Retiring Congressman Gary Ackerman made headlines across the country when, in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, he described the public as getting dumber. As he was campaigning for Assemblywoman Grace Meng’s bid to replace him in Congress, we caught up with Mr. Ackerman to ask him what he made of the media hyping his “dumber” comment. Needless to say, he promptly dismissed the coverage of a “sound bite.”
“The contextual part of that in the interview is that basically people believe anything that they see or hear, no matter how wacky it is,” he explained. “These are intelligent people that I’m speaking of, if you can get my gist. The ability to convince people of the wackiest notions — and both parties can do it — it’s part of the dumbing down of America that’s really highly problematic.”
“And part of it, a major contribution to that happenstance, is the media,” he continued, addressing The Politicker and WNYC’s Colby Hamilton. “The media’s gotten lazy. They don’t check anything out. You report what he reports.”
Mr. Ackerman proceeded to give a historical example from his own history of interacting with the press.
“Somebody in the Western part of the district, who will be nameless — this was about 15 years ago — reports that I’m getting tired of the trek to Washington and that I’m probably going to retire,” he said. “Then a different paper in Eastern Queens picks it up, I forgot who it was, it might have been the Bayside Times … and says, ‘As been reported, Gary Ackerman is considering retiring. And word on the street is that he’s going to accept a judicial appointment.’”
“I thought that’s pretty fucked up because I’m not a lawyer,” he said laughing. “Nobody would put me and the Supreme Court in the same sentence, let alone the same book. … In week three, the other guy reports, “As has been widely reported.’ He made it up, he reported that he said it, and he now has it as ‘widely reported.’ And I’m laughing my ass off.”
We also asked the congressman, who previously ran the Queens Tribune before entering politics many years ago, if fact-checking was superior back in his day.
“Yeah,” he bluntly answered. “The competition wasn’t as fierce. You had the big names in TV journalism. The idea was to get it right not to get it first. .. Now it’s, ‘If he beats me by 37 seconds, my life and my career is shot.’ And people report things, there’s no critical thinking even on the part of the media.”
He did specify, however, that he wasn’t castigating all of the media.