Jeff McCall

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Jeff McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, and author of “Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences.” Contact him at jeffmccall@depauw.edu. On Twitter: @Prof_McCall

"President Harry S. Truman, shortly after being elected as President, smiles as he holds up a copy of the Chicago Tribune issue predicting his electoral defeat. St. Louis, Missouri, on November 3, 1948." Photograph held by The Harry S. Truman Museum and is licensed under public domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

This post originally appeared in The Indy Star on August 26, 2016.

Polls in 1948 indicated Harry Truman had no chance to win the election. He ignored the ominous polls, took off on his whistle-stop tour and won the election anyway. Pollsters and pundits were shocked. Americans today would be wise to follow Truman’s lead and disregard the swarm of polls dominating the media landscape this year.

"Some of us read. But most of us don't." by Ed Yourdon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (via Flickr)

The economy continues to struggle, the educational system underperforms and tensions exist at just about every point on the international landscape. And there is a national presidential selection process underway. It seems, in such an environment, that citizens would feel compelled to get themselves fully up to date on news that matters. It also would stand to reason that the nation’s news media would feel an obligation to focus on news of substance.

Instead, too many citizens are woefully uninformed of the day’s significant events. A pandering media, primarily television, is content to post a lowest-common-denominator news agenda, featuring Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” release and extensive tributes to Prince.

Constitutional framer James Madison once famously wrote, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Citizens who are unable or unwilling to arm themselves with civic knowledge diminish the nation’s ability to self-govern.

Technological advances have made it easier than ever for citizens to stay informed. The days of waiting for the evening television news to come on or the newspaper to get tossed on your doorstep are long gone. News is available constantly and from multiple sources.

A growing number of citizens, particularly millennials, now rely on social media for “news.” While that might seem like a convenient and timely way to stay informed, those people aren’t necessarily aware of anything more than what their friends had for lunch. Data from the Pew Research Center indicates that about two-thirds of Twitter and Facebook users say they get news from those social media sites. The two “news” categories of most interest among social media consumers, however, are sports and entertainment updates.

Sadly, only about a third of social media users follow an actual news organization or recognized journalist. Thus, the information these people get is likely to be only what friends have posted. Pew further reports that during this election season, only 18 percent of social media users have posted election information on a site. So, less than a fifth of the social media population is helping to determine the political agenda for the other 80 percent.

The lack of news literacy is consistent with an overall lack of civic literacy in our culture. A Newseum Institute survey last year found that a third of Americans failed to name a single right guaranteed in the First Amendment. Forty-three percent could not name freedom of speech as one of those rights.

A study released earlier this year by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni had more frightening results. In a national survey of college graduates, with a multiple-choice format, just 28 percent of respondents could name James Madison as father of the Constitution. That’s barely better than random chance out of four choices on the survey. Almost half didn’t know the term lengths for U.S. senators and representatives. And almost 10 percent identified Judith Sheindlin (Judge Judy) as being on the Supreme Court.

The blame for an under-informed citizenry can be shared widely. The curriculum creep into trendy subjects has infected too many high schools and colleges, diminishing the study of public affairs, civics, history and news literacy.

The television news industry has softened its news agenda to the point where serious news consumers find little substance. Television’s coverage of this presidential election cycle could prompt even the most determined news hounds to tune out. The Media Research Center tracked how the big three broadcast networks covered the Trump campaign in the early evening newscasts of March. The coverage overwhelmingly focused on protests at Trump campaign events, assault charges against a Trump campaign staffer and Trump’s attacks on Heidi Cruz. Missing from the coverage were Trump’s economic plans, national security vision or anything else with a policy dimension.

When the Constitutional Convention wrapped up in 1787, Benjamin Franklin emerged from the closed-door proceedings and was asked what kind of government had been formed. He replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Those citizens who, for whatever reasons, are determined to remain uninformed, make it harder to keep that republic intact. Our nation, suffering now from political confusion and ugly protests, sorely needs a renewed commitment to civic knowledge.

"Televisions" by Michael Coghlan is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (via Flickr)

This post originally appeared in The Indy Star on February 26, 2016.

The critically acclaimed television drama of the early 1960s, “Naked City,” concluded each episode with the narrator proclaiming, “There are 8 million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.” In this era of oversaturated television programming, one would think there is a show being produced featuring each of the 8 million stories.

More than 300 television programs had or will have season or series premieres in the first quarter of this year. Those shows are spread out over traditional broadcast television, cable, and streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon. Television releases now happen on a year-round basis. In years past, television outlets released program lineups in the fall and then replaced a few flops in mid-season in January. That era is long gone as program producers looking for eyeballs deluge the video arena with countless shows, many of which are quite forgettable.

The flood of television programming has raised concerns about how much content the idiot box market can bear. FX CEO John Landraf told the Television Critics Association last year, “There is simply too much television.” Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins doesn’t worry about too much television, but he acknowledged in a published report that “there are too many crappy shows out there and not enough good shows.”

The viewing public has tired of what programmers define as television, finding TV fare boring and disgusting. A recent Gallup research survey shows only 16 percent of Americans now list TV as their favorite thing to do in the evening. Fifty years ago, that figure was 48 percent.

Three-channel television in 1966 wasn’t necessarily so profound either, but at least families could watch together without hearing seedy jokes about toilet activity or bedroom romps. Dramatic programs provided some social stability in that good guys and values won out in the end. Today’s television writers would have Ben Cartwright of “Bonanza” joking about his flatulence. Gidget would have a STD. Green Acres would be a marijuana farm. Perry Mason would frequent strip clubs, and Andy Griffith would be addicted to meth. The Hollywood writers, meanwhile, would be crowing about edginess and cultural realism, leaving most Americans to wonder what “real” world these writers inhabit.

Legendary comedienne Carol Burnett said recently that today’s sitcoms “sound like they’ve been written by teenage boys in a locker room.” Evidence of this mentality comes from the CBS “comedy” called “Angel from Hell.” The plot has a supposed guardian angel providing guidance for a young professional woman. This angel, however, has a foul mouth, likes booze and encourages random sex. Thankfully, CBS has canceled the show. That this show, offensive as it was to churchgoers, ever got programmed at all demonstrates that CBS has no societal gumption.

The Parents Television Council reports that decapitations in prime-time broadcast television have nearly tripled in five years. Even with that amount of carnage, not a single over-the-air broadcast program is rated TV-MA for mature audiences. Thus, the television industry believes all prime-time fare, regardless of how blood-drenched or sexually suggestive, is suitable for 14-year-olds. By the way, the networks do the ratings for their own programs.

A major failure of television today is that big media has zero interest in cultural leadership for a society that is more confused, splintered and polarized each year. Programming executives have disconnected from wide portions of their potential audience, scrounging for vacuous programs they can sell to advertisers for a quick dollar. Instead of looking for culturally unifying or positive messages, programmers hope to lure niche audiences with bizarre, fringe and even socially harmful content.

The effect is that television now plays no role in providing common cultural messages. Instead, TV contributes to the separation of generations and socioeconomic groups. With the exception of the Super Bowl, the nation’s viewers have no common viewing experiences, even within the same house.

An upcoming ABC mini-series, “Of Kings and Prophets,” will tell stories from the Old Testament. Producer Chris Brancato told a magazine that the series will be drenched in sex and violence: “We’re going to go as far as we can … we’ll be fighting with broadcast standards and practices.” To Brancato, the Bible is simply a platform from which to shock a national audience.

The late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia had it right several years back when he commented on the FCC’s authority to regulate indecent content on television, calling the media’s cultural perpetrators, “foul-mouthed glitteratae from Hollywood.”

"The modern toddler iPad experience" by Wayan Vota is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (via Flickr)

This piece originally appeared in the Providence Journal on December 9, 2015.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has long advised parents to keep children under age 2 away from video screens, and to limit older children to two hours of screen time per day. The thinking has been that children deluged with video are less likely to get the proper cognitive, social and emotional development that comes from non-video play and interaction with real human beings.

Volumes of research support the need to keep kids from becoming video sponges, regardless of whether that video comes from a television, video game or computer screen. Children who spend the most time in front of screens are generally less socially capable, less physically fit and less successful in school than their low-media peers.

That’s why it is so puzzling to see the AAP indicate it is backing away from those long-held guidelines regarding screen time and kids. An essay published in a recent AAP newsletter promises new guidelines to be released in 2016. The essay, written by three AAP doctors, points out that current AAP advice was published before the proliferation of iPads and explosion of apps aimed at young children. It goes on to argue, “In a world where screen time is becoming simply ‘time,’ our policies must evolve or become obsolete.” Another casual observation is that “media is just another environment.”

The AAP article further explains its planned updates, writing, “The public needs to know that the Academy’s advice is science-driven, not based merely on the precautionary principle.” That all sounds quite lofty. But ample, rigorous research already demonstrates that heavy screen exposure for kids links with a variety of social and cognitive difficulties. Precautionary advice is even more imperative in today’s media-saturated environment.

Beyond what can be learned from science-driven research, just check in with any second grade teacher and ask that teacher which students have the most difficult time focusing in class. Odds are those struggling students get too much screen time at home. Ask high school guidance counselors which students are most depressed and anxious, and you will find those teens are more likely to be heavy users of social media and/or video games.

It is true that children are more saturated in media than ever, and parents have a near impossible task to control and referee media absorption by their kids. As the AAP reports, almost 30 percent of children “first play with a mobile device when they are still in diapers.” Teenagers, of course, are constantly absorbed in electronic devices.

It is also true, as the AAP points out, that the screen-time guidelines have been in place for many years. So, too, have been recommendations against teens smoking cigarettes, but nobody is suggesting teen smoking is now acceptable. Commonsense guidelines should not be considered “outdated,” no matter how old they are.

The AAP is a highly respected professional organization that surely wants what is best for children. The recent AAP essay correctly points out the importance of parents monitoring kids’ media consumption, keeping technology away from mealtime and out of bedrooms, along with other solid advice. But it is not helpful to suggest that the world is now so media driven that parents must concede defeat to the media tidal wave on kids. Instead, the AAP can give parents the backbone and rationale needed to limit screen time and, indeed, just turn the devices off. To say screen time is just “time” is a surrender to an “anything goes” mentality in which tough judgments are avoided.

Media use is, of course, only one of many factors that influence a child’s overall environment. It is clear, however, that media-created worlds don’t effectively replace healthy human interaction. Every minute a child is in front of a screen reduces time for more productive activities, such as playing with others, outdoor recreation, exercise or creative play. Thus, even when kids are consuming educational video content, they are missing out on more useful, human endeavors.

When the AAP issues its formal recommendations next year, here’s hoping the Academy doesn’t take a “What’s the use?” approach, and instead, gives parents the stern warnings needed to help raise well-adjusted kids who use media sensibly.

"WTVJ WSCV 004" by Jirodrig is licensed under Public Domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

This post originally appeared in The Indy Star on November 2, 2015.

Anybody who has ever been lied to or betrayed by a friend or coworker knows just how difficult it is to re-establish trust in the offending party. Sometimes, credibility that is destroyed can never be fully restored. So it is with America’s news media, which recently got yet another dismal report on public perception of the journalism industry. The media face a stiff climb in order to get back in the citizenry’s good graces.

The annual Gallup survey of media trust shows only 40 percent of Americans have a great deal, or even a fair amount, of confidence that media report the news “fully, accurately and fairly.” That matches the historic low marks recorded in election years 2012 and 2014. Over the years of the Gallup research, the lowest citizen confidence in media has come during election years. This year, of course, is not a general election year. Almost a fourth of all Americans now say they have no trust in media reporting at all.

Respondents who report they are politically independent are turning against the media in big numbers. Only 33 percent of such citizens trust the journalism industry to be fair, down a staggering 22 points in just 16 years. Independents now view the media at about the same low level as Republicans, long considered the most distrustful of media.

The most disturbing component of the study is that younger adults, ages 18 to 49, have less media trust than adults over 50. Only 36 percent of younger adults have confidence in the media, down 17 points in the last 12 years. Young adults who already have a dim view of media fairness won’t be easily won back.

The decline of younger adults trusting the media is likely a factor in the dwindling number of people who seek careers as journalists. Enrollment in college journalism programs has dropped in recent years. The highly regarded Columbia University School of Journalism is cutting staff.

Of those students in college journalism and mass media programs, approximately 70 percent are studying advertising or public relations. There was a time when PR and advertising tracks were in the less prestigious hallways of j-schools. It is hard to blame college students, however, when public relations and advertising executives are viewed as more reputable than reporters. Beyond that, reporter salaries now average only two thirds of what a public relations specialist makes, and that gap is widening. The public thinks the journalism industry is weak now, and things will only get worse given that the best and brightest in colleges aren’t seeking news careers.

Beating up on the media is now a favorite sport of most political figures, and that sustained bludgeoning is surely a factor in sinking media trust assessments. President Obama, in spite of generally beneficial news coverage during his presidential campaigns, has fought the press on several fronts during his two terms, taking particular shots at Fox News.

The presidential candidates currently getting the most traction are all ripping into the media. Donald Trump and Ben Carson on the Republican side and Democrats Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have all trashed the news media in recent weeks. Politicians’ complaining about bad press is nothing new, but the intensity and constancy of the animosity is noteworthy. It’s resonating with voters because it reinforces current public sentiment.

The American people no longer view reporters as the public surrogates they should be. Trust can’t be restored until news audiences look at reporters and sense that the journalists represent the public’s interests. Trust can’t be restored as long as the nation’s news agenda is saturated with sensational, yet low impact, stories about pop culture figures, such as Cecil the lion and a county clerk in Kentucky.

Trust can’t be restored as long as the public senses that the news media are driven more by bottom-line profit and ratings motivations than by a sense of public service, even though those two objectives are not mutually exclusive.

The trust gap between the public and media industry can be closed only when news organizations get the courage to change the vision and prevailing culture of their newsrooms. The news industry, and the nation, can’t afford another 10-point trust decline in the next 10 years. If that happens, there will no longer be a news industry. Whatever is left over will be merely part of the creative writing industry.

Nixon/Kennedy Debate Display by Randy Robertson (via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

This post originally appeared in USA Today on July 29, 2015.

Political wonks and junkies breathlessly await the first televised “debate” of the primary season. But sensible voters will do something more productive on debate night. Taking a walk or going to a ballgame will be better than watching 10 overprepared GOP candidates try to upstage each other with verbal brickbats and one-liners.

Political debates have become nothing more than media events that do little to promote reasoned, in-depth discussion. Cable news channels stand in line to program them to promote their brand, get a ratings boost, showcase their talent, and insert themselves into a political brawl. Their producers make the events look like a cross between the Super Bowl and Dancing With the Stars, hardly a venue for thoughtful political dialogue.

Television is a medium of emotion, and as such, warps the process of selecting who is best suited to lead the nation. Candidates are advised by slick handlers to stick to simplistic catchphrases, and toss in a few zingers along the way. Television forces candidates to worry more about their on-screen image than about how to explain their policy for improving the economy. Any candidate who seriously tries to make debating points and explain the nuances of a complex matter will come off as boring and calculating.

Afterward, the media will immediately start declaring who “won,” as if winning a debate 15 months before Election Day will help the electorate decide who’s best suited to confront Islamic State terrorists. There is little transferability of television debating skill into international diplomacy, working with Congress, or any other presidential duty that matters.

The candidate who can make the most noise on debate night will be viewed as having advanced his candidacy, and the less showy but more sensible candidate will be dismissed. Remember, many pundits thought Newt Gingrich won the early GOP debates in 2012.

John Kennedy warned in 1959 that television would force politics into the realm of public relations and “gimmickry.” Televised debates are all of that. These concocted events will not be the stuff of Lincoln-Douglas. Our nation’s political process suffers as a result.

George Stephanopoulos by Tulane Public Relations (via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

This post originally appeared in The Indy Star on May 29, 2015.

The real damage done by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos’ vacuous ethics – as shown by his revelation of gifts to the Clinton Foundation – won’t be to him or his network. ABC will still get its ratings. George will still make his mega- millions in his cushy anchor seat, convinced he is a real news reporter and has done nothing wrong. It is the citizenry who once again takes it on the chin because of misdeeds of the powerful and pompous.

It’s a throwback, for sure, but there was a time when the voting public put its trust in the powerful media organizations to report news fairly and fully. The mainstream press was counted on to provide the information flow that empowered citizens in a democracy.

Proof that the public is victim to journalistic dereliction comes from a new Rasmussen Reports survey. It finds that 61 percent of American voters distrust the political news they receive from the media. That’s an increase of 16 points since last fall. As survey respondents look ahead to the 2016 presidential campaign, only 23 percent think reporters will offer unbiased coverage.

When high-profile network names such as Stephanopoulos and NBC’s Brian Williams ignore basic journalistic ethics standards, the well of trust is poisoned across the industry. News consumers conclude that the misguided moral compasses of the big shots represent the values of the news industry as a whole. Citizens thus lose faith in news sources and disengage from the public sphere. Knowing that ABC’s chief political correspondent has ethics issues no doubt makes news consumers wonder about what other network reporters are hiding.

ABC’s brass wrote off Stephanopoulos’ ethics breech as just a “mistake,” the network statement adding ABC “stands behind him.” The failure of the network to see the broader implications of Stephanopoulos’ chummy connections with the Clinton Foundation exposes a groupthink in ABC’s hierarchy. A quote from prominent 20th century journalist and social observer Walter Lippmann captures the ABC situation: “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”

The Radio Television Digital News Association is the nation’s premiere professional electronic news organization. Its Code of Ethics is apparently not posted at ABC’s news headquarters. Under its Fairness section, the code states that reporting should be based “on professional perspective, not personal bias.” With regard to integrity, the ethics code warns electronic journalists to not “engage in activities that may compromise their integrity or independence.”

Stephanopoulos’ weak response to this flap shows how oblivious he is to the seriousness of the situation. He explained away to his ABC audience that his donations to the Clinton Foundation simply reflected his interest in stopping AIDS, helping children and saving the environment. A heck of a nice guy, sure, but he apparently doesn’t know that less politically charged organizations also take donations for these causes. His self-imposed penalty was to remove himself as moderator for an upcoming Republican primary debate. And Tom Brady won’t be the referee in the Patriots’ next NFL playoff game.

Nobody expects reporters to be blank slates with no personal opinions. But regardless of a journalist’s personal political leanings, the professional reporter can still strive to be fair. At the least, reporters must excuse themselves from stories in which they have hardened attitudes or clear conflicts of interest. All of this takes a high degree of integrity, hard work and foundational principles by the people who make up the news industry.

The citizenry is powerless when it operates in a void of accurate and full information. The free press was created by the nation’s founders to serve as the citizens’ watchdog over the government and the powerful. Public confidence in the press and government is collapsing, leaving the public with no suitable surrogates and nowhere to turn.

James Madison once wrote, “Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy.” If the great United States experiment ever becomes a farce or tragedy, big media’s role in stifling and warping the information of the day will be a major factor.

Old TV 2 by Wayne Stadler CC BY 2.0

This Guest Author post by Dr. Jeff McCall was originally published in The Indy Star on April 24, 2015.

NBC’s high-profile anchor, Brian Williams, has been suspended for telling tall tales. ABC’s highest-profile news personality, Diane Sawyer, has gone super-hype with her two-hour, prime-time interview of Bruce Jenner. CNN has redefined news to include travel and cooking shows, and multi-hour reports on marijuana. Reporters sprint like groupies to catch up with Hillary Clinton’s van in a remote part of Iowa, even though the presidential election is still 18 months away.

Somewhere, Edward R. Murrow is saying, “I warned you this would happen.”

This month (April 27) marks 50 years since the godfather of broadcast news died. Murrow is often considered the standard setter for professionalism in electronic news. Murrow’s influence is remarkable, given that he spent little time in administration at CBS, and he was never a lead anchor for radio or television. Still, he established himself as the model for how to use audio and video to report real news. His reports from London in World War II riveted the nation. His prime-time television documentaries in the 1950s took on the tough issues of the day, including McCarthyism.

He identified and hired dedicated reporters who reflected his passion and dedication to serving the public interest. He hired intellects who could think critically and fearlessly. His World War II hires for CBS – Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Howard K. Smith, Richard C. Hottelet and others – became known as the Murrow Boys. Collingwood and Smith were Rhodes Scholars. All were seasoned reporters hired away from major wire services or newspapers.

He told CBS executives he was hiring reporters, not merely announcers. After the war, Murrow was put in charge of CBS News, and he hired Walter Cronkite, Daniel Schorr and Robert Pierpoint. One must wonder if any of the Murrow Boys could get hired in the glamorama that is television news today.

Murrow’s visionary speech in 1958 to the Radio Television News Directors Association warned of the growing influence of corporate power in news reporting. He said the public interest could not be served when news was only “a commodity” to be sold for advertisers. He said electronic news was “an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news.” Journalism has been the loser in this combination ever since.

Broadcast news in the Murrow era was not a profit center for the networks, nor was it intended to be. His prime-time documentaries were produced at a financial deficit for CBS, but Murrow’s clout got them produced anyway. That would be unthinkable today. Imagine how the quality of television news could be improved if Disney, the parent company of ABC, steered the profits of ABC News back into the news division to underwrite real journalism. The mega media giant Comcast can surely afford to use some of NBC’s news profits to better serve the information needs of the nation.

What exists now in television news is a lowest-common-denominator approach in which serious journalism is too often absent. Morning news shows produced by network news divisions are journalistically vacuous. At ABC’s “Good Morning America,” the anchor lineup includes a former sportscaster, retired football player, partisan political operative, weather ornament and super-excited pop culture observer who can’t stop laughing. Murrow hires these are not.

Murrow was not perfect. He caved for a time and did prime-time personality interviews. He was an inefficient administrator in the CBS corporate office and got out of those duties quickly. After leaving CBS in the early 1960s, he abandoned objective journalism, going to work for the Kennedy administration as head of the U.S. Information Agency, the organization charged with getting America’s spin on the news distributed around the world. He was a chain smoker and died from cancer at age 57.

Beyond his war reporting, hiring practices or documentaries, Murrow’s greatest contribution to the electronic news industry was a moral compass. His grounded view of the world was gained through blue-collar work as a youth in logging camps in the American northwest. He insisted that journalism be based on facts and that those facts be analyzed with fairness. He knew then that the speed of communication often led to the distribution of false information.

Fifty years after his death, the electronic news industry has no person or organization that can provide a professional conscience as Murrow once did. The nation suffers for this lack.

Prindle Institute for Ethics Staff Image

This post by Dr. Jeff McCall was originally published in The Indy Star on April 3, 2015.

The good news is that nearly 90 percent of recently surveyed millennials say they get news off Facebook. The bad news is that most of those social media users stumble into the “news” only when they go to the site for other purposes. Worse yet, what these millennials are getting as news from social media sites wouldn’t constitute news in the traditional sense.

A new report by the Media Insight Project indicates that while less than half of millennials go to social media specifically to find news, most say they do absorb a bit of news along the way while browsing party photos. Facebook is the primary site for such accidental news absorption, with Instagram, Twitter and YouTube also figuring in. The most likely “news” topics these people find on social media are pop culture, music/movies, social issues, fashion and sports. Only 40 percent of millennials report paying for any news site or app, but most are happy to pay for access to movies, video games and music.

News is not a commodity worth paying for. As one young survey respondent said, “I really wouldn’t pay for any type of news because as a citizen it’s my right to know the news.”

It’s a disturbing and ongoing trend that young adults aren’t interested in real news and don’t engage it. Millennials perform poorly on surveys of current events and public affairs. With little insight and awareness of important events, these young people are bystanders as the public policies that will affect their lives for decades get made. In the 1970s, half of college-age people read a daily newspaper. Now it is less than one in five, online or otherwise.

It figures then that voter turnout among young people is consistently lower than for other age groups. Young voter turnout has declined steadily during the last half century, except for slight upticks in 1992 to elect Bill Clinton and 2008 to elect Barack Obama. President Obama recently mentioned the prospect of mandatory voting. More voter participation is generally a good thing, but too many young voters would only be prepared to vote on their favorite new movie or what to put on the pizza.

Finding causes for the massive millennial news tune-out is a complex task. The news industry itself, particularly television, must shoulder some blame. Broadcast news agendas have softened over the years, with weather, pop news and cute animals in every newscast. No wonder millennials look for this sort of “news” online and identify it as such.

Media literacy education is deficient at all levels of the education system, leaving young people with little insight about how to stay informed and why. A national survey by the First Amendment Center shows that only 14 percent of Americans can name freedom of the press as a freedom articulated in the First Amendment.

Then there is the near fixation of young adults on their digital devices. Instagram photos of pets, tweets about the lunch menu and posts about tonight’s bash just have to be shared. Lives are not so much lived as they are recorded and processed through the digital universe. Such digital compulsion leaves too little time or brain space to become civically aware.

More evidence of the younger generation’s lack of interest in news can be found in enrollments at college journalism programs. Studies show journalism enrollments are on the decline. Of those students who are registered in journalism programs, 70 percent are studying public relations or advertising, not traditional journalism. It’s hard to blame these young people for studying public relations. They will earn 50 percent more than their counterparts who prepare for careers in journalism. Such is the state of the news industry, both economically and in terms of prestige.

None of this discussion is to suggest that all millennials are as uninformed as the people interviewed during Fox News’ “Watters’ World” segment. Of course, certain young adults take seriously their duty to be informed and civically engaged. The question is whether their numbers are sufficient to someday lead a democracy on the important issues of the day. The answer is less likely as long as millennials think “news” is best found while stumbling through social media sites.

Obama in Terre Haute, BeckyF - Flickr (CC-BY-2.0)

This message was posted on Twitter recently by a prominent member of the media: “The Obama Administration is the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.” Another tweet from this source read, “I plan to spend the rest of my life fighting to undo the damage done to press freedom in the United States by Barack Obama and (Attorney General) Eric Holder.”

It might figure that such pointed postings came from a right-wing talk show host or a conservative analyst on Fox News Channel. Instead, they came from Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter James Risen. The Times, of course, is generally sympathetic to White House causes. Risen, however, has been threatened by the Justice Department with jail time for his refusal to reveal the sources of his stories about national security.

Newly retired ABC White House correspondent Ann Compton also criticized the administration when she recently received a First Amendment award, saying, “At the White House, too often presidential moments are reported only by those who hold office, while the free press, the main street professionals credentialed in the White House press corps are excluded.”

Veteran journalist Susan Milligan wrote an article for the trade publication Columbia Journalism Review in which she asserted, “The relationship between the president and the press is more distant than it has been in half a century.” It is worth noting that Richard Nixon was not yet president a half century ago.

At the root of this press consternation is the Obama White House’s overall lack of transparency. This administration came into office with high expectations for the free flow of information needed in a democracy. The president announced on his first day in office that his administration would be the most transparent in history. His press spokesmen have repeated that claim for six years. Obama recently told CBS’ Bill Plante on “Face the Nation” that, indeed, his was the most transparent administration.

But crowing about transparency isn’t the same as being transparent. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said, “Power is like being a lady … if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” That applies to the administration’s idle boasts about open government.

Now the Associated Press is having to sue in court to get access to emails and documents from Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state. The AP is not some agenda-driven, anti-Obama organization, but rather is the largest news-gathering organization in the nation. The State Department has sat on a number of AP document requests, including one that is five years old.

AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said in announcing the lawsuit, “The Freedom of Information Act exists to give citizens a clear view of what government officials are doing on their behalf. When that view is denied, the next resort is the courts.”

The prestigious Society of Professional Journalists has publicly announced its support for the AP lawsuit, providing further evidence that journalistic frustration with the executive branch is not isolated to a handful of cranky reporters.

Federal District Judge Royce Lamberth this month denounced the Environmental Protection Agency for its “disregard” in meeting Freedom of Information requests from the conservative Landmark Legal Foundation. The judge implored the agency to treat FOIA requests “with equal respect and conscientiousness” and “regardless of the political affiliation of the requester.”

This constant haggling between the administration and press is totally unnecessary. The government and press are not adversaries. Presumably, both government and the press have citizens’ interests foremost in their minds. Any government agency that won’t willingly follow FOIA law can only be assumed to be covering somebody’s backside. This tug of war could be solved instantly if the president simply articulated that press access is a high priority – and meant it. With his pen and phone, Obama can dislodge information from any agency he orders to dislodge it.

The press can be very demanding of government and at times acts like it can never be satisfied. But the press shouldn’t ever be satisfied. Reporters serve the constitutional charge of a free press, serving as the public’s surrogates in holding our government officials accountable. Government officials who want to fight the press over access to documents the public has a legal right to see are actually fighting the citizens they are supposed to be serving.

This op-ed originally appeared in The Indianapolis Star