November 13th, 2010
10:15 AM ET

Letters to the President: #663 'How to restore the public debate'

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Reporter's Note: President Obama has chastised the media for cheapening the public debate. Me too.

Dear Mr. President,

Well, I hope this Saturday brings you a little rest from your weary travels. I enjoy going on the road but at some point I usually find myself pining a bit for a quiet evening at home with some TV and maybe some brownies. I’ll bet that sounds good right now, eh?

I don’t suppose you’ll get much rest, however, with all the Sturm und Drang over tax cuts, and deficit spending, and oh, whatever else it is that the Capitol Hillers are grinding their teeth over. You sort of took the media to task during your travels for focusing too much on splashy, sensational stories while steering way clear of many serious matters for fear of scaring off the audience.

Well, I have to say you are absolutely right about that. It is tragic, but true. The quest for readers, listeners, and viewers, has built a steadily growing feeding frenzy in my industry for at least a couple of decades and it doesn’t seem ready to end anytime soon. The chum in the water is scandal, “gotcha” interviews, jaw-dropping crimes, and simplistic political positions pitted against each other as if they represent real debate.

As I’ve said before, you and your political brethren bear some of the blame, too; after all we could not mount these made for TV slap-fights if both sides were not trotting out a never ending line of combatants more than happy to step into the ring. The public, ever ready to eat up such garbage, should also take some of the shame. But we the media should not evade our responsibility.

All that that said, I want to remind you of something that I think really matters. The truth is there are many of us in this profession who have waged an unflagging battle for years and years to defend the ramparts of objectivity and serious news. We have been far from perfect. We have made many compromises to keep our jobs. But we have fought on. And in large part, that is because we really believe that now, as much or more than ever before, our nation needs “facts” and “truth.” An endlessly spewing fountain of opinion is simply no substitute.

So how can you help solve this problem which we both can see? Here is an idea: The next time you want to give an interview, turn your back on the marquee names. Select a simple, fair, honest reporter who will ask hard questions. Show your respect for the importance of that craft. Answering legitimate queries from someone far removed from the show-biz aspects of the trade will certainly help your credibility far more than any cherry-picked interview with a perceived “friendly” reporter or any chat with a celebrity journalist.

You’re right: The media does focus on the shallow, cheap, and sensational far too much. So don’t reward the champions of that movement. Instead, reach out to those who stand for honest, objective standards. Better to be pummeled in a fair fight, than to win a fixed one.

Call if you get a moment. I’m very busy working on our end of the year special, All the Best, All the Worst of 2010, but happy to take a break if you can chat.


Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Ronnie

    You struck a nerve in me by talking about the nonsense they call a "debate." I got an "A" in debate in college (GA State) and I know the difference – but then ANYONE who really listens to the "nonsense" knows that it's nonsense in their gut...but NO ONE wants to listen judicially do they – what has happened to our culture that everyone seems to talk like spoiled children-brats?!
    (Except you and I of course!)

    November 14, 2010 at 10:46 am |
  2. J.V.Hodgson

    Gosh tom I agree again whole heartedly!! We've had our differences!!
    When you as media have someone coming on your show(s) you have to demand that they deal in "facts and truth," because, without those, you the media lose all claim to Honesty, Integrity, key Journalistic rules.
    Lies and misrepresentation are never justifiable as free speech ON THE MEDIA, it does not mean people cannot say it,it simply means it hasn't passed the test you apply to us humble bloggers, why are politicians big business men or Political action groups exempt from pure morality or any different rules.
    I agree on Punidtry as well far too much of it (OPINIONATED of course) and a lot of it is simply drama filled air time padding out, as unbiased reporting, but occasionally worth listening to when they have had a day or so to digest what happened or was said or done. The instant Punditry is a disaster.

    November 14, 2010 at 3:28 am |