Setting the agenda for national discussion is one of the most important duties of the news industry. The topics and tone chosen for coverage, collectively, comprise what becomes the conversation of democracy. News editors and producers choose what is “news” and tell us what information is important enough for our national consideration.
Considering the recent attention the news media have given to verbal outbursts by entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte, one could conclude that Belafonte’s commentary is important to the national dialogue. That would be a misguided conclusion.
Belafonte has been particularly strident in recent weeks, calling President Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world” while sharing a stage with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez. His latest outburst was to compare the Homeland Security Department to the Nazi Gestapo. This is nothing new for Belafonte. He has a track record of criticizing the Bush administration for “harassing” Cuba and once characterized then-Secretary of State Colin Powell as a “house slave.”
One must wonder why the news agenda setters consider Belafonte’s bizarre statements as “news.” Are the statements even true? If so, is Belafonte the best source to confirm them? Does he have expertise that particularly qualifies him? Does his previous success as an entertainer give him a special privilege to have his comments distributed nationwide? Are there no other, more rational speakers out there who can provide necessary dissent and scrutiny of the Bush administration, but without the uncivil and divisive tone? In short, is Belafonte a legitimate newsmaker, or a mere sideshow?
While Belafonte has every right to use extreme rhetoric in discussing the Bush administration, that doesn’t mean the news media have to give his remarks more attention than they deserve by thoroughly disseminating his verbal brickbats. This isn’t about censorship of Belafonte or inhibiting his free speech. He can speak out and dissent all he wants and with whatever tone he chooses.
The concern here is journalistic judgment, and recent poor judgment has highlighted the extreme rhetoric from both sides of the political spectrum. For example, the media give wide coverage of each strange proclamation from conservative broadcaster and minister Pat Robertson. When the news media choose to highlight the shrill antics of out-there sources like Belafonte and Robertson, they legitimize that style and contribute to an already polarized citizenry. That is not helpful.
A generation ago, ethicist Karl Wallace of the University of Illinois promoted rhetorical guidelines for political discussion. They emphasized a focus on relevant issues, the avoidance of distorting or emotionally loaded language, and concern for public versus personal gain. News editors serve, in a sense, as rhetoricians with every agenda decision they make. Wallace’s guidelines should be instructive as editors decide each day’s news agenda.
Commentators on broadcast political talk shows work themselves into a lather rehashing and arguing over the incendiary bon mots of Belafonte and his ilk. Tim Russert on NBC’s “Meet the Press” raised Belafonte’s commentary in a recent discussion with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Russert did the same with Colin Powell during a 2003 interview. Are there not enough other sensible issues to discuss with the likes of Obama and Powell?
CNN further legitimized Belafonte’s Gestapo remarks with a prime-time interview in which the singer was granted another free forum for his rants.
Some might argue that it is the media’s job to just report everything that happens and that editors should not arbitrarily pick and choose which views get in the news and which don’t. In reality, however, journalists are constantly deciding what gets on the agenda and what doesn’t. These are conscious decisions that too often use up newspaper space and broadcast time for the outlandish, leaving less space and time for more rational observers who could better lead our national dialogue.
Legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow once cautioned that a person is no wiser just because his voice reaches “halfway around the world” as opposed to when it “reached only to the end of the bar.” Members of the media need to more carefully consider the role they play in deciding which voices are to be heard around the world. For while it is the American way that everybody gets to work his mouth, the news media should not serve as a promotional vehicle for the voices that should be left at the end of the bar.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University
(Harry Belafonte delivered The Timothy and Sharon Ubben Lecture at DePauw University on September 7, 2002. A story with video and audio clips can be found at: http://www.depauw.edu/news/index.asp?id=12228)