If You Don’t Stand For Something, You’ll Fall For Anything

Click to view music video

Not many people turn to John Mellencamp for philosophical inspiration but that’s probably a mistake. I realize that Bruce Springsteen is the voice of Americana according to many music critics. He has that pained voice of conflicting emotions, and he certainly does capture the American contradictions of pride, patriotism, and hope. But, it’s too easy to dismiss Mellencamp as simplistic, either musically or lyrically. Consistently throughout his career, his albums have worked to strike a balance between pop and rock, silly and serious, and combative and inviting. Quite frankly, in many ways, Mellencamp represents the American contradictions about as well as any musician out there.

More to the point, for my tastes, he’s also relatively blunt with his opinions. While there is something to be said for artful expression of ideas and creating lyrics that are subtle and allow us to unpack their poetic sensibilities, there’s also something refreshing about a musician unafraid of speaking the language of the average American. “I Fight Authority, Authority Always Wins,” Mellencamp sings in the clip here. In another song, he reminds us that if “you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.” These are important words for us to remember and while I don’t sing to my kids anymore (they’re teenagers so I’m lucky if they deign even to speak to me), I do pass such wisdom along as often as possible. Quite simply: we must be prepared to take a stand and challenge authority when necessary.  But, and this is an important exception, we need help. Parents, teachers, doctors, journalists–the experts have to step up and do their jobs. Hiding behind false notions of objectivity does no one any good.

After the second presidential debate, much was made of Candy Crowley correcting Mitt Romney’s claim President Obama hadn’t labeled the incident in Benghazi as a terrorist act fast enough. Obama pounced: “Read the transcript,” he said. Crowley noted to Governor Romney that the President had used the word in the Rose Garden. The audience clapped.

Pundits went nuts. Obama supporters praised her; Romney supporters decried her; and a few people actually discussed the role of the media in election coverage. What I didn’t hear was much commentary on why the crowd clapped. I submit that they clapped because Candy Crowley is an expert on foreign affairs and she acted like an expert on foreign affairs. The hidden, or not so hidden if you ask me, reality here is we need our journalists to step up to the plate and help us understand the complex issues of the day.

Candy Crowley studies the presidential candidates for a living. She knows more about these two men and the news surrounding them than 99% of the population. She is, wait for it, an expert. And she should act like it. And, believe it or not, I think the American public wants her to act like it because deep down we know we need help understanding the issues.

Imagine, for instance, if you went to the doctor feeling sick. Your run through the symptoms and the doctor gives you 5 different possible solutions. Then she brings in a second doctor who gives you 5 different possible treatments. Then they both leave. The nurse is sitting there the whole time so you turn to him and ask “What do you think?” He says, “Oh, I’m just here to record the conversation. You decide what’s best.”

You might not be real happy. And, you also might stay sick. Clearly, it’s not a perfect analogy but you get the idea. There was a time when journalists took their jobs seriously and recognized their expertise. Some journalists and some situations required simply reporting the facts. Car crashes, robberies, grand openings: there’s nothing there to decide. Presidential elections, social disruptions, foreign affairs, war, torture, civil rights: these are complex issues where Americans need help. Unfortunately, too many newspapers have cowed in the face of authority, fearful of being labeled biased, and they have abdicated their responsibility. They, quite frankly, stand for nothing. And we are left at the mercy of political spin machines believing anything.

Viewers don’t flock to FoxNews or MSNBC for the news. “Ideological media does a very poor job overall,” Forbes Magazine tells us. People watch those shows because Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow have opinions. They may slant the truth, but at least they don’t pretend to simply report what Mitt Romney or Barack Obama said that day. (Well, I guess Bill O’Reilly does sometimes.) They, hold on to your seats, do their jobs by offering commentary. While we are sitting in an office worried about sales figures, out delivering products, cleaning bathrooms, or making sure a patient is recovering, reporters are covering stories and reading the news. When I come home I need them to report the facts AND put those facts in perspective based on all the other information they have absorbed throughout the day.

I don’t have time to study the Benghazi incident. I’m too worried about whether my kids will get home from school. I don’t have time to study the candidate’s economic plans; I’m too busy trying to stretch one meal into leftovers for tomorrow night.

Reporters, on the other hand, and news agencies as a group do have time. That’s their job. And more than ever, we need them to do their job. We need them to fight authority and not be cowed into silence. We need them, quite frankly, to be more like John Mellencamp.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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