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TV journalist: Citizens’ responsibility to  choose best candidate

Recorder/Paul Franz
Jim Madigan of WGBY speaks at Greenfield Community College on Wednesday.

Recorder/Paul Franz Jim Madigan of WGBY speaks at Greenfield Community College on Wednesday. Purchase photo reprints »

GREENFIELD — In an election that saw record campaign advertising spending and a social media explosion, it was easy for people to get lost in the sheer volume of available information, according to television producer and host Jim Madigan.

But in his eyes, it was still the duty and responsibility of every citizen to find his or her way through the media maze and vote for the elected official that would best serve the country.

“All of that coverage and commentary is there for you to choose from. Choose is the key word,” said WGBY’s director of public affairs as he spoke at the 11th annual Henry Steele Commager Lecture Wednesday at Greenfield Community College.

“Like it or not, we have to work at this job of picking a president and choosing our political leaders,” he said. “It’s our role of being a citizen.”

Madigan — the producer and host of “The State We’re In,” a weekly political program for the Springfield PBS affiliate — reflected Wednesday on the various roles media played in last week’s election. The lecture was the latest in a series commemorating Henry Steele Commager, a former historian and Amherst College professor who died in 1998.

“This was the first social media election,” said Madigan, who said that information was made available to the public at a speed and in a volume that had never before been reached.

He cited the example of a cell phone video, filmed and posted on the morning of the election, which showed a malfunctioning electronic voting machine in Pennsylvania.

No matter how many times the voter attempted to click on President Barack Obama, the machine selected GOP challenger and former Gov. Mitt Romney.

The video was picked up and featured prominently on news websites across the country, said Madigan.

“We wouldn’t have seen that in the past,” he said. “That was, instantly with a push of the button, on the Internet and in newsrooms all over the world.”

With social media, anybody can become a reporter with no editor nor any checks for accuracy and fairness, Madigan said. It’s a challenge he believes citizens must learn to overcome when consuming media today.

Madigan said that political campaigns, across all levels of government, spent $6 billion in advertising this election season.

Candidates targeted their money and resources to specific television programs in an effort to reach certain people, he said.

The president’s wife, Michelle Obama, appeared in a “Jimmy Kimmel Live” skit that “probably wouldn’t have been thought of as proper to do 20 years ago,” said Madigan.

And the Romney campaign purchased a large amount of television commercials during TV Land re-runs of “The Andy Griffith Show,” because it reasoned that those viewers could probably become strong Romney supporters, he said.

In their coverage of the past election and any future ones, media outlets “bear awesome responsibility,” said Madigan.

But ultimately, he said, it is the citizens who ensure that democracy endures.

“No matter how much and how many different types of media there are, in the end we all have to work hard ... at being the best informed citizens that we can be,” he said.

Remembering Commager

Madigan has worked at WGBY for the past 22 years, following a stint at WGGB, Channel 40 in Springfield. He has moderated several Massachusetts gubernatorial and U.S. Senate debates, including one in Springfield last month between U.S. Senator Scott Brown and challenger Elizabeth Warren.

He said he was honored to be a part of a series recognizing Commager.

Madigan recalled getting the chance to interview the historian in 1985. After learning to his surprise that Commager was still around the area, he expressed interest to Amherst College public relations about interviewing its former professor.

Then one day, he answered his phone one day to hear, “Madigan? This is Henry Steele Commager.”

“I couldn’t respond,” said Madigan. “It was like God had called.”

Tim Blagg, editor of The Recorder and a member of the Commager Lecture committee, introduced Madigan by calling him a rare television journalist who follows “newspaper standards” of fairness and accuracy.

The committee, which also includes Commager’s widow Mary, chooses a different speaker each year, with a focus on democracy, civil liberties and civil rights.

Commager — a professor, historian and supporter of community colleges — donated some of his books to GCC. The book sales are used to fund the lecture series.

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