By William Fisher
I must be some kind of masochist because I spend a good deal of my non-writing time watching cable TV. And, with a few notable exceptions, I’m appalled by the relentlessly low journalistic standards I see there every day.
Let me give you an example. Earlier this week, three teens attending a summer camp at Virginia Tech told campus police they saw a man carrying what might be a rifle of some kind. As soon as this information reached CNN, it went on air as, you guessed it, “breaking news.” Breaking news, course, grabs viewers’ attention.
Since Virginia Tech was not long ago the scene of a horrible gun attack that left many dead, CNN was arguably justified in running its bulletin. But throughout the day, the “breaking news” bulletins continued – without so much as a sliver of new information to help viewers understand what had happened. CNN’s “breaking news” was over late in the day only when campus police cancelled the lockdown of the university and called off the search for the illusory gunman. Ditto, MSNBC and Fox News.
But my real beef with cable – and with much of print media and almost all of the blogosphere – concerns far more serious issues. When I was in journalism school, I was taught about “Objectivity.” And when I went to work for the AP, I was handed their little booklet on the same subject.
Objectivity in those days meant that if I was covering a speech by a notorious demagogue, I’d have to find a external source to quote so my readers would know that the speaker was a notorious demagogue. I couldn’t do it myself – even though I knew the truth -- because “that would make me part of the story.”
And if an external source wasn’t immediately available, the quote might go unanswered for at least the first edition. It was this very sacred tenet of journalism that produced story after story in which the lead told of charges by Senator Joe McCarthy and an alternative view – if there was one at all – was written way down into the text.
And so it is on TV as well. Last year Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, said on TV and in print that the Bush tax cuts increased revenue. This is a claim often made by Republican politicians, but it is denied by every responsible Republican economist I know and is clearly out of line with all known facts on the subject. The empirical evidence shows the Bush tax cuts produced no new revenue. Yet McConnell not only stuck to his statement – unchallenged – but also asserted that this was “the view of virtually every Republican on that subject.”
Let’s hope that when Mitt Romney, seen today as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, endorses the McConnell view – and he will -- there’ll be someone in the studio to challenge his “facts.”
We saw the same kind of “objectivity” during the “bargaining” over increasing the debt limit. Over and over, Republican spokespersons would try to sell us the insane idea that if we just shrank everybody’s budget to the vanishing point, obliterating the jobs of police, firefighters, EMTs, teachers, et cetera, we could balance the budget and create jobs. Just what jobs would thus be created remains unclear.
And since the Republicans were the first to speak, their claims occupied the leads in most of the stories covering the debt ceiling circus. Democratic politicians hit back, to be sure, but the public tends to remember the first thing it hears.
And so it was with the “economic plan” put forth by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, labeled by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman as the “innovative thinker du jour.”
Krugman noted that Ryan “has become the Republican Party’s poster child for new ideas thanks to his ‘Roadmap for America’s Future’, a plan for a major overhaul of federal spending and taxes.” News media coverage, he said, “has been overwhelmingly favorable.”
He cited a glowing profile of Ryan that The Washington Post put on its front page, “portraying him as the G.O.P.’s fiscal conscience.”
Ryan, Krugman continued, is “often described with phrases like ‘intellectually audacious.’ But it’s the audacity of dopes. Mr. Ryan isn’t offering fresh food for thought; he’s serving up leftovers from the 1990s, drenched in flimflam sauce.”
Krugman continued: “Mr. Ryan’s plan calls for steep cuts in both spending and taxes. He’d have you believe that the combined effect would be much lower budget deficits, and, according to that Washington Post report, he speaks about deficits ‘in apocalyptic terms’. And The Post also tells us that his plan would, indeed, sharply reduce the flow of red ink: ‘The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan would cut the budget deficit in half by 2020.’ But the budget office has done no such thing. At Mr. Ryan’s request, it produced an estimate of the budget effects of his proposed spending cuts — period. It didn’t address the revenue losses from his tax cuts.”
But most Americans never heard Krugman or any other journalist whose ideas even got close to Krugmans. The TV “debates” over his plan were dumbed down to pre-K levels – if they could be reduced to a 10-second sound bite. Ryan was incessantly hailed as “courageous” – even by Democrats who grudgingly acknowledged that “it took guts” to propose such a radical plan. That’s the same radical plan, by the way, that would turn Medicare into a voucher program; every senior would get a voucher to go out and buy private insurance, and if the insurance premium was higher than the value of the voucher, well, tough.
Another of the media’s pratfalls came in its non-response to the Republicans’ reluctance to create any new revenue by slightly increasing the taxes of the country’s wealthiest. The GOP talking points included the falsehood that these taxpayers were the nation’s “job creators.” (in other iterations, the job-creators were America’s small businesses). The “small businesses” included among the GOP’s wealthiest 400, by the way, include some of the country’s largest privately owned farms, which not only create very few jobs but in fact receive massive subsidies from the Department of Agriculture.
How utterly absurd is the proposition that the wealthiest among us create jobs for the poorest among us! If this were demonstrably true, based on experiential data, the country would have created millions of jobs during the George W. Bush presidency. What we know is that not a single job – not one – was created during the eight years of George Bush, despite tax cuts for the rich.
The Republicans are quite correct in their conviction that the country needs to reduce its deficit. But to reduce the deficit at a time when the economy cries out for stimulus, to reduce the deficit by cutting programs – and the millions of jobs that do with them – is the height of both historical ignorance and a brand of hubris not seen since that guy said, “bring ‘em on.”
When politicos lie or bend the truth, we tend to forgive them – most voters think most politicians lie all the time. But where is the check and balance? It used to be our newspapers. But today we have a shrinking number of newspapers we can rely on to at least try to tell us the truth. We have a TV medium that is money-centered, uncreative, and dismissive of any scintilla of common sense among their viewers. And we have a blogosphere wildly out of control with partisanship.
At least with most of the blogosphere, the biases are obvious and the reader always knows where he/she stands. That’s the way it was in the early days of journalism in America. So maybe those of us who try to stay informed today should simply read “Firedog Lake” followed by “Red State.”
That would certainly simplify our lives.