Despite his conservative bent, lawyer and professional ethicist Jack Marshall authors what is consistently one of my favorite blogs, Ethics Alarms. A recentpost of his attacked the “Question of the Day” posed by CNN’s Carol Costello on Thursday morning. She asked her viewers to contact the show with their answer as to the rather nonsensical question “Do CEOs make good presidents?” She went on to cite Donald Trump, Ross Perot, and Herman Cain as examples of CEOs. Astute observers will notice that none of them were presidents, and they might also realize that no CEOs have ever been presidents. But as long as Costello had to choose purely hypothetical examples, she certainly could have come up with a more balanced list.
Jack Marshall sees this as proof positive of liberal media bias, and an effort on the part of CNN to torpedo the Romney candidacy by any means necessary. It’s honestly hard not to agree with him on that latter point, although I don’t for a moment believe in the myth of the liberal media. The loaded question presented by Costello on Thursday morning was undoubtedly in Obama’s favor, but the overall bias of the media is not towards liberal viewpoints or personalities. The overall bias is in favor of viewership and profitability, and outside of Fox News and MSNBC, where this is accomplished by a commitment to conservativism and liberalism, respectively, the result is a good deal of duplicity buttressed by base pandering and bad journalism.
Those are the things for which the media must be most vigorously criticized. And what are more crucial than any particular bias are the elements of laziness and stupidity put on display by this and virtually any other CNN Question of the Day. I’m not especially bothered by the fact that Carol Costello was trying to not-so-subtly impugn the qualifications of candidate Romney. What aggravates me is the fact that she was asking her viewers to do it for her.
So we live in a representative democracy. It’s wonderful; we’re all proud of that fact. That doesn’t mean, however, that a seemingly democratic process is appropriate for every single social institution. The fifth estate is supposed to be independent of the ebbs and flows of public opinion, as well as the influence of government. Indeed, it’s crucial to a well-functioning democracy that the populous be informed by a media which deals in facts and expert dialogue rather than being an aggregator of private, uninformed opinion.
I’d be hard pressed to think of a more uninformed opinion than any response to the question “Do CEOs make good presidents?” Whether you answer yes or no, your answer is as meaningless as if you had stated your opinion about the financial management skills of the tooth fairy. There is no information on either topic, so to answer the question is to construct a purely speculative fantasy. And even if there had been CEO presidents in the past – even if there was a tooth fairy – it wouldn’t make a poll of private opinions any more informative. As politically engaged citizens, we’re supposed to be able to refer to the news media for information before we form our opinions.
If CNN believes that CEOs, in theory, would make terrible presidents, that’s fine; let them say so. But let them say so by referring to historical facts and correlating business activities with the challenges that a person can be expected to face in political office. Completely unbiased journalism is widely regarded as a fantasy, but there’s a clear distinction between responsible and irresponsible bias in reporting. Framing one’s claim as the question of the day is decidedly irresponsible. It just allows the network to hide its opinion behind unaffiliated responses to their hideously leading questions. It parrots the common argumentative tactic of dodging criticism by insisting, “Hey, I’m just asking questions, here.”
Asking questions is indeed a crucial part of the media’s job. But when it comes to political topics, many so-called journalists seem to have forgotten that other, equally crucial part: providing answers. If you as a journalist think a question is essential to the public understanding, then it’s your responsibility to bring to bear facts and logic on that question to help the public to resolve it in a way that’s consistent with reality, not just with their preexisting points of view. And if you find that the question you want to ask can’t be resolved in that way, say because there are no relevant historical data, then you’re probably asking the wrong question.
The modern news media is rife with examples of behaviors just like the CNN Question of the Day. Instead of listening to the news and being informed, consumers are not encouraged to tweet at live broadcasts, to vote for their favorite stories, to sound off with their views in absence of substantive information that might clarify those views. When did the media decide that its job is to provide a popular outlet for every individual’s point of view? And perhaps more important, why does the public seemingly accept this as a good thing?
We all want to have our voices heard. Of course we do. But a responsible citizen also takes care to recognize when his voice is actually needed, and when, on the other hand, he needs to keep quiet and listen. Collectively, we need to step outside of our presumptions from time to time, log off of our otherwise incessant Twitter feeds, and open ourselves up to the presentation of information that exists independent of our relished ability to talk back. When we do, maybe we’ll take clearer notice of the fact that the people tasked with providing such information simply aren’t doing so, and maybe we’ll use our always-welcome voices to demand more.
The lessons learned from Thursdays Question of the Day almost make me want to believe that some rebel copywriter inserted it into the script in hopes that it would spur some tiny proportion of the audience to sit up and realize, “Hey, I can’t answer this question! Why on Earth are they asking it?” Far more likely, though, is that some researchers at CNN crafted that question so that they, and by extension their very network, wouldn’t have to do their job.