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News Opinion

The pollution of political discourse

As the dust settles in the wake of the latest presidential election, where can the open-minded voter turn these days for reasonably unbiased analysis and commentary on the state of political affairs?

It's a challenge in this era of talk radio and cable chatter in which committed partisan political operatives, with an occasional allegedly nonpartisan journalist thrown in for cover, are given free rein to spread their slanted pitches and propaganda.

The problem was emphatically illustrated in the appearance of conservative Republican guru Karl Rove on Fox News on election night, disputing the network's call on President Barack Obama's carrying the state of Ohio. His challenge was in keeping with his pre-vote insistence that Mitt Romney would win the election, for which Rove-affiliated super-PACs had poured millions of dollars in airwave advertising.

This muddying of the waters of political commentary was only the most glaring example of how such broadcasts, of both conservative and liberal bent, have diluted what used to be fairly balanced presentation of political discussion on the air. The loading up of panels and talk shows with partisans peddling their biased wares is now geared to attract like-minded listeners and viewers in an intentional polarizing of the electorate.

Today's world of political commentary has thus been divided into the conservative universe of Fox News and the liberal orbit of MSNBC, with other radio and cable outlets often falling into the same general divisions with their choices of anchors and regular panel participants.

Radio rabble-rouser Rush Limbaugh long ago started mocking his followers with the moniker "ditto-heads" in recognitions of their willingness so readily to fall in line behind his frequently smarmy slanders against liberal political figures. On the liberal side, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, with considerably more erudition but also a good dose of condescension to those who disagree with her, provides a left counterforce to the ranting right.

On the major old networks, the panel show pioneer, NBC News' "Meet the Press," still carries the banner of balanced political commentary, as do CBS News' "Face the Nation" and ABC News' "This Week." Each has a moderator who generally hews to the even-handed, but all also invite strong partisan political operatives to inject their obvious and often lucrative political bias.

Of these, CBS anchor Bob Schieffer, the veteran of the pack, runs his show with consistent courtesy and fairness without diluting its informational content. Surprisingly to me, the "Fox News Sunday" show anchored by Chris Wallace manages to counter its conservative tilt with the inclusion of NPR's moderate Mara Liasson and former NPR analyst liberal Juan Williams.

But all these shows are a far cry from the old CBS roundtable discussions of global-area experts chaired by Edward R. Murrow and successors. These eminent journalists were long on detailed expositions of the trouble spots they covered, and short on the sort of partisan political palaver that marks nearly all of today's radio and television chat rooms.

Inevitably, a major infusion of entertainment as opposed to enlightenment turns too many of these exercises, both cable and network, into verbal sparring matches among professional political consultants, with print journalists along for the ride. Some of the latter, such as Dan Balz and David Ignatius of the Washington Post and Ron Brownstein of the National Journal, bring constructive and restrained comment to the exchanges, while other celebrity-seekers of the print press parade and bloviate for the cameras.

No doubt radio and television commentary will never return to relatively nonpartisan discussion of political events, free of the bias that marks so much of the mindless punditry of the world of radio talk, cable chatter, the Internet and social-media offshoots.

But a welcome start would be the weeding out from the mix of airwave commentators the most blatant political hucksters who offer their bias for free, while selling their talents in the arts of public persuasion for big bucks. As long as entertainment and celebrity remain entwined in the business of conveying information, however, don't hold your breath waiting for it to happen.

Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for the Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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