jump to navigation

For Sale: The Fourth Estate April 15, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Election, Media, Politics.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

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.

Listening makes me want to run harder. Looking makes me want to keep running.

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.

Fox News created the tea party movement. That isn't news reporting, it's news-making. That is not what media outlets do.

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.

Sunlight: The 2nd Best Disinfectant February 26, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Media, Politics.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

“Transparency” is tossed around Washington like the solution to all our problems.  But what good is a window if nobody is looking through it?  Citizens today are inundated by so much information that we must rely on others to sort and interpret the news that is actually relevant to us.  And in our politicized country, most of us receive governmental news from outlets at least slightly skewed towards our preexisting views.

I’m a liberal.  When a Republican says something outrageous, I know about it immediately thanks to Media Matters and the rest of the liberal blogosphere.  But when a Democrat makes an equivalent mistake, I may not even find out.  The big slips make national news, covered by the “balanced” mainstream media, but the more mundane mistruths fly under the radar.  The little lies about a particular bill.  The deliberately distorted talking points that obstruct well-intentioned legislation.  The average person does not hear about the everyday dishonesty that has crippled our democracy today.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously opined, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”  So we have multiple C-SPAN channels, the Freedom Of Information Act and more political reporting than would seem possible.  There is so much information available in the name of transparency that no single person could ever hope to monitor politics casually; that’s a full-time job.

How many ordinary people actually watch C-SPAN?  Virtually none*.  The cameras are almost always on, but nobody watches directly.  We all rely on dedicated observers to tell us if something of note happened in Congress.  So because we get our political news pre-spun and, more importantly, pre-filtered, few people get the full picture.

As a result, I would argue that sunlight is not the best disinfectant.  The blinding brightness of all this transparency has actually forced us to shield our eyes and turn away.  Too much of a good thing has had the exact opposite effect as intended.  It is true that sunlight stops the big schemes, like Watergate.  Yet more often, sunlight just provides fodder for the politically-hyped fake scandals, like “Climate-gate.”

There isn't really any useful imagery for this post, so here's a pretty picture of sunlight.

I’m not advocating for increased secrecy, I would merely like to point out that we have just witnessed the demonstration of a much more powerful force in the name of good governance: public viewership.

Despite its shortcomings, yesterday’s Healthcare Summit hosted by President Obama was something different.  Yes, it initially appeared to be an interlocking presentation of talking points, but 3-4 hours in, something interesting began to happen.  Unexpected areas of agreement appeared.  Sensible minority proposals met with majority support.  Progress was taking place.

In our toxic political climate, it is worth asking, “what was different?”  Why can’t such dialogue and rational policy debate take place in Congress, the body created for that express purpose?  Having the President there to babysit likely helped, but much more important was the fact that the country was watching.

Events that people watch in person are much less susceptible to spin because we form our own opinions on the spot. That is supposed to be the driving force of a free country: the will of the people, not the mantra of the shepherd with the largest, mindless flock.

I have no doubt that either side could strategically excerpt yesterday’s proceedings to make their opponents look foolish, and that almost certainly happened.  But when the public tunes in directly, politicians are once again restrained by a sense of accountability – the same accountability that objective media coverage, which is often necessarily “unbalanced,” used to provide.

The Healthcare Summit was not a turning point in our country.  The politics have not changed, even for healthcare, and the public is not about to become involved in everyday politics (nor, frankly, should they have to be).  But this did remind us, for a few hours, that productive political dialogue can occur – if we, the people, demand it of our elected representatives.

*Digging a little deeper, it appears that C-SPAN does actually have significant viewership.  That’s news to me, but I think my main point stands.