If you read only one thing today (after this blog post, of course) make it “‘Truth’ vs. ‘facts’ from America’s media” by Neal Gabler at the Los Angeles Times. I don’t want to excerpt big chunks of it, because I hope you read the whole piece. But here’s the critical point:
According to the Pew Research Center, 16% of the stories in its media sample last week were devoted to healthcare, but three-quarters of that coverage was either about legislative politics or the town halls. …
…To look at this in a larger context, journalists would no doubt say that it isn’t really their job to ferret out the “truth.” It is their job to report “facts.” If Palin says that Obama intends to euthanize her child, they report it. If Limbaugh says that Obama’s healthcare plan smacks of Nazism, they report it. And if riled citizens begin shouting down their representatives, they report it, and report it, and report it. The more noise and the bigger the controversy, the greater the coverage. This creates a situation in which not only is the truth subordinate to lies, but one in which shameless lies are actually privileged over reasoned debate.
Don’t think the militants don’t know this and take full advantage of it.
I dimly remember way-back-when, whatever Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon spun about Vietnam was quickly shredded by the press. Indeed, the Washington press corps was so hard on LBJ I actually felt sorry for him sometimes, even though I didn’t especially like him. Nixon, of course, waged war on media. The whole business about “liberal media bias” comes from the Nixon propaganda machine, and “facts” about the voting habits of journalists, manufactured and promoted by the Nixon White House almost 40 years ago, still turn up in rightie rhetoric.
Even though investigative reporting was glamorized by the Watergate reporting team of Woodward-and-Bernstein (one word, back then), post-Nixon Washington political reporters were a defanged and neutered lot compared to the pre-Nixon pack. By the mid-1970s many of the right-wing “think tanks” that bulldoze right-wing propaganda through news media and into the heads of American citizens were being established by a group of moneyed family trusts — Koch, Scaife, Bradley, Coors, etc. The Heritage Foundation, for example, was established in 1973.
Out of post-Nixon journalism ethics came the idea that “objectivity” means journalists and editorialists stopped calling out politicians and political hacks for lying. As Paul Krugman once famously said, “if liberals said the Earth was round, while conservatives said it was flat, the news headlines would read ‘Shape of the planet: both sides have a point.'”
And we also saw the “Jerry Springerization” of political discourse. Right-wing party hacks and spokespeople were coached to keep talking, loudly, over everyone else and not allow people with other points of view to finish a sentence. You rarely saw anything like that on television in the 1950s and 1960s; by the 1980s it had become the norm. (See this post, “Where Have You Gone, Edward R. Murrow?” touching on this phenomenon that I wrote back in 2003, and which I think holds up pretty well.)
News show producers no doubt encouraged the mayhem because it made for more entertaining television; in the old days, a political talk show consisted of a bunch of gray-haired white guys in suits speaking politely and soberly to each other. Informative, but dull. If you see old black-and-white clips of the pre-1970s Meet the Press, you might notice the guests even spoke much more slowly and at more length than they do now, never mind one at a time.
The critical point is that U.S. journalists pretty much stopped offering truthful analysis of what politicians and spokespeople were saying. Instead, we get “he said, she said,” and the readers and viewers have to sort our for themselves what the truth is. Reporters like to see themselves as “in the middle” between two equal opposing forces, but Jay Rosen says this is a coward’s way out.
Like the “straight down the middle” impulse that Taylor writes about, he said, she said is not so much a truth-telling strategy as refuge-seeking behavior that fits well into newsroom production demands. “Taking a pass” on the tougher calls (like who’s blowing more smoke) is economical. It’s seen as risk-reduction, as well, because the account declines to explicitly endorse or actively mistrust any claim that is made in the account. Isn’t it safer to report, “Rumsfeld said”– letting Democrats in Congress howl at him (and report that) than it would be to report, “Rumsfeld said, erroneously”– and try to debunk the claim yourself? The first strategy doesn’t put your own authority at risk, the second does, but for a reason.
Going back to Neal Gabler, he reminds us of the months before the invasion of Iraq in which U.S. news media “reported the administration’s rationale without devoting more than a few sentences or minutes to dissenting voices, much less doing their own analysis.” After 9/11 and through the rest of Bush’s first term, to cast a shadow on Dear Leader — and especially to displease the Right — was a perilous thing that could (and sometimes did) cost a reporter his job.
The health care crisis has been building up for many years, and many of us saw it and realized our refusal to deal with it was dragging us off a cliff. But in all those years there was rarely a substantive discussion of this issue in mass media, and never on television or radio. Occasionally it would be addressed on a talk show, but the “addressing” inevitably consisted of a rightie hack screaming about socialized medicine and a slightly-less-to-the-right media personality allegedly speaking for progressivism who more or less agreed. All this would be encapsulated into a ten-minute segment that said absolutely nothing about the issue.
What it comes down to is that sometimes the media have to tell the truth not because anyone really wants them to but because it is the right thing to do — the essential thing to do — for the sake of our democracy.
Taking refuge in the “middle” is not going to make journalism any safer going forward. The more journalists give in to the goons, the more they control you. And the goons are coming around to the idea that they are entitled to take a lot more than journalists’ jobs.