On last weekend’s Chris Matthews Show, New York Times columnist David Brooks made the following loose-lipped declaration: “One of the things I’ve found in life is that politicians are a lot more sincere than us journalists and we are more sincere than the people that read and watch us.”
If you need to read that again, we don’t blame you.
With a single sentence, Brooks transformed himself into a one-man wrecking ball for journalism’s credibility. One can only hope that the ratings for the Chris Matthews Show were low last weekend. These days, with the public’s shaky confidence in the media and the ongoing shift in viewership and readership away from traditional formats, journalists and the institutions they work for should be working overtime to improve their reputations and not publicly declaring that they themselves, and the people who read and watch their work, are not to be trusted. Indeed, if journalists — who supposedly keep an eye on our government — are less sincere than politicians, perhaps it’s time for the public to stop consuming news altogether.
Fittingly, Brooks’ comment came in response to a question about the oft-mentioned hypothesis that Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, and parody in general, breeds cynicism. While the other members of the discussion panel — Andrea Mitchell of NBC, Katty Kay of the BBC, and Dan Rather — were of the opinion that satire is an outgrowth of news and truth, Brooks said that he was “a little dubious that media [in any form] affects opinion.” The first question that comes to mind for Brooks is this: If you don’t think information affects opinion or “how people actually behave,” why are you a journalist at all — much less an opinion journalist?
Matthews, for his part, was startled by Brooks’ remark and tried to rectify the situation. Laughing awkwardly, he said, “Can I correct that? Daily journalists, not columnists, are more sincere than politicians.” (And where on this sincerity spectrum, we wonder, does Matthews place cable TV pontificators?)
Brooks seems to have conflated cynicism with paranoia in an effort to continue his longstanding battle against conspiracy theorists. He said that the public’s cynicism is “stupid’ and “pseudointellectual” since “most people in public office are pretty honest.”
But it’s certainly not unreasonable to have satirical political commentary around to point out the instances when our government is deceiving an often-credulous public — even if the message often doesn’t get through. (A significant portion of the public still believes that Iraq was in cahoots with al Qaeda before 9/11, despite a barrage of information, commentary and, yes, satirical parody to the contrary.)
We think Katty Kay of the BBC summed it up best on the same show: “People are cynical because these are times worth being cynical about.”
Bree Nordenson a former assistant editor of CJR.
Pop! That was the sound of Brooks’ balloon bursting.