LONDON—The longer I live abroad, the more disorienting my rare visits back to America become. After 27 years away you expect changes but so few touchstones of my life in the US. are left, I feel like a tourist. Except, of course, I'm not.
That explains why my first trip back home in a year, which coincided with the Republican Convention, has left me feeling distraught. There is much that had me concerned about the state of the nation, but on this trip it was more personal than ever because—given the story of the week—my focus was on my profession. I had no idea just how bad political journalism had become. I mean, I read the major American press on-line every day. I catch tidbits of cable news when Facebook friends point me in certain directions but to be immersed, the way I would be if I still lived in the US., was profoundly shocking.
American society is in crisis and the political journalism aggravates this crisis because at this moment it is—I could try and write something clever but I need to say it simply—it is just awful. Yes, there are colleagues who do an excellent job, but their work is overwhelmed by the tide of stupidity and gossip with a dangerous undertow of pusillanimous conformity that passes as political "journalism" today.
I suppose things have been headed this way for a while. The last time I was in America for a convention season was in 2004. I was co-hosting the NPR program Here and Now's Democratic Convention coverage and then traveled to the Deep South to make a documentary on why that region remained the crucible of American politics.
As an insider, the things that I found disquieting then in the way news media reported what are essentially staged infomercials have now become standard practice. 2004 was the year that comics supplanted journalists as the skeptics in the room. I interviewed Lewis Black for Here and Now and he was quite trenchant and funny but Lewis is not a journalist, he's like your ranting best friend who's had a few too many drinks. Now comic bar room chat has been elevated to the level of analysis (in a real bar room on the set of Morning Joe in Tampa). Comic skepticism, not journalistic skepticism, rules.
And, of course, journalistic skepticism is what's required now that conventions simply parrot the propaganda that super-PACs are paying for. No room here to define "journalistic skepticism" in theory and practice but Claud Cockburn's definition works as short hand. The first question any journalist should ask himself when talking to a politician, according to Cockburn, is, "Why is this bastard lying to me?"
Who is asking that when they are in the spin room at the convention center?
Meanwhile, propaganda floods the airwaves in a country where newspapers are dying, the traditional network newscasts are still hemorrhaging viewers, and cable news outlets have doubled down on partisanship or bizarre personalities like Piers Morgan.
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And NPR, the only broadcast outfit to grow audience since 2004, buffeted from all sides, plays it so safe as to be almost non-informative. NPR is like a car driven by pensioners cruising along in the slow lane at 55 mph because it's safer and better for the environment.
Look: you have to cover conventions even if they are news-free events. I understand that. But they can be occasions for journalists to provide good summary features that provide a bit of historical context on how the country arrived at this political moment. You've got the attention of most of the nation on its big quadrennial political decision for a few days: use it to deepen understanding.
Instead, context seems to have gone out the window. For example, one meme surrounding the Republican Convention was "introducing Mitt Romney to the country." Exactly a year ago, the Republicans were in the midst of an unprecedented series of pre-primary season debates. There would be 13 in all. Romney participated in 12 of them. What's left to introduce?
In the hours of broadcasting I was awash in, and in the thousands of words of print journalism I read, no reporter challenged the assumption that Mitt Romney was an unknown quantity—or, better question, asked a senior Republican why, with all those debates and a record as Massachusetts governor and CEO at Bain, somehow Romney had failed to leave an imprint on the public.
Here's another meme from the RNC: Speaker after speaker dropped their heads, looked sad and said, "Obama has failed to bring hope and change." The implication in their physical posture and the tone of voice was, "we were willing to work with you, the country needs healing, you haven't been up to the task."
Most of those in Tampa reporting the convention were in Washington In the summer of 2009. So was I. Eight months after the president was sworn in, America went crazy over the issue of health care. I was in Washington making a documentary on the attempt to pass the bill. I can't forget it, even if my colleagues can: South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint urging total non-cooperation, make health care Obama's "Waterloo." Listen to the first couple of minutes here if you don't.
That was three years ago—still not ancient history. But I heard no questions framed by references to those incidents put by reporters either to GOP honchos or the people on the convention floor.
Would it have upset the GOP's media minders to do that? You bet. But you do it anyway, don't you? NBC's John Chancellor being arrested at the Republican Convention in 1964 for a bit of awkwardness? Those days are long gone.
I understand the rules of the game have changed. I read the article in the New York Times about political reporters, including its own, submitting their quotes for approval to the Obama and Romney camps. My reaction was, it's utterly believable, but I still don't believe it.
But I had to believe it because the money quote in the story came from Times' managing editor Dean Bacquet: “We encourage our reporters to push back. Unfortunately this practice is becoming increasingly common, and maybe we have to push back harder.”
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I know that the dance between reporters and political figures they cover is a delicate one. You need access; if you get cut off because a politician's PR person doesn't like what you've written, you can't do your job. So a journalist gives a little to maintain that relationship, but years of journalists giving a little has put the spin side so far in the ascendancy that there isn't a relationship left to maintain.
But there are ways around the problem of access. You can ignore the "narrative" the spin doctors are trying to control and step things back and contextualize the conventions. It's the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. What was the Republican convention like that year? What was the Democratic Convention like that year? The party nominated George McGovern. How did those events send us down the road to these news-free events?
If history frightens you, there are many other ways to get at context. Don't blow your constricted budgets by sending squadrons to Tampa or Charlotte. Send reporters and producers out into the nation, filing stories that illustrate or contradict the points being made in the speeches inside the convention hall.
Journalistic skepticism can be deployed in many ways. Skeptical inquiry is the core method of our work. I just saw so little of it during the Republican convention, I felt like crying.
Anyway, I was back in London for the Democratic National Convention, and absorbed it in my usual fashion. It was much less in the foreground of my daily existence, so it was much less worrying. I got exercised with the Guardian's main American commentator Gary Younge for writing the same article every one else was writing in advance of Bill Clinton's appearance. One of the joys of being a foreigner on assignment in another country's capital is that you can think outside the conventional wisdom box. That didn't happen here.
I found myself pleasantly surprised by the very right-wing Daily Telegraph's reporting of President Obama's speech. Their correspondent is outside the American bubble, and saw it pretty much as I did: on C-SPAN online the next morning.
Inevitably, the Telegraph had analysts who reflected their institutional view that Obama is terrible weigh in later in the day. But it seemed a reasonable way to report the event.
There was a hint of what I might have absorbed had I stayed in America another week in this round-up of punditry by Andrew Sullivan. Inside the bubble, inside the Beltway, a group of thinkers who have surrendered their individual skepticism to a kind of group think.
There were other things that made me sad, worried for my native country, but they all linked back to this decline in journalistic practice. People can no longer discuss politics and agree to disagree. Words become triggers for personal hatred.
Let me offer one more piece of historical context. It is the 20th anniversary of the Bosnian War. In the months before the war, Serbian and Croatian media engaged in a campaign of racist propaganda that demolished the idea of a multi-national/ethnic Yugoslavia. A weak journalistic establishment were unable to counter the stream of lies and misrepresentations. People, from different backgrounds who had grown up together and frequently saw life the same way, suddenly were unable to even speak to one another. Decades of social development were undone in six months. Even the most ahistoric reader of these words will know the terror that was visited on ordinary people in Bosnia as a result of this.
America is obviously a different case, but until American journalists rediscover the courage to challenge the propaganda—sentence by sentence, tedious as that might seem—and until the managers of news enterprises stop counting pennies and send reporters out to get the facts that can challenge both parties' attempts to hijack reality, the deep American malaise I breathed in the last week of August will only grow more dangerous.