For Sale: The Fourth Estate April 15, 2010Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Election, Media, Politics.
Tags: Alan Grayson, Balanced Media, CNN, Elections, Erick Erickson, Fox, Fox News, Glenn Beck, Joe Wilson, Journalism, Mainstream Media, Media, Media Bias, MSNBC, Partisanship, polarization, Politics, spin
In a classroom, if you present an argument, it is expected to be logically sound. If it’s not, you can expect to be called out for that. As a [relatively] recent college graduate, it has been disheartening to discover that those expectations do not extend to important places off-campus. Like our government.
I now live in Washington, DC, the front-line of a polarized America. And from the floor of the Senate to the op-ed page of the Washington Post, I am disgusted by the deliberate mistruths and toxicity that have polluted the national dialogue. Name your issue, they’re there.
I have taken to watching Fox News at the gym; say what you will about Glenn Beck, but I have yet to find anything that keeps me as fired up – provided I can overcome the urge to assure passersby that I am not a Tea Partier. But if you actually watch the programs, it becomes clear that these talk shows are a cleverly wielded and dangerously effective political tool.
It is true that MSNBC runs similarly structured programming and is guilty of some of the same partisan tactics. Both “news” organizations should clean up their acts. But MSNBC does not operate with Fox’s defiant shamelessness, and ideological opposition does not automatically confer equivalency.
Many people I’ve talked to argue that Fox News is irrelevant because it yells into its own echo chamber and thus does not affect moderate, independent or undecided voters anyways. But even if I were to concede that premise, in the media’s current state, I have to disagree with the conclusion.
Last year, I lamented Fox’s apparent victory as the mainstream media embraced “balance” as their primary value, unseating objective accuracy. Consider a linear spectrum from liberal to conservative. As long as balance trumps accuracy, whenever conservatives dive to the right, no matter how outrageous the claim, media outlets must move at least half as far in that direction to stay in the center. That taints everybody’s news.
Instead of trying to perfectly straddle that mobile center, media outlets have increasingly drawn upon punditry; pair each comment from the left with a comment from the right and you have ostensibly achieved balance – at the expense of the truth. Case-in-point: CNN’s recent hiring of the despicable, foul-mouthed conservative blogger Erick Erickson.
If the news is just a soapbox for politicos and outlets are afraid to call out disprovable lies, the system has collapsed.
When the now infamous Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) interrupted President Obama, he didn’t yell, “I have statistical data that casts your theory into doubt!” A baseless claim, “you lie!” now suffices as a political riposte. And the solution to this behavior is not an equally extreme liberal demagogue like Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL). Just tell the truth!
The nastiness of our political discourse is unprecedented, but not inexplicable. Our two-party system has had this all-out combative capability since Jefferson and Adams. It has just been held in check by the media…until now.
With its financial survival threatened, American journalism has sold out and compromised its ideals. Accusations of media partisanship have begun to stick partly because they’ve begun to be true. And with its objectivity in question, one of our government’s most important safeguards has failed: the loss of accountability is to blame for our current political climate.
Politicians used to be restrained by unbiased fact-checking and investigative journalism. Trusted, objective news coverage once held extreme rhetoric in check. Today, American news outlets are either perversely partisan or utterly defanged. And when the referees are biased or silent, the game quickly turns violent.
Knowing what we’ve lost is the first step towards replacing it. But I’m not sure how to take the second. Journalism didn’t fall from grace because it grew tired of protecting of our democracy, it succumbed to increasing financial pressure and failed to adapt.
There is money to be made in opinion journalism because we, the public, are demanding it. So we must instead demand that news sources provide news, not spin or the political talking points du jour. If that means stop watching MSNBC and Fox News, we must do that too – I once managed to motivate myself without staring at Glenn Beck’s curvaceous bod, I can do it again.
Even if we cannot sway the national media, we are not powerless to turn back this ugly tide. We can’t pick the refs, but we can pick the players.
Believe it or not, it’s already another election year. Many primaries are just next month, and in November many of us will be able to elect a new U.S. Senator and Representative.
So let me be the first this year to say, “please vote.” As an official DC resident, I essentially no longer can. It’s one of the many things I miss that I was able to do in college.
A version of this post appeared in The Chronicle at Duke University.