Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Does the media stoke our national what's-in-it-for-me debate?

The other night I saw an ad for ABC News in which the ever-avuncular Charlie Gibson touted the program as focusing on what matters to you in the news. I've seen this kind of pitch often enough, heaven knows - every news program on the air claims to tell you how the news will affect you - but this time it really bugged me.

What, may I ask, makes them think they can
know what matters to me? They can't, of course, so they have to make assumptions. And the assumption they almost universally make is that what matters most to me is how some news development will affect my pocketbook.

Well, sorry, Charlie, but there is more to me - there is more to all of us - than our pocketbooks. And I'm beginning to think that the media's relentless focus on the cost of anything from a gallon of milk to a climate bill is one big reason that our national discourse has become so stunted, so pinched, and so angry.

Then comes this marvelous post on Climate Progress. What's missing from media coverage of a climate bill? According to Penn State's Donald A. Brown, it's the ethical consequences of doing nothing. "The climate change debate in the US," Brown says, "shows no sign of acknowledging that US climate change policy should be guided by duties to the rest of the world." In contrast, he points out, when Scotland passed a remarkably ambitious climate bill (a 42% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, rising to 80% by 2050), one of the arguments made for it was that, as climate change affects everyone on the planet, Scotland had a duty to do its part to address the problem.

In the US, meanwhile, the latest argument in favor of passing a climate bill is that unchecked climate change will endanger our national security (all those climate-change refugees out there). I don't mean to belittle that argument - it's quite true. But how is it that the United States, which so profoundly felt its duty to the rest of the world after World War II, seems now to be a country in which the only arguments that have any traction are the ones about how much this will hurt
us? Or, even worse, not us, but me?

Obviously, the media doesn't bear the whole blame for our national descent into a what's-in-it-for-me ethos. Politicians, who regularly bring home the pork with one hand while stoking the national paranoia about taxes on the other, bear a lot of the blame. But the job of the media - theoretically, at least - is to ask the hard questions. And surely there are harder questions begging to be asked than "how will it affect me"?

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