Carl Bernstein: “The Politics of Idiot Culture”

Note: this is the first post in an on-going discussion of Carl Bernstein’s work, including “A Woman in Charge”.

This week, Carl Bernstein spoke at Indiana Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Bernstein addressed the dysfunctional state of contemporary politics and journalism. He focused much of his critique on media that lost an appropriate sense of newsworthiness, which he argues is the symptom of a deep problem, the acceptance of untruths, or what Stephen Colbert has mocked as “truthiness”. When the system- the exchange of power between the public, Washington, and the press– works, Bernstein says there is a demand for “the best, attainable version of the truth,” not indifference to it.

Today, Bernstein echoes the warnings of his 1992 piece in the New Republic, “The Idiot Culture”:

“We do not serve our readers and viewers; we pander to them … giving them what we think they want. In this new culture of journalistic titillation, we teach our readers and viewers that the lurid and the loopy are more important than real news,” he noted. Then, he charged that the media — “probably the most powerful of all our institutions today” — wastes that power by ignoring their responsibility to challenge, inform and educate people about what really matters.

Instead, “the weird and the stupid and the coarse are becoming our cultural norm, even our cultural ideal. The consequence is the spectacle, and the triumph, of the idiot culture.”

But more than mourning the rise of the phenomenon, as he did in 1992, he says that we reached the apogee of a press culture submerged in celebrity culture, in news of the weird, maudlin, inane, and stupid. Along with this lament, Bernstein anecdotally discussed his treatment on a local new affiliate. He says the reports had little idea who we was and what his book about Hillary Clinton is about. Midway through the interview, “I thought, what the hell am I doing here,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein is not a purist about the content of news, he contends that there has always been quirky celebrity news, and that there is a place for this. But he says the dominance of such news, or lack of news, has lead to a state of journalistic dysfunction. A dysfunction that is partly to blame for the brokenness of the system during the Bush administration.

It’s the tragedy- a failed presidency unmindful of the real cost of war and contemptuous of checks and balance- of the last seven years that most troubles Bernstein’s analysis of a broken system. He does not blame the press, alone, for this problem, but suggests that if the real reporting that has been done on the Iraq war had an outlet, the war would be different or would not have happened. Bernstein also says that if real reporting was done on George W. Bush before ran in 2000, than he would not have been elected. This later accusation, while probably true, does seem to be a plug Bernstein’s latest book, “A Woman in Charge: the Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton”.


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