’t free and fair?”

“But that was yesterday’s news,” she exploded, “and not what concerns people now.” She wanted to move the dialogue forward to children and workers and jobs; he wanted to hold the prisoner back. It was Wolf Blitzer, I realized, bullying Jane Sanders to admit that dishonest Hillary had cheated honest Bernie out of the presidency. Won’t the hero confess his wrath at the villain and promise revenge in 2020?

“That’s exactly the wrong question!” Jane screamed at the howling Wolf. But Wolf got what he wanted from her – the divisive headline: “Jane Sanders Says Bernie Would Have Absolutely Defeated Trump but It Doesn’t Matter Now.” I found it later that evening on

Having grown up with Marxist rhetoric and seen where it leads, I’ve never been a Sanders fan. Still, Bernie won my respect during a previous bullying session with CNN’s Jack Tapper. Tapper wanted Bernie to admit that Hillary had mortally wounded millennials on a leaked audio clip where she said America’s frustrated youth lived in their parents’ basements and worked as baristas. But she’s right, Bernie defended his former rival, refusing to demonize her to elevate himself; he wanted his party to win despite the pro-Democratic media’s splitting attacks.

What is the rational reason for this “splitting” now? To divide the Democratic Party and then our democratic country into warring extremes? Yes, BPD is a destructive and potentially suicidal disorder and sufferers need therapy to recover.

As a writing teacher, I know that “the essence of drama is conflict” – I tell students that all the time. But writers and journalists also have a responsibility as the citizens of a democracy all of us want to preserve. To regain public confidence, mainstream media must start treating public figures like human beings rather than icons or cartoons. When reporters ask, “Which of the two Donald Trumps” we will see in the White House, they are denying the reality that a human being is a composite of diverse and often contradictory personality traits. Thich Nahat Hanh, the Buddhist philosopher who saw his country decimated by the Vietnam War, teaches that all of us have the capacity to “water” each other’s good or bad “seeds.”

So far our borderline media has done everything in its power to water our President-elect’s worst seeds.

Jenna Johnson, of the Washington Post, wants to know when Trump will finally “fully repeal the ‘disaster’ Affordable Care Act? ...Revive waterboarding of terrorism suspects? ...Treat climate change like a ‘hoax?’” Frustrated at Trump’s reluctance to implement his most dramatic campaign threats, she bashes his advisers for using “flattery, proximity and snappy pitches” to “trick” him into moderating his views. Every effort Trump makes to unify the country becomes the target of jokes and quips. Trump has dinner with his toughest critic who is under consideration for his highest cabinet post? “I think Crow was on the dinner menu,” Gloria Borger mocks on CNN. Trump saves 1,000 carrier workers their jobs? Well, Indianapolis is in Indiana and Indiana is “Mike Pence’s state,” Don Lemon reports on CNN Tonight. Pence brokered the deal, Lemon speculates, and Trump simply stole the credit.

In his book The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information (The University of Chicago Press, 2006), my distinguished UCLA professor, Richard Lanham, predicted that the information age will “anoint a new set of moguls” who “will be the new masters of attention.” He proved right. Nevertheless, it is imperative for American mainstream media – even in this economy of attention – to prioritize capturing the complex truth over chasing the simple headline. Otherwise, our press risks losing its cherished status as the guardian of our democracy, and along with it democracy itself.

The author is chair of the English Department at Touro College, Los Angeles and author of Subterranean Towers: A Father-Daughter Story. Irina Bragin@bragin_irina

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