Tuesday, September 25

De-Bunker Mentality

LET'S see if I've managed to keep it all straight: 1) Richard Nixon, whose relationship with the Press was basically the same as a suburban pool owner's relationship to green algae, uses the Bully Pulpit to complain about Liberal media bias. 2) The Press, basically, folds faster than Superman on laundry day. 3) In an era which had begun with Joe McCarthy's list of 1,264 365 283 197 101 84 47 maybe two dozen some names, continued with widespread opposition to civil rights, integration, the rights of the accused, and the elimination of forced prayer in the public schools; nuclear brinkmanship, repeated US military intervention in Central and South America, including a disastrous invasion of Cuba, sclerotic support for an ill-conceived colonial war in Indochina, and an ill-conceived expansion of the same in the face of assured calamity, "balance" requires either a willingness to lie outright or a new definition of reportage, both of which come into fashion. 4) The new definition junks outdated pre-war notions of "facts" and "reality" for a semi-scrupulous insistence on quoting someone laying out a particular position, or seeming to, which is then "balanced" by finding someone to say the opposite, or finding someone who could be defined as the speaker's opposite and having him say anything at all. 5) By the same process by which we can boil frogs without their realizing it, this became the standard for reporting what had formerly been called "news", and as a result, by the early 80s an issue--oh, let's say "abortion rights"--on which there was a clear majority opinion became "controversial", requiring 50% of the time be devoted to 33% of the respondents. * 6) Further, the minority opinion was not subjected to the same process in reverse; it was allowed to spray-paint its message and move along. Therefore, to pick an issue--let's say "abortion rights"--spokesmen for the anti-abortion position were allowed to remain mum about the question of contraception, to the point that their objection to the latter--which is indistinguishable from the moral objections to abortion itself, but viewed by the general public as decidedly more Batshit Fucking Insane--bubbled into public consciousness only after such people had reached such positions of power that they felt nothing could stop them anymore. 7) Sometime after four Presidential terms handed over to bug-witted serial prevaricators interspaced with two terms mostly dedicated to examining, re-examining, and re-examining x infinity the adolescent fantasies of members of that party regarding the penis of a President from the other, the Press tumbles onto this. 8) As a result, a couple of outlets decide to devote a few column inches to examining the "truth" of various remarks made by the likes of Mikes Gravel or Huckabee. 9) Which leads Slate's Jack Shafer to pat his profession on the back for its new, if not quite tireless, dedication to the role of watchdog.

I think that's it.

Once again, we offer no explanation for having read Slate. Still, we weren't going to let our slight discomfort at the trashy surroundings prevent us from sampling the wares, especially when we read this:
PolitiFact, headed by St. Pete Times Washington Bureau Chief Bill Adair, draws on two dozen editors, researchers, and writers from the St. Pete Times and CQ to focus on presidential candidates. Many PolitiFact investigations end up in the St. Pete Times and CQ. The Truth-O-Meter at PolitiFact runs from True to Mostly True to Half-True to Barely True to False to Pants on Fire! So far in the presidential campaign, Bill Richardson, Mike Gravel, and Joe Biden have earned Pants on Fire! grades.

Two dozen professionals from the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly, and so far they've nailed...three also-rans, all Democrats? So I click on over and find:

Bill Richardson's pants are ablaze because he said something about The Lord wanting Iowa to be the first caucus in the country. He said this to Iowans who came out to hear Bill Richardson, and who--one suspects--have a different sense of humor than your average Washington Bureau chief. The folks in "St. Pete" consulted a batch of Biblical and legal scholars, thus pointing us in the direction of a leg pull (we were already looking), though we're not sure all the scholars were in on the joke. But, y'know, if you can't get the thing off the ground without sniggering in-jokes about the concept, maybe it belonged in the trash.

Biden gets the hook for saying "The president is brain-dead", which violates the long-standing rule of comedy that you do not riff on taking something literally when no one obviously would, unless the target is yourself. They might have at least called in a doctor for a comment, but instead it's a used-teabag "we don't think Biden performed the necessary tests," which reinforces the idea that you imagine that we can be persuaded to imagine that he imagined he was being literally true.

Finally there's Mike Gravel. Mike Gravel you fact-check, the Bush administration invades Iraq without you noticing. Gravel is stomped for saying that 70% of the prison population is African-American. It's forty! Damn you, it's forty!

It seems this lifetime will not be enough to escape the peculiar American compulsion to hand out numerical rankings to Everything (Best Fascist Dictator, Aldoph Hitler! Woody's most durable joke), and journalist judging panels seem unable to avoid the TV Guide™ Top 50 Sitcoms of All-Time approach, where a group of people get together and never establish criteria for the thing they're ranking. The distinction between the merely Totally False and Pants on Fire! is, let us say, less than clear. Guiliani's statement that the Clinton health plan is "socialized medicine", for example, registers Complete Falseness, but his trousers fail to ignite. Gravel's Liar! status draws this explanation:
We're giving Gravel our harshest ruling because he botched this fact so badly and because it's such an important one to get right. It's something of a popular myth that most of the people in jail or prison are black, so to hear a presidential candidate make the false claim with such authority should not be overlooked.

Are other candidates' misstatements made with less authority? Is the racial makeup of the prison population more important than global warming, where Tom Tancredo gets a simple False, sans Trouser Combustion, for claiming there's no scientific consensus? Was it "really important" the nation realize that Joe Biden did not personally perform a neurological examination of the President, too, lest he (under Totally False pretenses) begin to pick up the There's A Guy I'd Like To Have a Beer and Discuss My Subarachnoid Haematoma With vote?

And another thing: it's not unreasonable to suggest that Gravel may have misspoken (he had the other two facts he mentioned correct, which in every other instance at the St. Pete Times gets you partial credit). There's no mention made of them contacting the Senator to see if he'd admit to or explain his error. On the other hand, Tancredo's comments leave no room for wriggle; the false statement is his entire point. And while we're at it, let's consider the possible consequences of a) a President or b) his audience believing these falsehoods. Tancredo could, and presumably would, veto legislation aimed at ameliorating a problem which is in fact, scientifically conceded. He could refuse to enforce existing laws, scuttle international cooperation, and continue appointing members of the dog family to the Henhouse Guards. For that matter he could devote his Presidency to endless coast-to-coast trips in Air Force One just for the shear joy of creating greenhouse gasses. What, on the other hand, is President Gravel going to do about his erroneous belief? Issue wholesale pardons to African-Americans until the ratio is to his liking? Vow to appoint strict-constructivist judges who believe Killing Whitey is only 3/5 of a crime?

It's wrong that one come away from a presidential debate with the idea that 70% of the prison population is African-American or that there's an even split among climatologists about the reality of global climate change. But the former (Gravel being correct about the explosive growth of the prison population in the past thirty-five years) leads us to think about the causes of a perceived social ill, while the latter suggests we get back to our naps while a vital Republican constituency enriches itself some more at our expense. Who's the liar, again?

We're all for people tracking down the truthfulness of politician's public utterances. In fact we remember quite fondly when that fell under the rubric of "Journalism", and didn't require smarmy little attention-grabbers taken half in jest. Still, it's good to see some small step in that direction, and the sheepish, or tacit, admission that grading Presidential debates on the color palates of the candidates is a noble experiment whose object--a two-term Bush presidency--has been somewhat less successful than imagined.

UPDATE: Rudy's pants catch fire, in the interim, for saying he imagines himself to be "one of the four or five best-known Americans in the world". This is disproved using Google search results, as Joe Biden was apparently unavailable to perform an examination of Hizzoner's imagination.

READER ASSIST: Hogan notes in the comments that the Bureau of Justice Statistics figures--the ones the St. Peterers admonished Gravel for not reading deeply enough, have it that 70% of our prison population is non-white. Who's the liar? indeed.

* Incidentally, we admit our description is approximate, not adequate, as, for example, Ronald Wilson Reagan could snooze through two terms in the White House with disapproval numbers frequently far exceeding those of Abortion on Demand, and yet be so thoroughly, even reverently, portrayed as the Savior of Western Civilization that "Wildly Popular" might as well have appended itself to his Christian name.


Randal Graves said...

But the former (Gravel being correct about the explosive growth of the prison population in the past thirty-five years) leads us to think about the causes of a perceived social ill

"I tried thinking once, but it hurt, so I just turned on FoxNews. Ah, the soothing sounds of a bloviating ocean of, er, white, noise."

Hogan said...

70% of the prison population is non-white, according to that BJS report, which would explain where he got the number. But why bother trying to explain what a crazy old man says? Crazy old man!

Fishbone McGonigle said...

St. Pete. That's what we call it here. No need to put it in quotes.

Besides, it's not nearly as gay (and not in a good way) as "Chi-town."

D. Sidhe said...

Pretty much everything you have observed here is the direct result of how our media make money. They get bucks from advertisers. Advertisers are happiest when people are reading stories about how to fix up your new home, where to find your new car, which cleaning items are the best, which cosmetics, diets, clothes, pets, furniture, appliances, computers, etc you should own. And also about the scary crimes that happen nowhere near you but kind of make you start thinking about putting in a security system to protect all of the aforementioned consumer goods anyway.

What advertisers don't like is investigative reporting, which tells people what they the advertisers are doing wrong, or big issue stories on things like peak oil and the housing bust, or just in general controversy. Anything that makes people uncomfortable or encourages cynicism makes people not want to shop.

So you fire all those expensive reporters who irritate the advertisers and cause people to cancel their subscriptions, and you spend most of your time reprinting press releases.

But if you don't at least pretend you're covering news, people stop reading and more importantly stop looking at your ads. So you cover the news in a way which minimizes controversy and which also means that even your newest copy can do it.

In other words, you uncritically write down quotes. And to keep it from being controversial and yet allow the illusion you're doing your job, you write down quotes from people who say the opposite, too.

If you fact check at all, you do so with the easy, unarguable stuff: this statistic is self-evidently wrong, potato is not spelled with an E, this statement is unquestionably boneheaded.

You don't delve into whether some country has tons of anthrax, because no one really knows for sure, and even finding a persuasive case one way or the other is going to involve a lot of expensive reporting.

In this environment, columnists who say what The Powers That Be are saying, and ones who say what the majority of your active readers agree with anyway, can run riot. You can have a little controversy in opinion: You can have a Paul Krugman here, a Carl Hiaasen there, as long as they have a good, active readership, and as long as they're basically a marketing ploy.

I love Keith Olbermann, but his Special Comments are pimped days in advance. That's good marketing, and somewhat incidentally is also contrary opinion production. If you keep it rare enough, it is guaranteed ratings from progressives who are desperate for any scrap of anything that's not wholly offensive.

The ratings increase, the largely unrepresented views are thrown a bone, the medium can declare itself objective or balanced, and the advertisers are happy.

This has been going on for a long time, and it's not likely to get better. I've been suggesting for years that the next journalistic phase will simply be PR News. You'll still get some columnists with their wacky opinions, but mostly it will be wall-to-wall press releases. And with corporations and think tanks and campaigns of all stripes and assorted advocacy organizations cheerfully issuing press releases and ready-made stories and interviews about every subject under the sun, you can pretty much fire everybody but the typesetters.

Imagine the profits then!

Julia said...

knowwhut, D? I'm more of a cynic than you are. I think they make most of their money these days from deregulation and gutting the outlets they wouldn't have been allowed to purchase in saner days, and they've decided to support the folks who are more than happy to see them do that in return for unthinking support.

On the bright side, Miss America says she wants to be a respected journalist, not like Katie Couric.

Oh, and model.

D. Sidhe said...

Probably. My jaundiced view of the media is somewhat frozen at the point where I stopped being involved with it. Certainly consolidation allows them to fire more reporters and produce what is essentially a fill-in-the-blanks local paper or newscast, thereby squeezing even more profit from it. And obviously it allows them to set ad prices higher than they could if there was actual competition. And I'm guessing our new media barons push policies that make them rich in myriad other ways that are not directly related to media ownership.

Mind you, I laugh hysterically every time an outlet promises us that they don't actually take money for passing along press releases.

Grace Nearing said...

The only reports I see on the TeeVee that I believe without hesitation are the weekly school lunch menus scrolled on the municipal channel.

Unless there's a sudden shortage of tater-tots, those menus are never wrong.