“TV loves a ruckus.”
That’s what President Obama declared last summer when news coverage of town hall meetings on health care focused on protests, shouting and angry crowds instead of the substance of the issue at hand.
The President’s observation was correct. TV does in fact love a ruckus. So do most media outlets. Conflict is news. It’s also what people watch and what they read. TV loves a ruckus because we love one too.
With health care, this pattern continued through the passage of legislation in March. News reports on vote counts, strategy, parliamentary procedures, and threats against lawmakers outnumbered those on health care itself. According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, during the week President Obama signed the bill into law, only 22 percent of the coverage focused on how it would change the nation’s health care system. Nearly half of the news reports were about the political implications of the bill.
Debating who is responsible for the focus of news coverage is a bit like attempting to determine which came first, the chicken or the egg. Do news organizations cover the ruckus because that is what the public wants? Or does the public watch the ruckus because that is what media outlets offer them?
Regardless of who is at fault, we all lose when the focus is on the ruckus and not the substance; we don’t obtain the type of information we need to make intelligent, informed decisions. And, unfortunately, the ruckus is gaining momentum in New Jersey.
New Jerseyans spent a lot of time this week discussing and debating Governor Christie’s accomplishments as he completed his first 100 days in office. One of the most significant developments that occurred during this period was the plunge in the level of discourse in our state.
We had a union official who circulated an email jokingly praying for the Governor’s death. We had a Governor who charged that students were being used like “drug mules,” carrying information about their parents’ plans to vote in school board elections. The atmosphere at legislative committee hearings has escalated from contentious to confrontational, and the exchanges between opposing party members have deteriorated from the normal partisan bickering to trash talk. With every day that passes, state government is looking more and more like MTV’s Jersey Shore.
The result, once again, is that the ruckus has overshadowed the issue. We know more about the back-and-forth between Governor Christie and the teachers’ union than we do about education funding policy in New Jersey – how it works, its strengths and weaknesses, and what needs to be done to educate our children and prepare them for the future.
Assigning blame, however, is another case of which came first, the chicken or the egg. Clearly, Governor Christie is a man who speaks his mind and makes no apologies for the words he chooses. But he has had plenty of partners – Democrats and Republicans – who have helped to lower the level of civility in public discourse in New Jersey over the past 100 days.
If there is to be a change, it must start at the top. Whether it is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, the manager of a baseball team or the Governor of a state, the person in charge sets the tone for the entire organization.
In his inaugural address on January 19, Governor Christie declared: “The era of partisanship and acrimony has not served the people well. Problems have festered while too much of the time of our leaders has been spent assigning blame instead of assuming responsibility. Today, we are taking a new direction.”
One hundred days later, partisanship and acrimony are stronger than ever in New Jersey. In order for our state to move away from the ruckus and foster the constructive debate and discussion needed to address the public policy challenges of the 21st Century, the Governor must lead the way – and all of those who have helped to lower the level of discourse must be willing to follow.
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