The American media reduces politics to a personality contest, and Brita in is heading the same way, warns Bryan Appleyard

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The Independent Online
Today public life, overwhelmingly, happens in the media. Issues are defined and debated by newspapers, radio and television. As a result, both the issues themselves and the way they are presented are determined by media demands. We want excitement, personalities and confrontation; we do not want the dull grind, the ordinary realities that make society work.

So, last week, the Tory chairman, Brian Mawhinney, lost his temper with Sue McGregor on the Today programme because she implied that John Major might be dumped. This was a game, nothing real was at stake. Both McGregor and Mawhinney are judged solely by how well they played, not by any meaningful content. Who won? Who lost? Who cares?

Too much of this stuff and we shall lose all contact with reality. Some say that is what has happened to the Americans. There a new book - James Fallows's Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy - has infuriated the East Coast media elite. Fallows claims that television and newspapers are choking real debate, ignoring vital issues and promoting a vision of public life as a sport.

Fallows is right. To the political pundits, Washington is the only place on earth. All policy issues are reported solely in terms of political advantage. So Bosnia is not a matter of human suffering but of the President's approval rating. Absurdly feted TV anchormen condense the world into bite- sized chunks of predictable pap. Meanwhile, the pundits reduce all complexity to an unresolvable snarling match.

Fallows's case is that the only agenda of the media elites is a kind of perpetually recycled court chatter. Broadcast journalism fights the ratings war by turning politics into sport. And print journalism has been corrupted. Writers are lured into the game by being offered the supreme prize - TV punditry.

The effect is to reinforce the media's sense of their own role as an elite. They operate according to club-like rules and conventions, excluding alternative versions. Policies are presented in terms of personality, not impact on ordinary, non-media people. Indeed, the entire electorate is treated as a dumb mass of pros or antis whose lives gain expression only through opinion polls.

Could it happen here? To some extent it already has. We have the spin- doctors and we have the lobby correspondents, eagerly recording their schemes. But so far we have not quite descended into the mire. This is because, first, print journalism is more powerful in this country. As long as prose is at least as important as the broadcast word, subtlety and complexity can never quite be lost.

Second, Britain is nothing like as parochial as the United States. Fallows reveals, shockingly, that the major news networks devote an average of six minutes a day to non-American news. Worse still, these few fragments from abroad consist mainly of catastrophe and weirdness. Convinced by hype that their televisions are a window on the world, Americans think of themselves as a beleaguered island of sanity in a landscape of gesticulating, murderous foreigners.

But there are deeper issues here that Fallows does not fully address. For much of the inanity he records is inevitable. News must compete with the huge flood of information and entertainment now available to everybody. It must seem as exciting and direct if it is to maintain its ratings and its circulation. Inevitably, it must present its material in competitive terms - and that means brutal conflict or sensation packaged to endorse its audience's expectations.

Fallows's solution centres on the idea of people's real concerns. Surveys repeatedly show that the priorities of ordinary people are utterly different from those of the media. To reform themselves, he suggests, the media should take on these ordinary concerns and force politicians to address these rather than those defined in Washington.

The real question is: what, exactly, is news? What is, ultimately, important? Between OJ Simpson and the North Korean atomic bomb - an example drawn from Fallows - which matters? Any rational person would answer the latter. But the American ratings said the opposite, so how can the newsmen argue?

The problem is that the media have to retain their own sense of importance. The multi-million dollar anchormen must follow the ratings, but they must do so with the sort of gravitas that suggests the ratings are right - that OJ Simpson really matters. This forces them to be blind to the way in which the audience-media nexus is inventing a reality, a scale of significance. That this scale is, by any objective standards, perverse should warn us, as Fallows does, that democracy really is in danger of being undermined.