Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Scattered Truth: Or, a Heap of Broken Images

Mark W. Adams over at Dispassionate Liberal recently wrote a very interesting and timely post that I'd like to freely reference and respond to at some length. This diary will not do his original work adequate justice so I highly recommend that those of you who have the time to consider reading his post in totality--taking care to access the numerous links to other websites that brilliantly emphasize his overall point. When I read blogs like Adams' I'm reminded how crucial a free exchange of ideas is to a democratic society and how it both enriches us and leads to a much better understanding of the pertinent matters we grapple with on a daily basis. And, I as almost needn't mention, I'd never get this caliber of analysis through any conventional media source.

Aiming to discover the often vexing and frequently secretive behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing of the mainstream media is no easy feat. One would think that an industry which preaches transparency and honesty in that which it covers would take care to respond in kind within itself, but that often is not the case. The best those of us on the outside can do with a limited amount of first hand information is make educated guesses and use deductive reasoning to reconstruct what must be transpiring out of our sight. Media outlets rarely publicize their own internal struggles and indeed I didn't understand just how financially strapped the newspaper, television affiliates, and magazines in my hometown were until someone started a blog partially to showcase the pay cuts, layoffs, and reductions in benefits that have befallen the industry. Media hypocrisy is one thing, a synopsis of an industry in free-fall is another, but a much more compelling topic for discussion is that of the numerous flaws which stem from a poor presentation of the facts, which collectively one refers to these days as "news".

In his piece, Adams references Neil Gabler's recent opinion column in the Los Angeles Times which I will enclose a generous excerpt.

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. They know that the media, especially the so-called liberal mainstream media -- which are hardly liberal if assessed honestly -- refrain from attempting to referee arguments for fear that they will be accused by the right of taking sides. So rather than be battered, the media -- and I am talking about the respectable media, not the carnival barkers on cable -- increasingly strive for the simplest sort of balance rather than real objectivity. They marshal facts, but they don't seek truth. They behave as if every argument must be heard and has equal merit, when some are simply specious. That is how global warming, WMD and "end of life" counseling have become part of silly reportorial ping-pong at best and badly misleading information at worst.

Yesterday's Hardball featured some degree of push back to these sorts of stinging rebukes. Chris Matthews (or whomever wrote the teleprompter copy) responded that the program's frequent reporting and coverage of the far-right wingnuts at Town Hall Forums and the Republican politicians who enable them was, to him, fully acceptable. According to Matthews, his program's justification for giving these people the satisfaction and gratification of media exposure was to prevent potential violence from swelling out of control. In so doing, he was making sure that no mentally disturbed individual felt motivated and wholly justified to use brute force to make his/her point known. By implication, he invoked the specter of 1968, a year in which many felt the entire country was coming apart at the seams. Thankfully, 2009 is not 1968 redux. It's not even close. Matthews' rationalization sounds noble enough, but my opinion continues to be that nothing creates a suitable climate for an unhinged individual then to have his or her point of view validated by media coverage. Even this day and age, some people still believe that whatever is printed in a newspaper must certainly be true and moreover that any opinion beamed out over the airwaves is no different must be the truth. Think about how many truly worthy causes advanced by completely healthy, 100% sane individuals do not get covered.

Adams then references Professor Jay Rosen of NYU, a man who has taken the media to the woodshed on numerous occasions before to highlight its severe failings.

Rosen talked about the difference between explanation leading to information and reporting raw information without explanation, leaving it to the reader to supply their own analysis, form their own opinion and divine for themselves the "truth" -- which more often than not allows the news consumer to cherry-pick that set of raw data they like and reinforces their strenuously held preconceptions and avoid critical thinking.

One of the most telling characteristics between amateurism and professionalism is that the former tends to, as Adams puts it, spew out disconnected blobs of information and the latter takes care to collect facts into a coherent whole and in so doing tell the truth as they saw it. While I admit that the medium of the internet encourages information vomiting rather than a well-researched, thoughtful, and carefully crafted presentation of the facts, it can be done, and many of the better blogs do an admirable job of it. Slovenly behavior in any occupation is never acceptable. I can't help but shake my head to note that with the rise of New Media we are dealing with the Age of the Amateur, for better or for worse. I would expect this with a uninformed bloggers who are more concerned with documenting their sex lives, daily drama, or responding to celebrity gossip, but when I note how closely the once-proud media resembles a personal platform for mindless self-gratification, I can't help but shake my head in disgust.

Next, Adams notes that print media cannot compete with the instant accessibility of the internet, but takes care to point out how it can thrive in spite of cyberspace.

Print can't compete with [internet based journalism], but its failure to sharpen it's most potent weapon against the digital encroachment -- truth-telling as opposed to information spewing -- is ignored at it's peril. Magazine formats seem better suited to this than daily papers, but unless reporters and editors are willing to admit they judge (and they do no matter how hard they avoid such appearances) and explain, they are doomed until they teach their customers how the facts they report fit into the larger scheme of things complete with reporting on what are fair yet contrary positions; yet unafraid of exposing mere obstructionists uninterested in solving problems while shouting down all who threaten the status quo that pays their rent.

This is something rarely seen in print, but more common there than cable news. However online in depth presentation of the overall narrative is much, much more common. Advertisers come and go with business cycles, but if print is to survive competition from the web just as it survived radio and TV, it's got to offer more than reporting that there is a controversy, noting which side is making sense and sincere in their arguments, and illuminating which side is using the media to blow smoke.

The old saying, "the problem with Communism is the Communists" seems applicable to this discussion, though I would, of course, modify it slightly to say that the problem with Journalism is the Journalists. Whether they will take constructive (not destructive) criticism like this from the twin forces of the substantive blogosphere and academia is entirely their decision. When I read over Mark W. Adams' post, I realize just how many of us are sounding the alarm in a million eloquent shades of the same very basic argument. When an entire profession's vulnerabilities are this plain to see, then one would think needed change would be on its way. The mainstream media can continue to exercise an obsessive degree of secrecy, or it can concede that it needs to set out on a painful, but nonetheless cathartic program of soul-searching.

As Professor Rosen points out in his own post,

In the normal hierarchy of journalistic achievement the most “basic” acts are reporting today’s news and providing current information, as with prices, weather reports and ball scores. We think of “analysis,” “interpretation,” and also “explanation” as higher order acts. They come after the news has been reported, building upon a base of factual information laid down by prior reports.

In this model, I would receive news about something brewing in the mortgage banking arena, and make note it. (“”Subprime lenders in trouble: check.”) Then I would receive some more news and perhaps keep an even closer eye on the story. After absorbing additional reports of ongoing problems in the mortgage market (their frequency serving as a signal that something is truly up) I might then turn to an “analysis” piece for more on the possible consequences, or perhaps a roundtable with experts on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer. I thus graduate from the simpler to the more sophisticated forms of news as I learn more about a potentially far-reaching development. That’s the way it works… right?

Wrong! For there are some stories—and the mortgage crisis is a great example—where until I grasp the whole I am unable to make sense of any part. Not only am I not a customer for news reports prior to that moment, but the very frequency of the updates alienates me from the providers of those updates because the news stream is adding daily to my feeling of being ill-informed, overwhelmed, out of the loop. I respond with indifference, even though I’ve picked up a blinking red light from the news system’s repeated placement of “subprime” items in front of me.

Or, to put it another way, the media would be well-advised to treat us like adults, not like children. One of the reasons I felt so strongly inspired by President Obama's speech on race during the primary campaign is that he talked to us, the American people, as though we were grown-ups and that through rational discourse we could form our own enlightened conclusions for ourselves. Franklin Delano Roosevelt did much the same thing in his series of radio broadcast fireside chats during the Depression. The MSM, however, has never quite grasped this concept. While they were quick to praise Obama's speech when it was delivered, few of them broke down the speech point by point. They were more inclined to say, "Listen to it yourself. It's on YouTube after all." Allow me to make a quick observation, if I may. If you ever want to be covered by the media, the WORST thing to say to a reporter is, "Well, I'm too busy to give you all the facts, but here, read my blog. All the answers you want are there." Whomever you're speaking to won't have the time nor will they have the inclination to do that much legwork. You'll be lucky if you get two sentences or ten seconds airtime, if that. Those who make it easy for the media and play by its rules almost always end up incorporated into a story or a piece.

Returning to Obama's speech and the coverage that followed it, if the media had adopted a different pose, then many viewers very well may have had their long-held assumptions challenged by the awesome power of pure logic and the magic that comes from understanding the bigger picture. Maybe that's incompatible with the current model, but I know also that models can be changed. I know some would argue that the American people would balk if all conventional news sources were made to be more like NPR or PBS. This is true, I suppose, but in my feeble power as minor league blogger, I challenge the industry to at least try intelligent discourse on for a while and if the demographics and ratings share comes out much lower than before, I suppose you can blame me for the suggestion. Aiming high certainly can't be any worse a strategy then what is already in place. As for aiming low, bad models and poor strategy aside, I'm not sure to what degree industry carelessness created by discouraged and resentful workers fearing the termination of their jobs is a variable here. If I knew my own job and my own head could be on the chopping block at any moment I suppose I'd probably not be particularly motivated to do good work, either.

And to conclude, I will refer back to Adams' post once more. Sloppy journalism or at least stymied journalism does no one any favors. Voices are always few and far between when a country is about to go to war and no one knows that better than a pacifist and Quaker like me. If the media truly is the gatekeeper extraordinaire and the blogsophere is the rotten vegetable throwing rabble, then where were the dissenting voices in the slow, inevitable build up to a destructive, costly, wasteful war?

For a recent example, it's fine that smug pundits now talk about revelations that the head of Homeland Security himself wondered about and eventually left the government because the color-coded terror alert system had been compromised by electoral politics, saying that everyone knew or at least suspected the Bush administration was abusing the system. But where were the intrepid journalists at the time, when it mattered, when we were being callously manipulated just as we had been manipulated by a lazy media leading up to the war in Iraq. It it was common knowledge, why did they let them get away with it?

To mirror Adams, this goes well beyond "news". This is where the romantic ideal of journalism and the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington ethos is supposed to step in to speak truth to power. In this instance, like so many others, the media dropped the ball, and through its inaction it produced an epic fail.

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