Wednesday, September 22, 2004

An unfair and unbalanced media rant

I've been reading a book called "The Republican Noise Machine" by David Brock, who formerly worked for an affiliate of the Washington Times and is now a regular on the Al Franken Show. The subject of this book is the so-called "echo chamber effect" that occurs in the right wing media. To quote the book's introduction:

Because technological advances and the race for ratings and sales have made the wall between right-wing media and the rest of the media permeable, the America media as a whole has become a powerful conveyor belt for conservative-generated "news," commentary, story lines, jargon, and spin. It is now possible to watch a lie move from a disreputable right-wing Web site onto the afternoon talk radio shows, to several cable chat shows throughout the evening, and into the next morning's Washington Post -- all in twenty-four hours. This media food chain moves phony information and GOP talking points -- manufactured by and for conservatives, often bought and paid for by conservative political interests, and disseminated through an unabashedly biased right-wing media apparatus that follow no rules or professional norms -- into every family dining room, every workplace, and every Internet chat room in America.

As I may have mentioned, I have a morbid fascination with the creationist movement. I'm not very far into the book, only 60 pages or so, but I see a pattern being outlined that looks very similar to the way modern creationism is trying to worm its way into our education system.

It seems that in the late 60's, some of the best and brightest in the Nixon administration decided that the press was being unreasonably hostile towards them. Those annoying reporters were always running stories claiming that Vietnam was a disaster (which it was) or that Nixon authorized illegal activities to get himself reelected (which he did). So they started to form think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation that would try to push their way into the public consciousness and demand that the conservative side of every story be heard on every possible occasion. The charge that the media is liberal didn't just come from nowhere; it was a meme that was intentionally dreamed up and pushed out there.

Fox News uses the slogans "fair and balanced" and "We report, you decide." It seems that they are trying to appeal to some mythical gold standard of journalism whereby you report both sides of every story, with no comment or bias whatever, and then let the audience decide for themselves who is right. Not only does Fox (obviously) fail to achieve this lofty goal, but in my opinion, the goal itself is crap.

You can't inform the public by just presenting everything that could possibly be presented and then saying "Well, decide for yourself." When presenting a blatant lie, journalistic integrity would imply that you should state that it's a lie. The media isn't there to post non-judgmental stories like "Adolph Hitler: was he right?" If George Bush and Karl Rove issue a press release stating that the earth is flat, it's not the media's responsibility to run a "fair and balanced" headline screaming "Shape of earth in question! Is it really a globe? Our studies reveal that many people disagree." Of course that would be dumb. People can disagree all they want, but the shape of the earth is an irregular sphere.

As Dan Rather recently demonstrated, it's really important that the media check their sources and decide whether a story is credible BEFORE they run with it, rather than just reporting "We heard that blah blah blah". But there is a major double standard at work, because CBS has a reputation for having journalistic ethics, while Fox does not. When Fox runs a picture of John Kerry at a podium with Jane Fonda, which later turns out to be an extremely clumsy Photoshop job, people say "Oh, that's just Fox." When Matt Drudge breaks the story that someone is having an affair with an intern, and we learn that he pulled the story completely out of his butt, nobody cares. When Rush Limbaugh cites "statistics" that he totally made up, he pleads "I'm not a news show! It's just entertainment!"

But the line between entertainment and news has really gotten blurred, and I think it's at least partly due to this very deliberate effort that the Republicans have made since the 70's to demand that the media show no "bias", not even a bias towards being correct. (I think it's very revealing that Fox News' slogan is NOT "Fair, balanced, and accurate.") All that matters is that it be "balanced", meaning that if you have one person on TV saying that we really landed on the moon, you must have a crackpot appear at his side claiming that it was all a government conspiracy. And furthermore, the program must not identify this guy as a crackpot, because that would be biased.

This reminds me of what I witnessed at the textbook hearings in here in Texas last year. Creationists go from state to state, demanding what? That we teach creationism? No no no, that is so eight years ago. What they want us to do is "teach the controversy." They want us to teach our students that SOME people disagree with the theory of evolution, and the jury is still out. Never mind that the "jury" are not scientists who do research; they're ideologues who are openly pushing a religious agenda. But to point that out would not be "fair" and "balanced" because it's passing a value judgment.

But that's bull, because science is all about passing value judgments. It's important and necessary for scientists to come up with crazy ideas that MIGHT be true, but then those explanations have to be tempered by reality and experiment. This is the part where you filter out the ideas that are crazy because they're innovative from the ideas that are crazy because they're ridiculous. Science will always be beset by crackpots who believe that they've invented a perpetual motion machine or "proven" the existence of ESP that mysteriously vanishes when somebody tries to measure it. But because science is a selective process, ideally the enormous number of crazy ideas are supposed to get winnowed down to the ones that are true. Same thing that evolution does in selecting for traits that have survival value.

That's how science is supposed to work, and in my opinion, that's also how journalism should work. Journalism is not, and should not be, about being a mouthpiece for every lie, every slander, every conspiracy theory that happens to be in the public consciousness. It should be about wading through the marketplace of ideas and selecting the ones which appear, to the best of our investigative understanding, to be accurate. Journalists should NOT be fair to con artists and hucksters. They should NOT be balanced by giving an interview to one liar for every truth teller.

What journalism should be doing is the science of information. It should find out the truth and report it. This is obviously an idealistic goal. Science doesn't always "work" the way it's supposed to because you have bickering and internal politics and desire for personal glory among scientists. And also because human knowledge is always going to be limited, so what we regard as "true" will only be the best guess given the available evidence. Likewise, I don't expect journalists to be infallible; only that they do more than pay lip service to reporting on real stories.

Journalists need to quit worrying about being fair and worry more about being right.

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