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Monday, March 19, 2012

The Fox News Death Panel of Experts

Today I posted an image called "Fox News killed my mother." Because it did. It was the most widely circulated image I've ever posted. But, after about and hour I could no longer read any of the comments. Still can't. And some of you have messaged me to say you can't see it. So here it is again. This time, my explanation will be in the first comment instead of here. Basically my mother fell and refused to go to the doctor because she was afraid that "Obamacare" would get information about her and use it in their "death panels." Since then several of you shared identical experiences. This is how their fear mongering is killing our nation, one person at a time, one lie at a time.
-Tracy Knauss, Facebook

"FOX News is killing America one lie at a time, one life at a time. I know this personally," Knauss wrote in her comment. "FOX News killed my precious mother, Hallie. She watched FOX religiously. And when she fell ten days before she died, she refused to go to the doctor because, 'I don't want Obamacare to get all of my information!' she declared, recalling the warnings from FOX News 'anchors.' She was emphatic. She was not going to consort with the Muslim enemy. As she made out her will she told her lawyer, 'I don't want any of my money going to the Muslim Brotherhood!' And her last protestation dealt with 'Obama's death panels.' Mother died just days later. I hold FOX News responsible for my mother's death."

It seems the real death panel here is the panel of "experts" (otherwise known as "PR flacks") on any given Fox News program. This is the danger that not only Fox News presents, but the entire rightwing "news" industry and the Republican Party: when you lie to people about healthcare, bad things happen. It's really no different than being a snake-oil salesman -- except, for some reason, you aren't held responsible for the damage you cause.

But I'd go further here. Yes, Fox is the worst of the mainstream media -- followed by talk radio on the second tier and the wingnut blogosphere at the lowest -- but the supposedly "unbiased" media sources share a lot of the blame as well.


The problem with "unbiased" news is that it's not exactly unbiased, so much as it's nonjudgmental. When it comes to reporting on things like the "death panels" lie, most of the media tends to try to take what appears to be an even view of the subject matter. What's true and what's not true is irrelevant, since the reporting isn't on the "death panels" per se, but on the controversy surrounding them. It's about the "he said, she said" story, not what he and she are arguing about. Headlines that should blare "GOP SPREADING THE PUREST FORM OF BS KNOWN TO MAN" are instead "BIG FIGHT IN WASHINGTON AS REPUBLICANS HONE THEIR MESSAGE."

As a result, even a small percentage of outlets like MSNBC's audience probably believes that the "death panels" are real. We live in a world without facts, where every difference is a matter of opinion. There are no lies, just different takes. There is no concrete truth, only opinion. Because reporting that Republicans lie would look like bias -- and we can't have that. Somewhere along the line, the idea of "balance" -- which is really just false equivalency -- became more important in journalism than facts.

Which isn't to say that all mainstream media lies outright. But they do lie. It's simply a lie of omission. When Sarah Palin launched this whole "death panels" myth, news sources reported the absolute, undeniable fact that she said it. What they failed to do was report that it wasn't even remotely true. As a result, they wound up repeating the lie. Not as a statement of fact, mind you, but as an expression of Palin's opinion. Mother Hallie might well have died the same way, regardless of which news network she watched. The odds were just better with Fox.

It doesn't have to be this way. In February, National Public Radio introduced their new handbook of journalistic ethics and, with it, a policy of focusing on truth.

In all our stories, especially matters of controversy, we strive to consider the strongest arguments we can find on all sides, seeking to deliver both nuance and clarity. Our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth.


At all times, we report for our readers and listeners, not our sources. So our primary consideration when presenting the news is that we are fair to the truth. If our sources try to mislead us or put a false spin on the information they give us, we tell our audience. If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports. We strive to give our audience confidence that all sides have been considered and represented fairly.

"With these words, NPR commits itself as an organization to avoid the worst excesses of 'he said, she said' journalism. It says to itself that a report characterized by false balance is a false report," wrote media watchdog Jay Rosen at the time. "It introduces a new and potentially powerful concept of fairness: being 'fair to the truth,' which as we know is not always evenly distributed among the sides in a public dispute."

The logical equation of "a report characterized by false balance is a false report" jumps out at me; mostly because it should seem so obvious, but instead seems so profound. And it seems profound because it's so alien to the media landscape we've become way too used to. That phony balance is why people doubt global warming and evolution. It's why people think the president is secretly a Muslim Kenyan and that Iran's building a nuclear weapon this very minute -- if they don't have one already. The news tells "both sides of the story," then neglects to tell you which side is the liar.

No one's ever going to make a similar "NPR killed my mother" photo-manip. Their hands are clean. The rest of the media doesn't get off so easily. Fox News may be the worst, but they're the worst of a bad lot.


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