Friday, January 20, 2006

A Complicit Media

I've long wondered why the media did such a poor job of doing what I thought it should be doing i.e. reporting the facts, providing analysis and sharing expert opinion. Too often we get, at best, only some of the facts and worse, often it's just talking points, spin and outright lies.

Why was this happening? I've heard the conspiracy theories and, while there are individual examples where I think this is the case, I think that the bulk of the explanation lies elsewhere. You may find it easier to see if you think of the news media as being part of the entertainment business. They make money by selling advertising and they sell advertising by having as large an audience as possible and they secure this by presenting material to which their audiences will pay attention. Sadly, "if it bleeds it leads" and "sex sells" are as true as ever and this lowest-common-denominator diet is the order of the day but the audience has no one to blame but themselves because they don't care enough to demand something better.

Investigative reporting is hard work and it's expensive whereas printing press releases is cheap and easy. Whatever the media business can do to achieve its operational goals -- turning a profit and expanding its market share -- they will do regardless of whether it does a good job of informing their audiences. I can hear them saying: "This is entertainment not school! Give the rubes whatever they want, whatever the advertisers will pay for".

So how do Bush and his cronies deal with the challenge of getting and keeping power when the majority of the public is ill-served by them? -- by distracting and confusing them. If Bush gets enough bamboozlement out there, the rubes will say: aw, they're all corrupt liars and then go back to watching "reality" TV. They accomplish this with strict message discipline -- a core group spreads the talking points and the rest of the talking heads repeat it.

Fortunately there are a few exceptions every once and a while. The hubris of those who have got away with unprecedented degrees of corruption for so long that they don't even hide it anymore, has made it relatively easy to find evidence of their wrong-doing. The additional fact that the exposure of corruption is good for ratings means that there is starting to be some coverage. However, without a responsible media, able to withstand the effects of bamboozlement, it's difficult to keep the public well enough informed to demand good government and justice.

There have been several great posts lately on the theme of the complicit media and here are a few I would encourage you to read:

Jane Hamsher at FireDogLake excoriates the WaPo over its handling the complicit behaviour of its ombudsman and the paper's handling of the fallout. In the post she calls Combating Zombie Journalism she also shares some good news about how the blogosphere has helped.

Go read guest blogger Zachary Roth, at Political Animal, as he takes issue with this report in The Hill.
"With reporting like this, it'’s not hard to see how the GOP thought it could get away this stuff in the first place".

Brad DeLong hammers the WaPo in a post he calls What Is Wrong with the Culture of the Washington Post? wherein he shares a letter he wrote to Ruth Marcus at WaPo concerning why he "found it impossible to believe that they [reporters at WaPo] were "trying, hard, to do their jobs."

Josh Marshall provides yet another example of the complicit media:

In the bizarre AP piece I referenced below there's this surreal passage ...

The Abramoff investigation threatens to ensnare at least a half dozen members of Congress of both parties and Bush administration officials. Abramoff, who has admitted to conspiring to defraud his Indian tribe clients, has pleaded guilty to corruption-related charges and is cooperating with prosecutors.

With the midterm elections 10 months away, Democrats have tried to link Abramoff to Republicans, the main recipients of his largesse.

At least half a dozen members of both parties.

That's quite a line. We're just on the outer edge of this investigation. And I'm certainly not willing to claim or predict that no Democrat, either in or out of Congress, will be taken down.

But to the best of my knowledge no credible claim has been made that any Democrat is even under investigation in the Abramoff scandal, let alone facing potential indictment. At least half a dozen Republicans have been so named in press reports, with varying degrees of specificity. The sentence is a plain statement of misinformation posing as news reportage.

Then comes the next line -- that Democrats are trying to link Abramoff with Republicans. This is like when Republicans tried to link James Carville to Democrats. Link him to Republicans? He's been a professional Republican and major GOP power-player for a quarter-century.

All the factual claims noted here in this article appear to be willful distortions, or statements with omissions so great as to be meant to confuse.

How can the public know what's happening in their government when the reporters of the news seem so bent on misleading them?


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