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Friday, August 20, 2010

Note to 24-Hour Media: You're Just Awful at this News Stuff

Last night, I broke out the ladder, climbed up on my roof, and pointed my face to the sky -- where the airwaves live -- and shouted, "You're not helping!"

Ok, so I didn't. But I wanted to. In yesterday's roundup, I mentioned a Pew poll that found that 18% of respondents thought President Obama is a Muslim. It's not the sort of thing I normally get worked up about, since -- as I pointed out when I wrote about it -- in any poll, approximately 1 in 5 always gives an insane answer. 1 in 5 believe that space aliens walk around in people-costumes. When it comes to reporting on polling, I think we should all agree that about 20% of respondents will be shown to be either stupid or mentally ill and just cut those people out of the equation. We've got a margin of error, so call this the "crazy quotient." Or maybe lump them in with the other answers we ignore -- something like "don't know/no opinion/goofy in the head."

But the crazy quotient in this poll had some interesting qualities. Greg Sargent looked into the internals and found that (surprise!) the believe was Republican driven. But more interesting was that 60% of those who held the mistaken belief that Obama was a Muslim said they learned this from the media.

"Ha ha ha! FOX News sucks," I thought (as I often do) and went about my business. Then I came across a post by Amanda Terkel at Think Progress that made me want to go up on my roof. In response to a poll showing that the media was 60% responsible for the screwball belief that Barack Obama is a Muslim, TV talking heads had a remedy -- President Obama should go to church more, because this is somehow his fault:

And then there's this CNN screenshot, posted by Dave Weigel:


As an atheist, I could care less, really. If the president is a Muslim or a Christian or a worshiper of Aphrodite, it's not really a step up or down for me. They're all equally weird and everyone, the president included, has the constitutionally guaranteed right to believe in the magical cosmic being of their choosing.

But the answer to the problem presented in the clip is suggested by the screenshot -- stop treating every question as if it's a matter of opinion. Has the media gotten so awful, so useless, that they'll treat even disagreements over plain, easily proven facts as an argument where both sides' points are equally valid? CNN might as well have said, "1 in 5 think the President's a Muslim. The White House says he isn't. Who's right? No one knows! Color us clueless. It's all a big freakin' mystery!" And then the rest of the networks chime in with, "If he went to church more often, then we'd know. How did the White House screw this up so badly?" In bending over backwards to try to be unbiased and tell "both sides of the story," they completely fail to inform. They couldn't be doing a worse job of reporting if they were actually trying to confuse you.

Starting to feel like getting out the ladder yet? The way you handle this story is like this: "18% of respondents to a new Pew poll answered that they believe President Obama is a Muslim -- which is interesting only for the fact that it's just so completely wrong. Apparently, the respondents blame the media for this mistaken belief, so I guess we'll have to step up our game in the future. Apologies all around. Now what's the weather like in Kansas?"

Neat, clean, factual, and -- most importantly -- informative. And the last thing we need is a parade of "analysts" and "political strategists" telling us how the president ought to handle this, because it was these same opinionated blowhards who got us in this mess in the first place. You don't have to get someone's opinion on everything; sometimes, you can get away with just reporting the facts. And sometimes, the only thing you should do is report the facts... this being one of those times. They bill it as 24-hour news, not a 24-hour op-ed page. Maybe cut back on the constant editorializing for a change.

TV reporting should be fairly straightforward: just report the truth, then cut to commercial while you enjoy a nice hot cuppa STFU. When 1 in 5 believe something that's ridiculous and 60% of those mistaken believers said they learned it from the media, maybe -- just maybe -- it's time to approach journalism a little bit differently.

Because the undeniable facts show that they're blowing it. Maybe the TV wonks can put their heads together and figure out what it is they're doing wrong. My only fear is that they'd decide the only answer is to go to church more often.


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