Monday, August 17, 2009

The Media are a Reflection of Ourselves

This morning, MSNBC's First Read section included a particularly stinging criticism of President Obama's recent Town Hall forum for Health Care Reform in Colorado, stating that when someone (namely, Obama) goes after the media, they are usually on the losing end of an issue. While some recent politicians I could mention have been quick to pounce on the media as clear-cut evidence that they have been mistreated and slandered, I think in this instance Obama's decision has some major credibility, but not, I cannot emphasize enough, necessarily in the way one might first think. Jumping on the media with both feet might well be a time-honored sport for politicians or for anyone in the public eye. Our own suspicious attitudes give it a wholly sufficient degree of veracity and even if it doesn't exist at all, our wholesale belief in the matter makes it so.

The media, like us, has its own intrinsic bias because we, individually, have our own intrinsic bias. That is entirely unavoidable and despite measures that have been enacted in the past like the Fairness Doctrine, and in spite of begin taught, way back in Mass Communications 101 that any responsible journalist ought to embrace an objective stance when conveying the news, one also cannot help but be human, too. It's tough to short-circuit or re-wire human nature. Under the pretense of building a civilized society, we've been at that for thousands of years, but we've still got a long way to go. Just as personal experience colors our own political sensibilities, it dictates how we perceive the events which directly relate to us. One of the reasons the Health Care debate has been so notably vocal (and vituperative) is that this matter certainly cannot be discussed in the realm of the abstract. We all know what it is like to be sick or hurt or to see close family members suffer.

One of the the toughest lessons for me to choke down when I was in graduate school studying history is that even history itself, which one would think aimed to portray a more-or-less objective picture of past truths, actually has embedded bias everywhere. Much like in the media, some of it is deliberate, and some of it is unconscious. The facts in sequence a historian pulls together to represent and emphasize his or her own valid and well-reasoned version of the truth frequently reveals his or her own sense of their importance. Yet, before someone makes another baseless claim that this is somehow proof that liberal activist college professors are brainwashing our youth, conservative scholars do the very same thing in their scholarly articles, books, and textbooks. And, for that matter, so does the media. If you don't believe me, do me a favor and turn on your television right now.

Watch any cable news network for an hour. Look at the juxtaposition of news stories. Observe the captions placed underneath each news event. Forget for a moment what the talking heads are arguing about this moment. Notice that certain networks cover particular stories and place less emphasis on others. Or, better yet, turn the sound off of whatever channel you're watching and just focus on the screen. Look at whether the anchors are male or female, White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American. In each individual story, note what social class from which those interviewed come. Observe how they are dressed. I'm sure that as the perceptive viewer you are will see more beyond this, too, but you're making a good start. I myself first noticed this phenomenon some months back. You see, I have the good fortune of being able to work out at a gym almost every day. This allows me the ability to watch as many as twelve different channels simultaneously as I exercise, if I wish. As a result, I position myself quite deliberately in between the monitors beaming out all of the major twenty-four hour news channels. The interplay between each of them is as telling as what they themselves individually choose to air.

Beyond bias and beyond ulterior motive, no matter how well-intentioned, know this much. We are, to a very large extent, the media. When I fill out a Nielsen survey, my data helps determine what programs live or die, how current programming needs to be changed to get the greatest advertising market share, and what new programming needs to look like to produce the greatest amount of revenue for networks. So when President Obama or anyone else criticizes the media, he or she is criticizing each of us, to some degree. Let me add that I simply do not believe that the media has some kind of hidden agenda dictated by a smoke-filled room in some mysterious corporate boardroom. I do know that it can be easily swept up in all the same cross-currents, distractions, and hyperbole as we ourselves can. To an ever-increasing degree, we determine the role to which the media plays in our lives and we make some active and also some passive decisions which determine its level of influence. If we believed it had no basis on our lives or we saw no need for it, it would cease to exist altogether. And whether or not you see it as a needed tool or a necessary evil, it will always have a role to some extent. The media may have an agenda, but there will always be a counter-balance between the soft paternalism of what it advances and the compulsion to design content based on how many people tune in and watch.

If I could encourage the media to be more transparent in any direction, I would ask them if they'd be willing to be more open about the particulars of the news values upon which it functions. Some of them are common sense and some of them aren't. They are, in short, a set of criteria about what gets covered and what does not. Nothing breeds conspiracy theories, as evidenced by this Health Care debate, like a lack of substantive fact or information. These criteria can be found in any college textbook, so it's not like keeping people in the dark about them can be justified as a matter of national security. The media might find itself less on the defensive and more on the offensive if it attempted to refute the vast amount of misinformation about the industry. I'm sure that some amount of backstage politics and power plays factor into it, as is true with every organization, but if the media wouldn't act like one has to learn the secret handshake to achieve a greater realization of its purpose and its functionality, it might not have a need to criticize politicians or people, too.

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