My new “Think Again” column is borrowed from The Cause and it’s called “How Classical Liberalism Morphed Into New Deal Liberalism."
My Nation column is “Defending Israel (and Waiting for a Miracle).”
I was at the LA Times Festival of Books last weekend, and appeared on a panel called “How the ‘boys on the bus’ cover campaigns.”
Now here’s Reed:
The Media’s (Lying) Eyes
by Reed Richardson
Much of traditional political reporting currently suffers from what I’d call the “Duck Soup” problem. In a classic scene from that movie, Chico Marx (disguised as Groucho) famously asks “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” Increasingly, however, our media can’t be trusted to answer this fundamental question correctly. Thanks to a rigorously self-prescribed mantle of objectivity, the establishment press has allowed neutrality and structural ‘balance’ to supplant truth-telling and accountability as its lodestars. As a result, when confronted with the choice between digging out uncomfortable facts and quoting convenient fictions, all too often the media—either subconsciously or willfully—pulls its journalistic punches by choosing the latter.
This institutional timidity on the part of the Washington press corps, while somewhat helpful in avoiding superficial evidence of perceived bias, actually begets other, more insidious types. Loath as the media is now to court controversy by drawing clear distinctions between parties and/or candidates based on actual policy, the press naturally busies itself with a proclivity for process coverage. Paul Waldman, over at The American Prospect, cites a recent Project for Excellence in Journalism report to detail how this alternative bias manifested itself on a macro scale during the Republican presidential primary coverage:
[T]he PEJ data show once again that the biggest bias of all in campaign coverage is the bias toward discussion of strategy and tactics and away from the substance of policy. Sixty-four percent of the coverage during the primary was about campaign strategy, while 9 percent of the coverage concerned domestic policy, and a whopping 1 percent concerned foreign policy.
That the public gets seven horserace stories for every domestic policy article can’t help but have a deleterious effect on both the polity and the press. A democracy starved for actual policy knowledge about the plans of those who aspire to govern it obviously leaves the public ill-prepared to make informed electoral choices. But the media is also poorly served by this who’s up-who’s down obsessing because process stories, with their heavy reliance upon relatively ephemeral polls and access to campaign insiders, tend to exercise a fairly narrow group of journalistic muscles and let other, more analytical and enterprising ones atrophy.
Case in point, this hidebound Los Angeles Times article on Mitt Romney’s recent speech to the NRA. In its lede, the story lets the presumptive Republican nominee baselessly repeat a popular talking point among the right wing—that, as President, Obama has “‘employ[ed] every imaginable ruse and ploy’ to restrict gun rights.” Moments later, the article dutifully reprints Romney’s straight-up fear-mongering over how an Obama second term would seriously threaten the Second Amendment. Only seven paragraphs in do we get this warmed-over-lump-of-oatmeal attempt at deconflicting rhetoric from reality: “Although Obama has not been responsible for any notable gun control measures, the [NRA] has been sharply critical of some of his appointments.” This is pretty weak tea, by any measure, but even this ‘to be sure’ stab at setting the record straight fails, as Obama, while in office, has actually signed two laws (to my chagrin) that expand gun rights in this country.
Now compare that supposedly objective article to this contemporaneous editorial from the LA Times. Full of historical detail and, sad to say, a more thorough recounting of Obama’s actual record, this op-ed provides readers with the kind of necessary information from which they can make a truly informed value judgment about the candidates. Sure, it’s argues its case through a liberal policy prism, but it also makes no pretense about the fact. Agree or disagree, the reader leaves the editorial having been exposed to both facts and context, whereas they only get woefully thin, watered-down talking points from the straight-news report.
More evidence that the press has internalized the need to view stories more through the lens of its sources arrived this week with the release of the annual Social Security Trustees report. Mercifully, it occasioned less media distortion than most years (a rare positive side effect of the long presidential campaign), though readers were still exposed to a fair share of alarmist “On-X-Date-Social-Security-Will-Run-Dry!” headlines. This Associated Press story was pretty typical fare, but at least down in the 13th paragraph it acknowledges that after 2033, the two combined funds could still pay out 75% of future benefits. Of course, the story still uses the popular right-wing framing that the ‘fund’ is nonetheless in crisis and will have ‘run dry’ by then, even though the ongoing payroll taxes that finance benefits first go through the supposedly bankrupt ‘fund’ to do so.
This is not to say that incisive political reporting can’t be done under the banner of objectivity, it can. But it requires a willingness to push beyond the pre-fab narratives dished out by the candidates themselves. Indeed, this unblinking AP campaign trail story from Tuesday should be a must-read for every member of the Washington press corps and national punditocracy. Rather than just shamelessly ooh and ahh over the theatrics of Romney’s primary ‘victory speech’ or simply regurgitate his small bump in the polls, this article instead offers a devastating rundown of the Romney campaign’s utter lack of substance and specifics. (To be fair, it’s not all eat-your-veggies policy details, as the reporter also manages to pry loose a doozy of a quote about Romney from Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, which all but kills his VP chances.) This is journalism working for the greater good of the public and not for its own ends, whether that be more clicks today or possible access to a Romney White House next year.
Sadly, this kind of trenchant political reporting remains the exception, not the rule. What we can expect of the latter for the next six months might have best been illustrated this past week by Steve Doocy, who clearly fills the Moe role in the inane Three Stooges-trio that comprise Fox & Friends’ morning anchors. Last week, he got caught making up part of a quote from President Obama, the effect of which just so happened to tee up GOP talking points for Mitt Romney during a softball interview. I know, I know—dog bites man. But even during his smirking, on-air correction, Doocy couldn’t quite bring himself to accept full responsibility for the clear bias that crept into his broadcast. So, instead of owning up to his ‘mistake,’ Doocy suddenly goes all Queen Gertrude at the end:
Last week, President Obama talked about not being born with a silver spoon in his mouth. That was interpreted as a big dig at Mitt Romney. When I was interviewing Gov. Romney on this show, I asked him about it. However, I did some paraphrasing that seemed to misquote the president. So to be clear, the President’s exact quote was “I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth.” And I hope that clears up any confusion.
“Seemed,” Steve? Nay, it is. I know not “seemed.”
And to really “clear up any confusion,” it’s necessary to point out that other news outlets—like the Washington Post and ABC News—“interpreted” Obama’s comment as a dig on Romney only after Doocy concocted his more incendiary “unlike some people” clause and ran with it on the air. (They’ve since corrected the record as well.) By retroactively shifting the blame of his hearing-what-Romney-wants-me-to-hear journalistic malpractice onto those who merely repeated it, Doocy brazenly attempts to put a media spin on Leo Rosten’s classic definition of chutzpah: someone who kills their parents and then throws himself upon the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.
Perhaps Doocy’s weaseling was intended to leave his ultimate boss at Fox News, Roger Ailes, some intellectual wiggle room. After all, Ailes, just two weeks prior, had made the outrageous claim—to a room full of student journalists, no less—that Fox News had never had to retract a story in the 15 years of its existence. This lie was such a hanging curveball that even NPR, not known for dabbling in media tit-for-tats, quickly knocked the claim into the cheap seats. (Indeed, Fox News’ notoriously—or is it conveniently?—error-prone graphics department deserves its own special dishonorable mention.)
Adding insult to psychic injury, as it were, was Glenn Beck’s revelation this past Sunday that none other than God told him to leave Fox News lest he would ‘lose [his] soul.’ I don’t quite know what that means, but it does say something that Fox News can now claim to have brought together in agreement the Lord, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Al Qaeda, prominent climate change academics, numerous conservative and liberal commentators, and nearly half of the American public in recognizing the inherent flaws of its network. And, according to a recent Pew study, even the network’s most loyal viewers might fall into this increasingly large group of strange bedfellows, as Pew found those who turn to Fox News as their main source of campaign coverage are also the most likely to report bias in news coverage. More than just a coincidence? As another Marx brother—Groucho—was wont to say: “You bet your life.”
Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.