Monday, August 24, 2009

Where Have You Gone, Journalists?

Neal Gabler has some good points to make about the decline of journalism.

T.S. Eliot was wrong. August is the cruelest month. As we head toward next month’s congressional face-off on a national healthcare bill, the news media are infatuated with town hall meetings. Over and over, we see angry citizens screaming about a Big Government takeover of the healthcare system, shouting that they will lose their insurance or be forced to give up their doctors and denouncing “death panels” that will euthanize old people.

Of course, none of this is even remotely true. These are all canards peddled by insurance companies terrified of losing their power and profits, by right-wing militants terrified of a victory for the president they hate and by the Republican Party, which has been commandeered by the insurance industry and the militants. But the lies have obviously had their effect. Recent polls show that support for healthcare reform — reform that would insure more Americans, would force insurance companies to cover preexisting conditions and prevent them from capriciously terminating coverage, and would provide competition to drive down costs — is rapidly eroding.

Maybe Americans should know better. Maybe they shouldn’t fall for the latest imbecilic propaganda and scare tactics. Maybe. But a citizenry is only as well-informed as the quality of information it receives. One can’t expect Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin or the Republican Party or even the Democrats to provide serious, truthful assessments of a complex health plan. Truth has to come from somewhere else — from a reliable, objective, trustworthy source.

It isn’t all the fault of the media — journalists — that the message has gotten muddled or treated with passive objectivity, relying on little more than a they said/they said tactic, which allowed talking heads with carefully coached and focus-group tested sound bites to say their piece and leave it there. After all, when someone comes on TV, sounds convincing and uses a catch phrase like “death panels” or “socialized medicine,” what the heck? You’ve got your story, and there’s neither the time nor the incentive to question their claims or do your own work.

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.

One of the core reasons might have something to do with the fact that news is now seen as prime time entertainment, replacing sitcoms and dramas on broadcast TV with their own core of comedy and emotion on programs like The O’Reilly Factor and Countdown. Why watch Two and Half Men when you can watch Pat Buchanan, Glenn Beck, and William Kristol ruminate about Barack Obama’s birth certificate? And conversely, why does it take The Daily Show to provide more in-depth insight into what is actually in the healthcare bills than what you find on the round table on ABC’s This Week?

This isn’t meant to let the Obama administration off the hook for the flat-footed response they’ve offered in response to the coordinated attacks by the insurance industry and the wing-nuts who are still whistling “Dixie” over the election of a black man as president. It’s not like they weren’t warned before the election and during the dress rehearsals of the “teabaggers” in April. And it is always easier to put on the loop of a clip of someone waving an Obama-as-Hitler poster than it is to actually dig into the proposed bill and find out that most of the claims being brought up are bogus, exaggerations, or willful ignorance.

Telling the truth requires shoe leather. It requires digging up facts that aren’t being handed to you, talking to experts, thinking hard about what you find. This isn’t easy. It takes time and energy as well as guts, especially when there are conflicting studies, as there are on healthcare. But finally, we may not have a journalism of truth because we haven’t demanded one. Many of us are invested in one side of the story; we are for Obama or against him, for healthcare reform or against it. These are a priori positions. Truth won’t change them.

Yet the danger of not insisting on the truth in a brave new world of constant lies is that it subjects our policies to whichever side shouts the loudest or has the most money to spend to mislead us. That is likely to lead to disastrous governance: a needless war, a great recession, a continuation of a failing healthcare system.

What is ironic is that in an age when we are surrounded by the technology that could provide us with instant communication, it’s harder than ever to know the truth. Perhaps that’s because the journalists who used to do that are relying on the same sources their readers are and leaving it to bloggers to do their fact-checking for them (in spite of the fact that some “journalists” don’t think bloggers do any fact-checking at all). They don’t call out obvious falsehoods and repeated talking points, they’re not stunned and sickened by people brandishing automatic weapons at a presidential event, and they don’t point out to people like Joe Scarborough that when he says the both sides are equally responsible for the breakdown in civil discourse, he’s full of it. That’s not reporting; that’s stenography, and it’s a disservice to their craft and democracy.