“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” ― Mary Harris (Mother) Jones

Posts tagged ‘news media’

All the News that Fits

The role that modern media have undertaken–or in the opinion of some, not taken–with regard to ensuring that the people in the United States are kept aware of the things that they should be kept aware of seems to have moved from the dissemination of actual useful knowledge to providing a barrage of what has come to be called “infotainment.”

All sorts of conspiracy theories have been offered to explain this journalistic dereliction of duty, but having spent nine years as a journalist, I think I can safely say that there is no great conspiracy to keep the American public stupid and ignorant. The thing is, a great many journalists already believe the American public is stupid and ignorant, that there’s no point in providing them with anything remotely resembling balanced facts because they don’t care enough about what’s going on to bother reading them.

Anyone who has ever spent any significant amount of time in your average modern newsroom quickly becomes aware that those who are occupying it consider themselves intellectually superior to the vast majority of the people for whom they’re writing. Oh, it’s nothing overt—they don’t stand around the water cooler plotting how to mess with the rubes today—but there is nevertheless a pervasive undercurrent that the reporters and editors just know so much more than the bulk of their readers.

That this supposed breadth of knowledge is largely imaginary doesn’t lessen the effect of their belief in it. Their obsession with the Tea Party, for example, has nothing to do with the political, social and cultural implications of the movement and everything to do with the belief held by those observing them that they’re all a bunch of morons. That’s why there’s been so much attention paid to misspelled signs and so little to the very real impact this political movement has already shown it can effect.

I don’t say this attitude is deliberate. It’s of the sort fostered by any closed community—a case of media ivory-tower syndrome, if you will—engendered by rules established with the intent of avoiding the appearance of bias. Emphasis on the word appearance, because it’s the rare human being who can actually divorce himself or herself from their own ideas and beliefs completely. It’s ironic that all these rules really do is so isolate those compelled to observe them from the grass roots of their communities that the aforementioned sense of superiority is inevitable.

Exacerbating this is that the bottom line when it comes to modern journalism is, sadly, the bottom line. It’s not about keeping the public informed; it’s about making money. Since advertising has become a losing proposition—for the most part, anyway—they have no choice but to focus on selling as many copies as they can, and they decided the way to do that is to avoid writing about anything that might require their customers to do anything more than enjoy themselves.

The really sad thing is, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Those who actually want factual information so they can make informed opinions have long since abandoned the newspapers in favor of the Internet and other sources. So, the only ones who continue to purchase newspapers–or so, it seems, those in charge of today’s newspapers believe–are the ones who are more interested in knowing the latest adventures of whatever pop star has crashed and burned this week.

I think you can see how it vicious circle quickly develops in this kind of situation. The newspapers aren’t providing the public with the information it wants in the fair and balanced way they’re supposed to, so the portion of the public that wants that information stops buying newspapers. When the latest scandal erupts, the people who may not otherwise buy newspapers do so, with the result that those who make the decisions decide the best way to keep selling newspapers is to keep reporting on scandals. And if there aren’t enough of those happening, it’s not that hard to make a mountain out of a mole hill, at least not when your tools are words.

So, if you really want to know where to place the blame, in part we have to blame ourselves, and in part we have to blame the fact that our media–news and otherwise–are largely in the hands of huge corporate entities whose only concern is that their stockholders and their executives make lots of money.

Joseph de Maistre wrote, in 1811, that every nation has the government it deserves. That applies equally to this situation. If we who deplore the current state of what passes for news these days continue to support it by paying for it, even if only to add more fuel to our criticism, we have to shoulder some of the blame for the existence of that which we’re criticizing.

Fortunately, the role the mainstream media has abjured is being assumed by bloggers. Unfortunately, many of these are as lacking in their willingness to work at providing actual balanced information as their mainstream peers. That those mainstream peers have chosen to be one-sided doesn’t mean it’s acceptable journalism, and any news blogger who truly wants to be taken seriously as a journalist knows this and acts accordingly. I, for one, appreciate every one of them who does.

The Power of Words

Earlier this week, I posted a note to Twitter that pointed out to the news media that their constantly poking fun at the errors made by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party is preaching to the choir. And that this wasn’t helping matters at all.

To no surprise, I was almost immediately hailed by one political Tweeter who I gather assumed I was defending said Tea Party. I say “to no surprise” because one of the general characteristics of the group is a notable lack of a sense of irony. It’s why more than a few of them believe Stephen Colbert really does agree with them.

I don’t support the Tea Party. They’re a mob on its way to becoming a cult. Mobs are always dangerous, and ignoring that threat in favor of calling attention to their lack of grammatical and spelling skills is a one-way ticket to disaster. It’s a slick way to walk the fence if you’re afraid of being labeled a part of the “liberal press,” but it does a serious disservice by allowing the voices of ignorance and anger to take precedence over those of sense and fact.
The only news organization those who support the Tea Party trust is Newscorp. Another irony, since the Murdock empire and Fox News have been manipulating them from day one, using them to pursue the corporate political agenda and keeping the Tea Party members’ righteous anger alive using a steady stream of misinformation and outright lies. What’s needed isn’t snark, but a careful contradiction of their propaganda over and over and over. Only that’s not happening.

The sad thing is, I’m not surprised at the way the mainstream news media behaves. Having worked in that industry for nearly 10 years, I can vouch for the fact that their much-vaunted lack of bias is mostly something they hold up whenever someone criticizes the way they do their jobs. That’s not to say there aren’t any truly unbiased reporters out there, but you know what? They’re at the mercy of their editorial boards, and I haven’t yet seen an editorial board that didn’t have an agenda.

True story: when I worked for a small-city daily, my main beat was health care, including the local hospitals. My city editor had a jones against said hospitals for reasons that were purely personal. One of the hospitals had pulled itself out of major debt, and I wrote a story about how they had accomplished that. The editor rewrote my lede–without consulting me–so that it read as if they were still in major debt. And then expected me to take it on the chin when the people who had trusted me to tell the truth went ballistic.

And that was 20 years ago.

If you have any knowledge of balanced reporting, it’s shocking to read stories in major newspapers–and yes, I mean the New York Times–where the reporter and/or editorial bias is so blatant it makes one cringe. A sensational headline is followed by a story clearly intended to evoke an emotional response, and often contains totally incorrect information. This is especially true of stories about the Tea Party. They all have a kind of “look at how idiotic these people are” tone–and yet the facts that contradict their misinformation is either buried at the very end of the story or not included at all.

See what I mean about preaching to the choir? These stories are written with the assumption the reader will already know that the misinformation is not to be taken at face value. What the reporters and editors fail to grasp is that many, if not the majority, of their readers are not like them. It’s the same kind of blindness that makes user manuals provided by software companies almost impossible for anyone not deeply knowledgeable about technology to understand.

There was great furor when MSNBC suspended popular journalist Keith Olbermann after it was revealed he’d made small donations to three Democratic candidates. This was a violation of company policy, a policy all news media have that prohibits staff from engaging in anything that might reflect negatively on the appearance of their being unbiased. The operative word there being appearance. As a result, reporters are kept isolated, like plague doctors in biohazard suits. The suits protect the doctors from infection. The ones news staffers wear protect them from reality.

One has to learn to truly lack bias, to be able to look at something and see both sides of it. Modern education, with its emphasis on passing skills tests, doesn’t teach that much anymore. This is why you have newsrooms full of college-educated reporters who are going to apply their own personal viewpoint to any story featuring people not like them no matter how many policies you put in place to ensure balanced reporting. I think it’s clear that the Americans who make up the Tea Party are as unlike many of those reporters as you can get.

News media: If you know someone is lying, isn’t the correct response to contradict that lie–and make sure the focus of your rebuttal is on the truth? Because based on what I’ve read over the last year, that ain’t happening. And because it isn’t happening, the propaganda machine is winning, as the midterm election results clearly show.