Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns generated a bit of buzz over the weekend through his commencement address at Stanford University.  (You can read the prepared text of his remarks here or listen to his speech here.)  Burns wisely understood that his audience would hear almost nothing he said—they are there “for reasons that have nothing to do with you,” Garrison Keillor reminds the graduation speaker—so instead he used the Stanford grads as stage props while he spoke to the nation.  Abandoning all pretense of neutrality, Burns observed that

For 216 years, our elections, though bitterly contested, have featured the philosophies and character of candidates who were clearly qualified.  That is not the case this year.  One is glaringly not qualified.  So before you do anything with your well-earned degree, you must do everything you can to defeat the retrograde forces that have invaded our democratic process . . . [and] fight against, no matter your political persuasion, the dictatorial tendencies of the candidate with zero experience in the much maligned but subtle art of governance.

Stanford 125th Commencement Ceremony, Stanford Stadium.

Stanford 125th Commencement Ceremony, Stanford Stadium.

Given that I have written so much about Lincoln in reflecting on this year’s presidential campaign, I was struck by how centrally Lincoln figured in Burns’s reflections at Stanford.  As a historian, I have mixed feelings about Burns’s documentaries.  I admire his masterful storytelling, but I find him better at making us feel than at making us think.  His appeal to Lincoln was a case in point.  Burns peppered his speech with evocative Lincoln quotes: “a house divided against itself cannot stand”; “we must think anew, and act anew”; “my fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.”  (Had it been possible, Burns surely would have added a montage of Lincoln photographs in the background, as well as a group of Civil-War reenactors using period instruments to play “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”)  Burns’s appeals to Lincoln were vaguely inspirational, but they fell short of a coherent argument, and when Burns implied, in an aside, that Lincoln would have called for stricter gun control laws if he were alive today, I was pretty sure that the filmmaker was using Lincoln more than reminding us to learn from him.

What role has the media played in his popularity?

What role has the media played in his popularity?

The other thing that struck me about Burns’s address was his effort to explain the inexplicable popularity of the presumptive Republican nominee.  He surely believes that there are numerous contributing factors, but he saved most of his time and attention for a scathing indictment of the media.  “Many of our media institutions have largely failed to expose this charlatan,” Burns lamented.  They have been “torn between a nagging responsibility to good journalism and the big ratings a media circus always delivers.  In fact, they have given him the abundant airtime he so desperately craves, so much so that it has actually worn down our natural human revulsion to this kind of behavior.”  Putting an explanation point to the rebuke, he averred that Edward R. Murrow—the courageous critic of Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s—“would have exposed this naked emperor months ago.”

Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman took issue with the scolding in an editorial the following day.  “The idea that we’re waiting for a courageous Murrow-like figure to finally ‘expose’ Donald Trump is absurd,” Waldman replies.

What is it exactly about Trump that we have yet to be told? That he’s a bigot who appeals to voters’ basest instincts? That he’s an ignoramus and a fool? That his ideas about how government operates are ludicrous? That he regularly proposes things that are not only unconstitutional but an obscene affront to fundamental American ideals? That his business career is filled with fraud? That a Trump presidency would be a horror show in too many ways to count?

“Well guess what,” Waldman retorts.  “All those things have been written, spoken, explained, and shouted thousands and thousands of times during the year of Trump’s candidacy. The real problem,” he concludes, is not that Trump hasn’t been “exposed.” He’s been “amply exposed.”   The real problem is that “a lot of Americans are just fine with what Trump is offering.”

In sum, Burns says the media has abdicated its responsibility to expose a dangerous demagogue.  Waldman says that’s ridiculous. The fourth estate has been shouting from the rooftops that the emperor has no clothes, it’s just that not enough people care.

So what do YOU think?  I would welcome your thoughts on the matter.  In the meantime, here are my own:

I think that Burns’s diagnosis is simplistic—maybe even silly—but I can’t wholly agree with the implications of Waldman’s overly defensive op-ed., which I think goes too far in exonerating the media.  Actually, what Waldman is really saying is that “We at the Washington Post shouldn’t be blamed for Trump’s popularity,” which is assuredly correct.  (Trump didn’t decide to deny press credentials to all Post reporters for nothing.)  But this leaves a broad swath of the media unaccounted for, doesn’t it?  The truth is that there is almost nothing that the Washington Post can do to dissuade the supporters of Donald Trump because almost no supporters of Donald Trump get their news from the Washington Post, or any comparable purveyor of so-called “liberal media bias.”

The Trump phenomenon surely says many things about the current state of American society and politics, but it is undoubtedly a testimony to the utter fragmentation of news and information dissemination that has characterized American life over the past forty years.  Waldman alludes to this critical trend when he chides Burns for suggesting that all that is needed is for a Murrow-like figure to speak the truth about the presumptive Republican nominee.  “But nothing like that is possible today,” Waldman writes.

There is no single media figure who has the audience or the stature that Murrow or Cronkite had. The multiplication of sources has led to a Balkanization of information — there’s no common text among voters functioning the way the evening news functioned a half-century ago.

The problem, however, is not just that there is no single media voice with the stature to sway public opinion say, the way that Walter Cronkite did in his celebrated editorial against the Vietnam War in 1968.  The problem with the “Balkanization of information” that Waldman alludes to (I love the expression), is that it has actually changed the way that many of us see and interact with the world.

Thanks to cable television, the internet, and the explosion of social media, we live in an age in which technology makes it increasingly easy to fashion small worlds populated by those who think exactly like us.  Why challenge our beliefs, when it is so easy to choose talk shows and blogs and cable TV stations that preach to the choir by reinforcing what we already believe?  Sociologists call this phenomenon “homophily,” a fancy term for our preference for like-minded neighbors.

But this natural preference is at odds with one of the most fundamental prerequisites for a functioning pluralistic democracy, the ability of all interested parties to practice what political scientists call “persuasive engagement,” a reasoned give-and-take between groups with differing interests and values as they strive together for a common good.  If we are finding it harder and harder to engage in principled compromise, surely one reason is that we so rarely are called on to take seriously those who disagree with us.  The “Balkanization of information” facilitates this, and human nature does the rest.

In his defense, I think Burns would agree.  I thought the best part of his speech—much more to the point than his vague appeals to Lincoln—was his characterization of the effects of social media.  “We live in an age of social media where we are constantly assured that we are all independent free agents,” Burns observed.  “But that free agency is essentially unconnected to real community [and] divorced from civic engagement.”  In the end it promotes a “kind of existence . . . that rewards conformity (not courage), ignorance and anti-intellectualism (not critical thinking).”

What are your thoughts?


  1. Jack Be Nimble

    Some interesting food for thought. I am not sure the “balkanization of information or the lack of a respected news commentator explains very much about the Trump phenomenon. At least at this point the key element seems to me to be Trump’s ability to command media attention either through his behavior or his rhetoric. The phrase comes to mind – “hate me or love me but don’t ignore me!” Our election season is so long that people find it difficult to take things very seriously until the party conventions. In this case I think many are waking up to see what a mess our political process is in right now. With the nominees all but decided, many are having second and third thoughts about the choices. Trump, as an political outsider, seems to be appealing to many Republicans who are sick of electing politicians who achieve little if any of the party’s agenda once in office. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are people on the make – for power and for wealth. Hillary, however, may be better at concealing her true motives.

  2. I think that Neil Postman was prescient when he wrote “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” Donald Trump makes for very good television. News entertains, especially political news, even when it was Morrow or Cronkite back in the day. News needs a hero, a villain, and frequently a buffoon. Trump is providing the later.

  3. I think Ed above inadvertently hit on a major issue the US constantly faces when delivering news. Our (political) culture is one of egalitarianism (as opposed to hierarchical deference). This has two implications when it comes to (political) media: 1) the media is expected to express the opinions of everyone, even when the topic is not particularly a matter of opinion (e.g. environmental science) and 2) when this “equal” coverage doesn’t occur, we feel empowered to cry foul.

    People then act strategically to fill that hole, so that there is now some media that will cover/espouse any given viewpoint, and we then play our game of “homophily” that you mention. And then my cries of “foul” can burn potential bridges of compromise, further isolating me and my own.

    I’m not arguing for a media of elites (that could be just as bad or worse than what we currently have), but I think its important to recognize one of the trade-offs we face in the media because of our underlying cultural background.

  4. Both Burns and Waldman fall short in their analysis. Burns, an excellent filmmaker has consistently produced documentaries on the Civil War, Huey Long, the Brooklyn Bridge, Baseball, Jazz, and other subjects. When he centers on Donald Trump, however, his statement that “one” is not qualified ignores another who seems to be increasingly qualified for a prison term. Waldman, on the other hand, undermines the alleged accomplishments of a mostly partisan media by failing to acknowledge several decades of being a propaganda ministry rather than objective reporters that equally cover all sides regardless of their political ties. In short, the media has indeed its share of blame to shoulder and little appetite for the task.

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