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Monday, November 29, 2010

Viewing the World Through the Media's Cracked Lens

Camera with cracked lens
I decided to take a few days off over the Thanksgiving holiday, as you might've guessed. During this time, I ran a sort of experiment. I stayed away from my usual news consumption habits. I'd say I avoided internet news entirely, but I have news feeds all over the place -- in my Gmail and my iGoogle homepage, for example -- so I saw headlines. I just didn't investigate them. As a result, probably 90% of my news consumption came from TV -- mostly network and local -- and my local paper, which has just one or two pages of national and international news and, of course, an editorial page which isn't all that good at delivering information. I say it was a "sort of experiment," because it was really just a way to step back for a bit and take a breather, but the result is the same regardless: I'm about as well-informed about recent events as the average person. Which is to say, not very. Our media is broken.

For example, I learned that North and South Korea had a little kerfuffle over an island and that the reasons for this are complex. I do understand what's going on there, but it's hard for me to say how much of my understanding comes from what I knew before I unplugged. It doesn't feel like I got a lot of information and, as always, cable news about the incident came mostly in the form of opinion, with interviews of pundits and analysts and experts. Most of that opinion was about what the US should do in response. There was very little about the North Korean government's current instability and uncertainty about their future -- or the paranoid overreactions likely to result from that instability and uncertainty.

I suppose for this experiment in wearing news blinders to be an actual experiment, I'd need to break away from my news consumption habits for a much longer period -- maybe a year or more -- which is something I'm unwilling to do. All I've really done is get a little taste of what its like to let someone else do all the legwork and all I can say conclusively is that it's a lot easier, but it sucks. I can understand why so many people believe things that aren't true. It struck me that the media is interested in reporting true things, just not the truth.

For example, when the media reported on Sarah Palin's criticisms of "death panels" in the healthcare reform bill, what they were reporting was true -- that Sarah Palin was talking about death panels. What they failed to report was the truth -- that Palin was slinging BS. There were no death panels. This story should've died the same day it started. Yet, by avoiding calling out Palin as a liar and a demagogue, they allowed the death panel propaganda to become a matter of debate; "Are there death panels? Sarah Palin says yes, the Democrats say no. It's big fight over the healthcare bill! Let's watch..." It turns out that you can have reporting that's 100% true but, if it avoids the central question, delivers no truth. I'm not even going to get into outlets like Fox News, which are interested in neither things that are true nor the truth.

I know I've covered all this ground before, but this is quickly becoming the issue for me; we have a news media more concerned with opinion than fact and more interested in how everything affects the now-constant electoral horse race than anything else. When Obama was elected -- in fact, probably even before -- the news media was already asking who'd run in 2012. And every decision, every incident, every gaffe or victory or loss or hiccup is reported in that context; how will it effect the upcoming elections? Analysts and pundits tell us what Obama needs to do and what Republicans need to do and what the Democratic Party needs to do. And the answer is almost never govern. Political intrigue, that's what gets people's attention. So that's what everyone talks about -- government as a never-ending game of football.

Another problem is the problem of "balance." It's a phony idea, that every issue has two points of view of equal validity. On the issue of global warming, for example, the balanced approach is to talk to a climate scientist and a climate denier, to represent both sides of the story. But the weight of opinion isn't balanced 50-50. In fact, you could hardly say there was a balance at all. 97% of scientists agree that global warming is happening and it's caused by humans. So, to really reflect the way the opinion balances out, you'd have to interview about 49 scientists to every 1 so-called skeptic. That's not the way it works in the media, though. It's usually a ratio of 1:1 -- a completely unrepresentative example of the actual debate. In fact, since 97% agree, you could argue that there isn't actually a debate anymore, just a few holdout cranks and biostitutes not worth anyone's time.

But the existence of a controversy, such as it is, is true. So the reporting is likewise true; some people do disagree with the consensus. But the truth is something else entirely and it doesn't look anything like what you see on your TV. Everything is a debate, there is no central truth to anything. Death panels? Sure, why not? Let's look at the debate. Creationism? Some people think it's true. Let's look at the debate. Tax cuts increase tax revenues? Sounds like interesting math you've got there, Senator. Let's look at the debate. Let's never, ever, ever look at the provable facts or at history. Actual numbers must be few and far between, unless they come from public opinion polls. Let's only look at the debate, who's winning the debate, and what it means for the next election, because there's always a next election.

Can democracy work if no one knows what the hell they're talking about? I have my doubts. Maybe it can, but not well. We have people voting on issues based on what they wish is true or what they're afraid is true, when they may or may not be correct. And the media makes it all possible, by offering a view of the world where there is no truth, no yes-or-no answers, no possibility of consensus. Unless 100% of self-proclaimed "experts" and "analysts" agree on something, then there is no majority opinion -- even when, in reality, that majority is overwhelming. When 97% of scientists agree that anthropogenic warming is happening, the answer to the question of whether or not it's real is most definitely not "Who knows?"

This is no way to inform a public, which means it's no way to inform voters. Informed voters are essential.


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