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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Our Useless News Media

TV in trash canIf Andrew Breitbart's hoax has an upside, it's that it demonstrates publicly what I and many others have been saying for quite some time; a phony "objectivity" is making our news media useless. Breitbart's attempt to smear Shirley Sherrod and the NAACP as racist was merely a way to play the media's "both sides of the story" reporting. Unable to credibly deny the existence of racism in the Tea Party (not that he hadn't bent over backwards trying), he tried stimulating a favorite media reflex -- the idea that both sides are equally guilty of any given failing in politics. Decades of complaining of a "liberal media" has made the media hyper-vigilant for any sign of bias in their ranks and being able to say "the left does it too" must be a tremendous relief. Balance is restored and everyone is just as lousy a human being as the next again. So if there's racism in the Tea Party ranks, then there must be racism in the ranks of those complaining about that racism. Otherwise, there is a great disturbance in the media force. The magnetic poles of guilt must always align perfectly.

But the idea of the "objective journalist" has given us a media without any objectivity at all. It creates monsters. And not just media trolls like Andrew Breitbart, but conceptual monsters that poison our national discourse. Because, if there's one thing that's been true for the last decade at least (actually, I'd take it all te way back to the rise of talk radio during Bill Clinton), it's that the truth has a liberal bias. And the reason for this is that Republicans have used their "liberal media" complaint to destroy any distinction between public truth and public lie. If the evening news were to point out that a Democrat's figures were true and a Republican figures were false, Republicans would shriek "foul!" So we wind up with an idiotic "both sides of the story" mentality, where the media just repeats what everyone's said verbatim and doesn't bother to separate truth from lie -- it's all equally true, because both sides do it.

My favorite example of this comes from television news. If you've read me long enough, you've seen me use it before. You get one partisan "strategist" from one side and another partisan "strategist" from the other, then you let them interrupt each other and talk over each other and throw out charges. If absolutely nothing one of the strategists has to say is true, how do you know? No one but the other strategist sets the record straight and, frankly, there's no good reason to trust them any more than the other. This goes on for a while and a chirpy anchor chimes in with, "Well, that's all the time we have for the day... Thanks for coming, guys!" And you're no more informed after the whole thing than you were before. No one tells you which line was actually true and we wind up living in a world where there are no objective facts, just differences of opinion. This doesn't do much to inform people.

E.J. Dionne, Washington Post:

The smearing of Shirley Sherrod ought to be a turning point in American politics. This is not, as the now-trivialized phrase has it, a "teachable moment." It is a time for action...

There were no "death panels" in the Democratic health-care bills. But this false charge got so much coverage that an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll last August found that 45 percent of Americans thought the reform proposals would likely allow "the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care to the elderly." That was the summer when support for reform was dropping precipitously. A straight-out lie influenced the course of one of our most important debates.

The traditional media are so petrified of being called "liberal" that they are prepared to allow the Breitbarts of the world to become their assignment editors. Mainstream journalists regularly criticize themselves for not jumping fast enough or high enough when the Fox crowd demands coverage of one of their attack lines.

Dionne says that the media must "stop being afraid of insisting on the difference between news and propaganda" -- which would be great, if the media had any incentive at all to do it. As Steve Benen commented, "That's exceptionally good advice, which will almost certainly be ignored."

Why? Because there's no money in it. Another thing I say a lot is that the TV talking head's job isn't to inform you, the TV talking head's job is to get you to watch TV. If you come away from their broadcasts an idiot, what do executives at ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, CNN, or NBC care? Besides, if the news exec doesn't care if you're ill-informed, the entertainment exec does -- who else but an imbecile would waste their time watching Cougartown? And FOX has a unique incentive to not make the distinction between truth and lie; who but the most ill-informed would ever watch Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly? Anyone with even a superficial familiarity with the facts would watch these shows and conclude that the hosts were either liars, fools, or lunatics -- and none of those things rule out the others. So they'll air the controversy, not the facts. They report and it's up to you to decide which is true. Having trouble making sense of all the contradictions? Here's Perfesser Beck and his magical chalkboard...

How does this change? It doesn't. Until people start demanding that facts and lies be clearly identified, it doesn't change at all. Until then, my advice is to read a newspaper. TV is for entertainment. And if there's a storm coming, it's great for keeping up with the warnings.

But, for the most part, it's useless for getting any information on the issues of the day.


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