Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Sunday, August 23, 2009 7:53 pm

Journalism sucks …

Filed under: Journalism — Lex @ 7:53 pm

… at least as it is widely practiced in America:

… so much of political journalism consists of pontification by people who have supposedly been around and understand how things work — and yet they’re constantly stunned when history repeats itself in the most predictable of ways.

And the latest realization that has so many reporters flabbergasted: the misinformation has worked! People believe falsehoods about health care! Many people don’t even know basic facts about the current system!

Gee, you don’t say? Many people don’t know the basic facts about anything. That’s one of the basic facts of American democracy. And when people are repeatedly told things that aren’t true by people they trust, they tend to believe those things. That’s one of the basic facts of … people.

Surely reporters — whose jobs, after all, involve communicating with the public — are aware of these basic facts of life? Surely they’ve heard the expression about a lie making it halfway around the world before the truth has time to get its boots on? So why are they so surprised? Particularly when they’ve spent the bulk of the health care debate talking about politics and polls and chattering endlessly about who is “winning the message war” rather than repeatedly and clearly explaining to viewers the facts about health care.

Just look at the way much of the media have reacted to the belated realization that the public is woefully misinformed: By speculating — sorry, “analyzing” — why this is the case, and guessing — sorry, “analyzing” — whether the White House can develop a “message” that “works.” And what aren’t they doing in reaction to this realization? Clearly and repeatedly explaining the facts. And they’re surprised people don’t know the truth. Unbelievable.

In fact, it is the media’s behavior that has made this summer’s madness inevitable. When they let the loudest yellers and most audacious liars drive the discourse, they guarantee that people who can’t win on the merits will yell and lie. When they focus on politics rather than policy, they guarantee the public will remain in the dark about basic facts. When they repeat false claims, or treat them as he-said, she-said situations, they guarantee that those false claims will sway confused citizens. When they continue to give a platform to people who have a history of lying — and assume those people are telling the truth this time — they guarantee those people will continue to lie.

As long as the media approach their jobs this way, we’re going to see the same thing play out over and over again. And each time, the media will be shocked — shocked — that some people lie, and other people believe lies.

If the journalism bidness gave a damn for its customers’ well-being, it would gauge its performance on the basis of how well informed the populace is and adjust its performance accordingly. In no developed country in the universe should any significant number of people have been able to believe, years after the fact, that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. But if the journalism bidness did anything at all in reaction to this travesty, it was to blame it on those scruffy, undisciplined, unserious bloggers.


  1. Howie’s frequently stunned when he, supposedly the nation’s pre-eminent press critic and therefore someone who supposedly should have some idea how the press does and does not work, has no right to be.

    A few thoughts:

    1) Because people have short, fragmented attention spans, repetition works, and the “death panels” meme was repeated far more than the knockdowns were. Sometimes journalism, to serve the audience, must morph into rumor control, which requires a ton more repetition. Kurtz in particular should know that; in fact, I would argue that he does and is just being disingenuous, to save some friends some face, when he says, “But the media HAVE written stories with the facts!”

    2) National news media are, as Foser writes, much more into covering the conflict than covering the substance. This the news becomes “How will the ‘death panels’ issue affect the chances of a bill’s passing Congress?” rather than “Why are so many prominent people, almost exclusively Republicans, repeating something about the health-care bill that is flatly not true?”

    3) Not everyone, particularly Fox, has been knocking the meme down. And Fox has a particularly bad record on this. If you Google it or look on, you’ll find the poll that reported that Fox viewers were dramatically more likely to believe Saddam had something to do with 9/11 than viewers of other media.

    4) Way too little attention has been paid to the facts that a) a LOT of the opposition has been ginned up by professional organizers with industry backing, b) some of the genuinely grass-roots opposition is ill-focused, so that if you question people, you find that what’s REALLY bothering them is, when they reflect on it a second, not necessarily what they SAY is bothering them. (For example, some of the teabaggers, originally organized as anti-tax advocates, actually were most pissed off about bank bailouts/banker bonuses, or what the stimulus package was going to do to the deficit, or some other subject related either tenuously or not at all. I’ve seen some of this with health care, although not a whole lot.)

    5) Americans in general know way too little about their history and government, and that’s the fault of parents and schools more than the media. When you treat the world to the spectacle of Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries screaming imprecations against “socialism,” you really should feel a well-developed case of national embarrassment.

    6) Kurtz gets paid the big bucks to do the reading, so I really don’t care to hear him complain about how complicated the bills are.

    7) Always, ALWAYS be skeptical when anyone quotes Peggy Noonan favorably, because her strength, to the extent she has one, is flowery rhetoric, not logic. If you take her at her word, the best argument that can be made for health-care reform would be something along the lines of, “We’re going to take Medicare, which everyone pretty much loves, and just extend it to everyone regardless of age.” But wouldn’t that be single-payer? Why, yes, yes, it would — and she opposes that. Whoops!

    You judge a program on its merits, not on whether it’s easy to explain. A good journalist, as Kurtz claims to be, can make complex topics easy to understand, particularly when he/she repeats the key points often enough.

    8) As a rule, the Democrats’ best “message people” are those generally forced to the sidelines because they’re more liberal than the centrists currently running the party. They fight rhetoric wars with both hands tied behind their backs. The journalists behave as if each party is making the best argument it can and “covers” issues accordingly, too often in he-said, she-said fashion without much effort to get at any objective truths that might exist.

    9) Kurtz’s willingness to give credence to the suggestion from Politico that Obama’s trying to do too much too fast fails to provide adequate context, which is 1) that the country is in the biggest mess since the Depression, 2) all this talk of “green shoots” is a crock, for reasons I’ve pointed out elsewhere on the blog, 3) the preceding administration left behind such a large group of serious problems that a lot of action is required in a lot of areas, very soon. Obama is playing the hand he was dealt and, if anything, he isn’t playing it quickly and aggressively enough (e.g., torture and the larger issue of govt. transparency), and 4) absent major health-care reform, U.S. business will be at a significant competitive disadvantage relative to most other industrialized countries and this is not a problem we can wait another generation to fix.

    Comment by Lex — Monday, August 24, 2009 11:35 am @ 11:35 am

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