Doug Bates doesn’t know it yet, but with the help of his daughter, the associate editor of The Oregonian has coined the perfect descriptor for journalism in the Age of Obama: “gerbilism.”
Bates explained the genesis of the term Sunday in a commencement address to future journalists from the University of Oregon. As a child, his young daughter confused Bates’ profession with the name of her favorite rodent in a school report about what her parents did for a living. “My dad Doug works at the newspaper,” she wrote. “First he went to college to learn about gerbilism.”
The punch line no doubt scored Bates a few laughs, but he segued into a serious point:
I’ve decided “gerbilism” is a pretty good word for what’s been going on in the news media these days. Gerbilism is an apt term for something that’s soft and warm and cuddly, safe and timid, with no sharp teeth and no bite whatsoever. Gerbilism, I’ve decided, is partly responsible for a lot of our nation’s problems today.
Soft, warm, cuddly, safe, timid and no sharp teeth or bite — yep, that sounds like much of the national media’s coverage of Barack Obama.
Gerbilism is what you get when:
- A president coordinates questions with friendly reporters and snaps at independent thinkers in the White House press corps who don’t pitch softballs;
- A national network agrees to a one-sided special report on healthcare policy at the White House and even goes so far as to reject advertising with alternative viewpoints;
- The editor of a major newsmagazine pens a love letter to the president and compares him with God;
- A national news anchor at another network bows his head before the president;
- The press fawns over everything from the president’s dessert stops to his skill as a fly killer.
And those are just a few snapshots from the month of June alone. That kind of coverage has been commonplace for more than two years now and shows no signs of abating.
The national press does have some shining stars — like Jake Tapper of ABC News, who broke into journalism at the liberal Salon.com but who has earned kudos from conservatives for his aggressive and balanced White House reporting. The media as a whole also has had some shining moments of critical coverage. Even the hopelessly liberal New York Times reported this week that Obama has broken his repeated promises to make the federal government more transparent.
But those moments are rare — and it’s not exactly courageous to criticize Obama for actions that have turned liberal bloggers against him. The press corps needs to get a backbone when it comes to covering Obama, and quick.
Bates understands the consequences if they don’t. He was right to argue that today’s press corps is contributing to the nation’s problems, and he was right to admonish the next generation of journalists to “please join the fight to keep shallow, fluffy, worthless gerbilism from further weakening American democracy.”
Let’s hope they listen. The country needs journalists who cherish their historical role as watchdogs, not those who shirk their ethical duty because they happen to see the world through the same prism as the current occupant of the White House.
UPDATE, 6/25: An addition to the bulleted list — gerbilism is when you publish drivel that portrays the president as the standard of perfection.
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