Tag Archives: accuracy

Balancing Act

There may not be any sport in America more popular than media-bashing, and I am a frequent participant. We do live in a confusing, changing and sometimes overwhelming media environment; it sometimes seems we are “marinating” in information. In such an environment, it’s easy to lose sight of the differences between journalism, entertainment and propaganda– to forget what journalists are supposed to do and why it is that what they are supposed to do is so important.

The reason this country’s founders specifically protected journalism in the First Amendment is that we depend upon reporters to tell us what government is doing. If we don’t know what decisions are being made, what actions are being taken and who is taking them, we have no basis upon which to evaluate our elected officials, cast our votes or otherwise participate in self-government.

And that brings me to Fox News.

It’s bad enough that Fox is little more than a propaganda arm of the GOP, but I want to argue that slanting and misrepresenting reality isn’t the worst thing Fox has done. Fox has misrepresented the essential task of journalists. Its slogan, “Fair and Balanced” has led to a widespread understanding of journalism as stenography (he said/she said) and a belief that if a story isn’t “balanced,” it isn’t fair.

Should reporters investigate the claims of all sides of a dispute or controversy? Certainly. But they should do so in order to determine what the facts actually are, so that they can produce an accurate accounting of those facts. We count on reporters to investigate contending claims and perspectives  because we citizens have neither the time nor expertise to do so, and we rely on them to tell us whose claims are verifiable and accurate.

As British reporter Gavin Esler recently argued, how can any news organization “balance” the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion about vaccines or climate change with the crackpot anti-vaccine theories of Andrew Wakefield, or those who claim that climate change is “fake news”?  We don’t “balance” arguments on child protection by giving equal time and space to advocates of pedophilia.

Esler writes that we face a crisis in democracy, “because maintaining quaint ideas of ‘balance’ in a world filled with systematic disinformation is now an existential threat to the country we love, the Britain of the Enlightenment, a place of facts, science and reasoned argument.” That observation applies with equal force to the United States.

The Fox News version of balance plays to the anti-intellectualism that, as Isaac Asimov tellingly observed, has long been a part of American culture, “nourished by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

As David Niose wrote a few years ago in Psychology Today, anti-intellectualism is killing America.

In a country where a sitting congressman told a crowd that evolution and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” where the chairman of a Senate environmental panel brought a snowball into the chamber as evidence that climate change is a hoax, where almost one in three citizens can’t name the vice president, it is beyond dispute that critical thinking has been abandoned as a cultural value. Our failure as a society to connect the dots, to see that such anti-intellectualism comes with a huge price, could eventually be our downfall.

Americans desperately need good, responsible journalism. We also need to understand that good journalism strives for accuracy rather than “balance.”

And a little respect for competence and knowledge wouldn’t hurt.


Point Well Taken…

One of the websites I visit regularly is Talking Points Memo. Its editor, Josh Marshall, was a conventional journalist before establishing the online equivalent of a news site devoted to government and politics, and he employs staff reporters who are equally professional and credible.

In a recent column, Marshall reported on his participation in a CNN segment, and made a point about the accusation that this President routinely violates democratic norms–an issue that has certainly concerned me, and that has been a focus of criticisms leveled by numerous political scientists.

Marshall says we need to stop talking so much about norms.

But we need to stop talking so much about “norms”. And it’s not just CNN. The term has come up a number of times in our editorial conversations at TPM just today. I’ve talked about them. But we need to stop talking so much about norms. Because it doesn’t capture what is happening or the situation we’re in. In every kind of communication, clarity is the most important thing. By talking so much about “norms” and the violation of “norms” we’re confusing the situation and even confusing ourselves.

“Norms” aren’t laws for a reason. They are like bumpers on the roads of our civic and political life which are there to keep people of basically good faith from crossing lines they shouldn’t cross. They can also be warning posts so others can see when someone is either going down a bad path or needs to be brought back into line.

As Marshall says, that isn’t what ought to worry us.

But the problem with almost everything President Trump is doing today is not that he’s violating norms. The problem is that he is abusing his presidential powers to cover up his crimes and his associates’ crimes. Full stop. That’s the problem. The norms are just the orange rubber cones he knocked over when he drove out of his lane and headed for the crowded sidewalk.

He makes a similar point about transactions the press usually labels “conflicts of interest.”

What we’re seeing now are not conflicts of interest. They’re straight-up corruption. It’s like “norms”. Defining “conflicts of interest” is meant to keep relatively honest people on the straight and narrow or create tripwires that allow others to see when people in power are crossing the line. Nothing like that is happening here. We have an increasingly open effort to make vast sums of money with the presidency. It’s happening in front of our eyes, albeit not quite as visibly as the coverup.

Marshall’s point is important. The use of terminology that may have been entirely appropriate when applied to less venal political actors only serves to muddy the waters when we are dealing with unambiguously criminal behavior.

I understand the reluctance; we’ve never had an administration ignore the law this blatantly and proudly. But that’s what we have now, and refusing to accurately label what is obvious to anyone who is looking is akin to aiding and abetting.


I spend a lot of time and energy promoting informed civic participation.

The problem is, informed participation requires accurate information. With the possible exception of loudmouth pundits on television and talk radio, I think we are all pretty weary of the fact-free slugfest that has replaced reasoned political debate. It has become a tired truism, but the ability of citizens to access credible information about our governing institutions is critical to our ability to engage in self-government.

Inadequate media coverage of local government is bad enough. When we can’t even rely on the accuracy of the information that is provided, either by local government officials or what’s left of our local media, how are citizens supposed to make informed decisions?

State government has reportedly been “cooking the books” over job creation figures for some time. The City-County Council recently had to subpoena the Mayor’s office to get information about a public document—a lease—that should have been a public record. And now—stunningly—we are told that the 30 million dollar deficit that threatened the viability of IPS and the jobs of hundreds of teachers, the looming 30 million dollar deficit that justified so many questionable decisions, never existed.

Think about that.

A while back, I posted about students who defended their disengagement from political life by saying they simply didn’t believe anything they read—that they considered it all to be spin and disinformation, and since they didn’t trust either the media or government to tell them what was really going on, they felt justified in opting out.

These days, it’s pretty hard to argue with that. And that doesn’t bode well for our American Experiment.



Balancing Act

Leave it to the British to accurately diagnose what is terribly wrong with the American media.

It’s the mindless elevation of “balance” over accuracy. Somewhere along the line, members of the American news media (I’m hesitant to call them journalists) decided that “he said, she said” was reporting. It isn’t. It’s stenography.

This emphasis on “balance” at the expense of accuracy and the old-style journalism of verification is abetted by the media’s genuine bias, which is neither conservative nor liberal  but rather a bias for conflict. If it bleeds, it leads.

So we get “balanced” coverage of things like climate change.  More than 99% of climate scientists agree that the earth is warming, but our intrepid media will find that one crank who insists otherwise, and give us a “balanced” story by quoting “both sides.” Left unreported is the fact that the science is overwhelmingly on one “side” and the “debate” is virtually non-existent.

Or we get political coverage that has been dubbed “false equivalence.” There’s a reason for that. Over the past couple of decades, the right wing has employed a brilliant strategy: labeling the media “liberal.” (Has a factual report cast you in an unfavorable light? Scream immediately about the liberal, “lame stream” media.)  In response, most traditional media outlets have been cowed into reporting a phony equivalence whenever possible, a “plague on both your houses” approach that often distorts the reality of a situation and even more often encourages lazy reporting. How much easier it is to quote a Republican and a Democrat and then go home–without ever bothering to tell the audience who is telling the truth.

No wonder so many people don’t trust the media. Very few are still trustworthy.



Media Malpractice

Who can Americans trust to report news accurately? Yesterday, I blogged about a recent survey that showed increasing skepticism about Fox News. Barely a half-hour after I posted, my husband mentioned that he’d been listening to a newscast on the radio in which the reporter interviewed lawmakers who are calling for the use of military tribunals for the Boston bombing suspects. According to my husband, the newscaster then reported–as fact–that such tribunals have proved to be more effective than the regular criminal courts. “I didn’t know that,” he said.

He didn’t know it, because that superior effectiveness is not even remotely a “fact.”

The facts are these: after 9-11, the Bush administration initiated prosecutions of 828 people on terrorism charges in civilian courts. Last year, according to a report from the Center on Law and Security, NYU School of Law, trials were still pending against 235 of them. That leaves 593 resolved cases. Of that number, 523 were convicted, for a conviction rate of 88%.

In addition, the Bush administration pursued 20 cases in military tribunals. So far, there have been exactly three convictions. The highest-profile was the case involving Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s driver. Hamdan was convicted, but he was sentenced  by a military jury to a mere five and half years–and the tribunal judge, a US Navy captain, gave him credit for time served, which was five years. So Hamdan served only six months after conviction.

Furthermore, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld–the case that grew out of this particular trial–the Supreme Court held that the Military Tribunals as constituted at the time violated both the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The propriety of using a Military Tribunal in any given case is, of course, open to debate. What is not debatable is the history of their past performance. It is perfectly legitimate to argue about the pros and cons of using such tribunals; I have my opinion, and others are entitled to theirs. But that debate needs to be grounded in fact, not propaganda.

If we cannot depend upon the media to provide accurate information and to separate opinion from fact– if we have lost what used to be called “the journalism of verification”– we are reduced to exchanging opinions anchored to nothing but our individual biases.

We live in a complicated world. We desperately need a competent and trustworthy media.