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Commentary

December 1, 2005

The perils of cartoon media

The Cincinnati Bengals win an important game against the Baltimore Ravens Sunday. Yet The Associated Press&

coverage of the game leads off with a discussion of Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson&

s post-touchdown antics.

Are we a serious society with serious media? The spotlight-hogging Johnson follows his touchdown receptions with spectacles that range from pretending to golf to proposing to cheerleaders &

at a time in which his younger collegiate peers draw unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for the slightest hint of celebration. Yes, in the big leagues of sports and other realms, the spotlight goes less to character than to characters.

Similarly, Aaron Brown left CNN earlier this month because the network wanted to promote Anderson Cooper. Brown was able to help viewers deftly navigate the morass of global events. Cooper has just been named one the "sexiest men alive" by People. Game, set, match for Cooper.

This is less a condemnation of Cooper than a criticism of how easily a Brown can be flung aside. Matthew Felling, media director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., notes that the wry Brown was the thinking man&

s journalist. And, he adds, "being the thinking man&

s anything is the kiss of death these days."

At the nonpartisan CMPA, Felling spends his days observing an ongoing escalation of trivialisms and staged conflict within the media. Among the worst tendencies he sees is "false dualisms," in which marginal positions are given credence simply to create a televised fistfight.

"The TV shows even go so far as to create opposing views where they really don&

t exist," he says. "After Mark Felt came forward as Watergate&

s Deep Throat, I saw so many segments that took up the issue: Deep Throat &

Hero or Traitor? Worse yet, Charles Colson (the convicted obstructionist who publicly condemned Felt&

s truthfulness) was one of the people participating in the &

145;panel.&

"

Felling not only watches over such silliness, he gets the chance to experience it firsthand. A frequent commentator on TV, he may be called upon by a network to offer thoughtful analysis, only to be bumped later in favor a radical activist who can offer extreme positions and verbal fireworks.

"Heat? Lots," Felling says. "Light? Not so much. All these &

145;so&

s your mother&

programs are little more than professional wrestling with neckties. And, like wrestling, they have a tenuous hold on reality."

All this is mere cartoon journalism, in which we play with garish colors and caricatures. Yet print media cannot claim superiority: TV provides much of the style that print media now feel compelled to imitate. Exaggerated polarization and phony debate is now de rigueur in the pages of print.

Even the vaunted new Internet media, whose proponents boast of being free from the pressures that taint traditional media, feel compelled to be cartoonishly partisan in order to generate clicks.

So much heat, so little light &

so much Ted Turneresque colorization, so little texture. Small wonder that, as Felling notes, disillusioned independents are America&

s fastest growing political affiliation (independent-leaning persons increased from 23 percent of the population in 1960 to 36 percent in 2002).

Can we in good conscience permit a democracy with unprecedented economic and military tools, one in a state of perpetual war, to kid itself that it is being served by cartoon journalism? We cannot explain this away as a part of a journalistic heritage of sensationalism: We now have higher stakes, as well as the benefit of hindsight.

Step one is to call reality by its proper name. Television news may be a fact of life, but it is time to stop pretending it is journalism, to strip it of any dignity until it earns back such dignity, to soberly inventory its damage to other forms of public discourse.

Let&

s return to a certain NFL wide receiver. If the Cincinnati Bengals manage to resurrect their long-struggling franchise, it will be due less to the antics of Chad Johnson than to the leadership of quarterback Carson Palmer.

Palmer startled observers three years ago by not demanding that Cincinnati trade to a better team the right to draft him from college, as so many other top players have done when confronted with the prospect of playing for a perennial loser. Since then, the quiet Palmer has been adding character to the franchise, while the noisy Johnson has been its chief character.

And with that, Johnson is the fitting hood ornament of a cartoon media that lacks character.