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Sarah Palin and Jon Stewart agree on this: News media are bad influence

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On the one hand, the flurry of criticism aimed at the media is indeed an exercise in shooting the messenger, says Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University political scientist. The media are full of depressing, difficult stories that people don’t understand or know how to tackle, he says, from Afghanistan to the financial breakdown.

“In ancient times, when a runner came back from the front with bad news about how the war was going, it was so much easier for the king to pull out his sword and cut off his head,” he says. In some fundamental ways, the media's obligation to keep hard news before the public's view is neither appreciated nor valued, he adds.

As people try to sort through an avalanche of finger-pointing and forceful opinions, the traditional values taught in journalism school are more important than ever, says Atlanta-based Republican strategist David Johnson. "Fairness and balance," he says, are what people need from the media.

On the other hand, says Mr. Schmidt with a laugh, the old-fashioned “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand” model is fraying at the edges of the New Media frontier. People are overloaded, depressed, and anxious about the overwhelming amount of information they take in, whether from TV, their mobile devices, or the Internet, he says. As the era of traditional broadcasting gives way to a future of narrowcasting, in which outlets target like-minded viewers rather than the entire demographic spectrum, expect more, not less, opining and position-taking in the media, he adds.

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