In three speeches over the past week, President Barack Obama laid out a pointed critique of partisan media and our hyperconnected, super-cali-cybertastic age. It started with a commencement address at the University of Michigan:
We've got politicians calling each other all sorts of unflattering names. Pundits and talking heads shout at each other. The media tends to play up every hint of conflict, because it makes for a sexier story -– which means anyone interested in getting coverage feels compelled to make their arguments as outrageous and as incendiary as possible. [...]
Today's 24/7 echo-chamber amplifies the most inflammatory soundbites louder and faster than ever before. And it's also, however, given us unprecedented choice. Whereas most Americans used to get their news from the same three networks over dinner, or a few influential papers on Sunday morning, we now have the option to get our information from any number of blogs or websites or cable news shows. And this can have both a good and bad development for democracy. For if we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we become more polarized, more set in our ways. That will only reinforce and even deepen the political divides in this country.
But if we choose to actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs, perhaps we can begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from.
Now, this requires us to agree on a certain set of facts to debate from. That's why we need a vibrant and thriving news business that is separate from opinion makers and talking heads. That's why we need an educated citizenry that values hard evidence and not just assertion. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously once said, "Everybody is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."
Next up was the president's no-seriously moment at the White House Correspondents Dinner:
Earlier today I gave the commencement address at Michigan, where I spoke to the graduates about what is required to keep out democracy thriving in the 21st century. And one of the points I made is that for all the changes and challenges facing your industry, this country absolutely needs a healthy, vibrant media. Probably needs it more than ever now.
Today's technology [...] has made it possible for us to get our news and information from a growing range of sources. We can pick and choose not only our preferred type of media, but also our preferred perspective. And while that exposes us to an unprecedented array of opinions, analysis, and points of view, it also makes it that much more important that we're all operating on a common baseline of facts. It makes it that much more important that journalists out there seek only the truth.
And I don't have to tell you that. Some of you are seasoned veterans who have been on the political beat for decades; others here tonight began their careers as bloggers not long ago. But I think it's fair to say that every single reporter in this room believes deeply in the enterprise of journalism. Every one of you, even the most cynical among you, understands and cherishes the function of a free press and the preservation of our system of government and of our way of life.
And I want you to know that for all the jokes and the occasional gripes, I cherish that work, as well.
And finally, this weekend's graduation speech at Hampton University:
[M]eanwhile, you're coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don't always rank that high on the truth meter. And with iPods and iPads; and Xboxes and PlayStations -- none of which I know how to work -- information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation. So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it's putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy.
Class of 2010, this is a period of breathtaking change, like few others in our history. We can't stop these changes, but we can channel them, we can shape them, we can adapt to them. [...]
So, allowing you to compete in the global economy is the first way your education can prepare you. But it can also prepare you as citizens. With so many voices clamoring for attention on blogs, and on cable, on talk radio, it can be difficult, at times, to sift through it all; to know what to believe; to figure out who's telling the truth and who's not. Let's face it, even some of the craziest claims can quickly gain traction. I've had some experience in that regard.
Taken together, the message here is clear, clever, and wrong. The boom in opinionated, interconnected media is a challenge to our very democracy (it isn't). News needs to be hermetically sealed from opinion (it doesn't). The primary purpose of media consumption should be empowerment (if there was a primary purpose for media consumption, I sure as hell wouldn't trust a president to identify it). And the most dangerous purveyor of untruths is the 24/7 echo chamber (I for one am much more exercised about taxpayer-financed lies backed by lethal government force).
While hypocritical (given the president's own slippery relationship with the truth) this critique is strategically clever. For those still inclined to believe it, the message reinforces Obama's fading image as a truth-telling, above-it-all academic (see the Michigan speech in particular for a bunch of we need to get beyond the tired debate about big-vs.-small-government claptrap). And for the straight-journalism types this is a soothing tongue-bath from the Sensible Centrist in Chief that reinforces their own self-pity/importance and gives them even more motivation to go after the real lying liars: The ones who noisily and hyperbolically oppose the policies of the most powerful man on earth.
Back when George W. Bush was president, much hay was made at the fact that 43 didn't see the working press as particularly representative of the American people, and instead tailored his media communicatin' (at least somewhat) to the right-of-center mediasphere (or if you prefer, the non-Reality Based Community). Now that Obama is essentially using the same divide-and-conquer strategy, only backing a different side this time, it will be interesting to see if any journalism chin-strokers do anything but applaud.