The Hazards of Cliffhanger Journalism

When I was a kid, Cliffhanger serials fronted for the main Saturday matinee movie.  They were short episodes of a hero’s daring adventures, each one leaving him (or the virtuous her) facing certain death, the outcome of which would not be revealed until next week’s episode.  They created weeklong suspenseful waiting to find out how escape was made one more time.  We’ve become more sophisticated by packing the cliff hanger concept into feature movies of the Die Hard, James Bond and and Mission Impossible variety.  The idea is the same: keep the audience in suspense wondering if the hero can get out of the next threat to life and limb. 

I’ve come to believe that building and maintaining cliff hanging suspense is what news media outlets are doing in real time with the issue of America’s political polarization. Keeping the fiction of hard line divisions between presumed left and right factions, red and blue states, enables cliff hanging suspense inviting the audience to tune in tomorrow for the next exciting episode. Intentional or not, it’s a useful marketing ploy. 

A not very deep dive into Pew Research data shows that the hard core right is small, the hard core left is even smaller.  The great majority of the American public is a mix of liberal leaning conservatives and conservative leaning liberals who believe in the basic goodness of America’s political ideals through representative republican democracy. In some ill defined way, the basic idea is understood even if the way it works is not. It may be true that many citizens pay little attention to political news, have no idea who elected leaders are, don’t really know how government works, and often don’t vote.  Nevertheless, they have an elementary image of what makes the U.S. different from other nations and an expectation that their freedoms and protections are secure, even if other opportunities are wanting. 

Philosophers and political  pundits have long noted that the American form of democracy is based on two ideas: that all men are created equal with unalienable rights to pursue life, liberty and happiness; and that a democratic republic of three equal branches of government can develop into a more perfect union.  The American government was structured to bring practical implementation of the ideas into everyday reality, but with a twist. It was structured so the three branches would be a check on the power of each, with prescribed elections and terms of office that gave tremendous power to the voting public.  In other words, it was designed to create and maintain suspenseful tension in the making and application of laws.

Our political history has been complicated further by the lack of definitions of essential terms.  Who, for instance, is to be included in the category of “all men are created equal?”  What is equality? What’s meant by life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?  What is a more perfect union in a nation of semi-independent states, each with their own constitution?  They are questions not yet fully resolved, nor are they likely to be. We are a nation that makes changes and improvements labeled as progress, but only through the messy process of representative democracy driven in part by reason and emotions (public sentiment). 

I wouldn’t want it otherwise but it’s made more difficult and hazardous by news media encouraging cliff hanging suspense with a “let’s have you and him fight” marketing ploy that gives marginal extremists control of the public agenda. In the remote chance that journalists read this post they will object that they are simply reporting the news as it happens. Maybe, but it’s reporting that intentionally creates and maintains cliffhanging suspense that shoves aside the reason and reasonableness of the common good desired by the greater majority of Americans. Worse yet, it appears to give legitimacy to extreme right wingers who favor a unitary executive that would take the U.S. in the direction of fascism that would destroy our democracy and its founding ideals. 

1 thought on “The Hazards of Cliffhanger Journalism”

  1. Good column, Steve. But it’s not just cliff-hanging journalism; it’s also the deliberate journalistic ploy of accentuating the extreme, the bizarre, and that which will arouse negative emotions. These give rise to an adrenaline rush, which is addictive, which in my mind places many news organizations into the same league as Purdue Pharma or other drug pushers. Since you can’t outlaw anything that purports to be journalism the way you can drugs, legally we’re pretty much stuck with a caveat emptor market in ideas that demands critical judgment. This is always in short supply among the educated as much as anybody. Thanks for writing.

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