David Axelrod on Media and Politics

Journalism is facing unprecedented challenges while, at the same time, embracing amazing opportunities. That’s the message from veteran journalist and campaign guru David Axelrod.

Axelrod spoke in Salt Lake City Saturday night as part of the McCarthey Family Foundation’s lecture series on independent journalism.

“My editor at the Chicago Tribune had a sign on his wall that said ‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out’,” said Axelrod. “Meaning journalists should strive to report the truth. In today’s media culture it seems the new motto is ‘get it first and we can fix it later’.”

Axelrod also said television networks and other traditional media outlets try to keep the public inflamed about issues in order to hang on to a rapidly dwindling market share that is shifting to the digital landscape. He pointed to the current panic over the Ebola virus as a perfect example of that.

“Ebola is not a crisis in America. It is a crisis in West Africa, but the media and craven politicians are hyping the threat to keep interest. I watched a recent television newscast that had 7 straight minutes about the latest developments about Ebola followed by a story about how Americans were unreasonably nervous about Ebola. Well, of course they are."

Axelrod worries this constant careening from one crisis to the other is having a major effect on American political media.

“We are starting to gravitate to media sources that confirm our point of view. We are not listening to other points of view.”

To Axelrod, that is a dangerous development.

“Some of the voices in the media are starting to suggest that people who disagree with us politically are not American. That’s incredibly troubling.”

And, he says, it’s turning Americans off of politics.

“You turn on the television and see politicians yelling at each other instead of getting things done. People look at that and say ‘why would I want to get involved in that mess?’”

He pointed to the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a perfect example. Axelrod was working in the Obama White House as senior advisor. Some in the media dubbed the spill and the government’s reaction to it as “Obama’s Katrina.”

“They said this would be the defining moment of the Obama administration,” said Axelrod. “But the problem got fixed and it never came up during the entire 2012 presidential campaign. I’ve looked and can’t find a single mention of the gulf oil spill during that race.”

Axelrod says he sees a future for journalism, but it’s not going to be an easy journey.

“Right now, organizations are looking for short-term gains in order to keep the attention of a shrinking audience. Those outlets that prize those short-term gains will eventually lose.”