3/28/2005

The media and "balance"

From an excellent post on the blog of journalist David Neiwart:
A lot of people see the Schiavo case as a kind of tipping point in the Culture War, though exactly what kind depends on the perspective. My old friend Danny Westneat at the Seattle Times sees it as the demise of the conservative movement. Tristero goes even farther, declaring it the point at which we jumped the shark into full-fledged fascism. Even the normally reserved editorial pages of the Los Angeles Times (which called it a "constitutional coup d'etat") and the New York Times were alarmed by the behavior of Republicans in this matter:
President Bush and his Congressional allies have begun to enunciate a new principle: the rules of government are worth respecting only if they produce the result we want. It may be a formula for short-term political success, but it is no way to preserve and protect a great republic.

Most of the well-earned opprobrium has been directed at the politicians in this fiasco. But just as worthy for its behavior has been the nation's supposedly "mainstream" media -- because its handling of the Schiavo case has revealed, irrevocably, the utter bankruptcy of what it nowadays calls "balance." As much as right-wing politicians have leapt into the breach to exploit Terri Schiavo for their own purposes, it's the media who have driven the story incessantly. Feeding frenzies are typically the product of two common traits of editors and producers: a pack mentality, and a craven impulse to provide the public with stories they think will drive up their respective shares of the audience. The former often leads them to misjudge the latter, as in the Schiavo case: It's clear that the public's disgust with the politicians' behavior is primarily over their grotesque invasion of an agonizing private family matter, and on that score, the media's behavior is even more reprehensible. What is especially appalling about the media treatment of the Schiavo case is how ardently, and unmistakably, it has adopted the supposedly "pro life" side of the argument. This ranges from outrageous bomb-throwing like that from Fox's John Gibson, to fingerpointing from MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, and Rush Limbaugh, to subtler bias like the omnipresent "Fight For Terri" label that is being used by half the networks to accompany their coverage logos. We're seeing reporters credulously refer to highly dubious medical claims waved by Schiavo's parents -- including the recent claim that she indicated to them she did not want her tube removed -- as though they had anything other than the thinnest veneer of truth to them. We're watching news anchors openly accuse Michael Schiavo of being a bad husband. If there's a propaganda line out there that isn't being parroted in the mainstream media as fact, it might only be Bo Gritz's buffoonery. And they're working on that. They're wallowing in it. Cheering it on. Even if it is only the viewpoint of about 20 percent of the country, at best, that politicians and reporters have any business, as Knute Berger put it, poking their ugly noses inside the dying room. This is the way "balance" manifests itself in journalism nowadays. Now, there is such a thing as real balance. Real balance is a genuine striving for truth: a willingness to both recognize and honestly explore the multiplicity of viewpoints as well as facts that are part of the naturally complex nature of truth. It is complicated and hard work. Of course, real, hard truth is elusive and rare; but the striving is what brings us closer to it. However, a genuine balance does not countenance obvious falsehoods where it encounters them. It does not treat misinformation as a legitimate "counter" to reasonably established facts, as though a falsehood were just another opinion. It does not put lies on an even footing with facts. Unfortunately, that is exactly what we have gotten, in increasing doses, as standard practice from the nation's press for the past decade. As I argued previously regarding the growth of "intelligent design" as a right-wing religious stratagem:
The key piece of illogic is one that has especially lodged itself in the media in recent years: The notion that a demonstrably true fact can be properly countered by a demonstrably false one -- and that the two, placed side by side, represent a kind of "balance" in the national discourse. This is the Foxcist model of Newspeak, in which "fair and balanced" comes to mean its exact opposite.

This kind of "balance" is a direct product of the right-wing myth of the "liberal media". Having worked in the media for many years, I can attest that it may often exhibit a bias, but it is not a liberal one; it is a self-interested one. And having dealt with many ideologues of all stripes in my various media capacities over the years, one of the distinguishing characteristics of movement conservatives that I observed is their knee-jerk and oft-shouted belief that any position contrary to or critical of their official party line is, by definition, "liberal." What "balance" has become, in essence, is a fig leaf for broadcasting falsehoods on behalf of right-wing propaganda efforts. In the process, it has become a major means for transmitting extremist beliefs into the mainstream. The Schiavo matter is only the most prominent recent example of this.

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