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Walking a blurring line

Bell: Media's role in politics has changed with times

— Steve Bell never thought there would be an era in American history as divisive as the Vietnam War and the Watergate years.

“The polarization is greater now,” Bell said. “I’m not sure I believe it, but the academics have done the research.”

Americans, conservative or liberal, are drawn to information they want to hear rather than information in general, Bell said Thursday during his Seminars at Steamboat appearance in Steamboat Springs.



The consequence is a line drawn between the two sides in which one distrusts the other and the populace is misinformed.

“I fear for the democratic process,” Bell said. “Someone has to be in the middle — to have the confidence, civility and compromise to make the democratic process work.”



A former White House correspondent and news anchor with Good Morning America, Bell was a broadcast journalist for nearly 30 years, covering the Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations.

He has circled the globe and has been as involved in politics as a journalist can be.

On Thursday, as the second speaker in the Seminars at Steamboat series, Bell stepped to the Centennial Hall lectern and told a standing-room-only crowd that now is an uncertain time for the media when it comes to covering politics.

“There is a real danger of mainstream media becoming seen as a security liability, and that will jeopardize our First Amendment,” Bell said. “I have lived all my life as a beneficiary, and I’ve been enough places to know I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

The First Amendment grants, among other things, freedom of the press.

But today, freedom of the press means airing whichever rumor from whichever source at whichever time, most notably on the Internet, Bell said.

“The Internet is the Wild West,” Bell said.

Consequently, the public distrusts its news sources.

Politicians manipulate talk radio, syndicated news programs and Web sites. The press comes across as biased, although on which side remains largely in the eye of the perceiver, Bell said.

“It has put in doubt the credibility of the news media,” he said. “I have the unique opportunity to observe the process I was a part of for so many years.”

What Bell has observed is changing times, and Sept. 11, 2001, has had a major role in those changes, he said.

“Imagery took on a role it had never before,” Bell said. “The perception of being the Commander in Chief took on a whole new meaning.”

As candidates sought office, negative advertising became its own monster, although negative advertising has been an effective campaign method since the 1980s, Bell said.

Syndicated shows give candidates free reign to dodge issues and form the broadcast. According to Bell, 60 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 to 29 get most of their information on politics from late-night comedy shows such as The Daily Show or The Tonight Show.

Such behavior, while arguably irresponsible, is reality.

“Credibility is at an all-time low,” Bell said. “Are journalists trying to skew the news? My colleagues and I did not do that. We got in big trouble if there was a perception that we did.”

The ability to run whatever, whenever poses national security threats, real and made up, and although Bell believes the evening news on ABC, CBS and NBC is more fair than anything offered in Europe, he said the media’s role in covering politics has changed.

“I’ve never seen a time where the disconnect is as great as it is now between many in the mainstream media and the (Bush) administration.”

Bell said his political views are centrist. He listens to National Public Radio, which he said has a liberal slant, and he watches Fox News, which he said is more conservative.

And, as any responsible journalist would, he provided many examples in which Democrats and Republicans have manipulated the press.

The issue, much like this era in American history, is divisive.


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