Wednesday, August 25, 2004

On The Media -- Why Impartiality is Bull Shit

The (American) “mainstream” media don’t seem to understand why people are increasingly getting their news from The Daily Show and the likes (though they lump TDS in with Jay Leno et al., which is a valid classification based on time slot, but in terms of richness and depth insofar as political coverage, they are in error – when was the last time Jay researched a book and asked the author tough questions about factual accuracy?). There are, I think, reasons of many shades, including what Ted Koppel didn’t get in his interview with (Jon Stewart), where he didn’t really think that people went to Stewart because they wanted to see “straight talk.” (He also seems to have the cut the interview off and canceled his appearance on TDS.) Ok, but to get to the brass tacks:

Jim Lehrer doesn’t believe it is the press’ job to call anyone a “liar” (links to come). Lehrer points out, correctly, that in the real world, it rarely comes down to 100% right – he says, if someone is only 30% right, his job is to point out the facts and try and press and press this 30% guy on them.

Whereas, if a normal person saw a politician say something 30% true, they would almost certainly call him/her a liar. I mean, if I call an whale a hippo, well I’m kind of part right, they descended from the same thing, but in common parlance, we call that “wrong.” Or let’s say I call a full-grown coyote a puppy. 30% right means 70% wrong – and I think Lehrer et al.’s jobs as self-proclaimed “gatekeepers” to the information barrage the world generates is to say what they think – “pressing” someone on the facts doesn’t cut it, because they can evade that. And they DO. Anything less than calling them out directly is bullshit. (“Well, little Jonny, most would say that that’s a coyote, and a vast majority of people would say you shouldn’t pet it.)

People (some people, i.e. me and my friends) like Jon Stewart because he says what he means – and that’s what we would do. If a normal person feels someone is intentionally deceiving them, they don’t simply point out the counter-evidence and leave the synthesis up to a third party. Stewart’s one of us.

So, ok, maybe the news anchors shouldn’t be one of us. But the idea that a presentation of “the facts” as compared to “what person/politican X said” has a number of problems. For one, presenting “the facts” simply adds a 3rd side to the “he said, she said”, as few people really believe that news is either a) flawless or b) unbiased. Thus, you have “he said, she said, we said,” which doesn’t really resolve anything. In fact, I would have to say it puts the facts as presented by the news (which is supposedly/hopefully the relatively impartial evaluator/mediator) at a disadvantage. If I give 10 points that I say proves X, and someone else 10 points that they say proves Y, and one or both of us is 30% wrong, it is not terribly helpful for the news to say “Well, here are our 10 points. That’s it,” then it appears not as if they are being impartial but as if they feel it is inconclusive which are valid and which are not. To modify the old saw, if the Democrats said the sky were green and the Republicans were to say its violet, and then the News says “Many independent scientists, however, have come to the conclusion it’s blue” – it makes all three points seem dubious without helping resolve any at all. (And quite clearly, as I said, most normal people wouldn’t say “Oh, well, both parties were part right – violet and green are close to blue on the spectrum, and colors are arbitrary anyway” – they would say “Liar!”)

So what would be the alternative?

One word, what I tell my students to do: Synthesize. That’s right. Say it with me. SYNTHESIZE. To process a new thing out of their ingredients, roughly. To say “If 1+1=2, and 2+2=4, then 1+1+2+2 must equal 6. Don’t just say “Most say the sky is blue,” and let them dissemble about how colors are arbitrary, and, say, that several new studies by the Heritage Foundation (or Brookings) shows that many think purple better describes it. Saying “Well, we have some differences of opinion, good night,” makes it seem like either a) maybe there IS doubt – after all, that arbitor of facts, the news guy, only said some people think the sky is blue!”

The point is, what the fucking hell good does it do us if reporters hide their own personal conclusions? It’s not nearly the same thing as not having any conclusions; they may as well not have correspondents but just footage of events with no color commentary. If the point of the news is to help bring facts together in a complex world, then why stop at the line right before just saying what the facts seem to point to? Eh? Take global warming: for a long time, journalists reported on both the pro and con sides, that is, scientists convinced by the evidence and those not. Nothing wrong with that. But hey, since the average person is not a climatologist, how much fucking sense does it make to just report what the different scientists have found? We could’ve just read their fucking papers, ok? Translating jargon into plain English is a good first step, but to treat each side as if they’re the same, when perhaps 95% of scientists are on one side, eh – what good is that? And if people in the news suspect the 5% are not on the up-and-up (or the 95% for that matter), I think it is their job say so and say why.

The point is, not showing your “bias,” or own conclusions, doesn’t mean you don’t have them, for God’s sake. This one guy on TDS with Jon Stewart (Brian Williams I think? Some news guy) said he didn’t even tell his wife and kids who he wanted to vote for. He was very proud of it, of his political opaqueness.

It just pointed out the absolute poverty of this approach. He doesn’t tell his FAMILY? Why not? So they don’t find him to be a biased human being? Or is it really because telling them means they may tell others – and his dirty secret, that he HAS conclusions, may leak out? Ruin his delusions of credible impartiality? As if somehow, being secretive about his opinions were the same thing as not having opinions, and that having a lack of opinions is the core of journalistic integrity. He’s apparently asserting that he can’t possibly be biased as long as it’s absolutely unclear what he thinks. Apparently he doesn’t realize this is moral relativism of the crassest kind; it makes it appear that all ideas and opinions are no more or less valid than anyone else’s, and he shouldn’t let his “bias” – his worldview – sneak in. He should let those with less information than him (inevitable in the process of editing the world’s information down to a usable news show) draw their own conclusions (good), without telling them what conclusion’s he would make based on the same evidence (bad).

His vision of unbiased is impossible. Your worldview is not a completely conscious part of you. All you can do is hide the conscious parts – i.e. talking about your own opinions, and banishing your assumptions from the front of your mind. This don’t mean they go away; so how are we better off if you pretend you don’t think anything?

What I’m saying is, the job of the news IS to say “I think you’re lying.” If that is what your gut as a journalist says, that is what you as a journalist must say. And you must give your reasons. That is how being a journalist is different, you should have to explain yourself, fully, and in detail. The news folk in the press and press coverage conference said that they might here “liar” in the newsroom and not on the broadcast (“We are nothing, if not gentlemen on the air”). Because the public good, and impartiality, are so much better served if you just pretend you’re an empty vessel. If you let everyone draw their own conclusions, somehow, they won’t be influenced by the deference you give every opinion, the fact that you present counter evidence but don’t use it to say “Are you wrong or are you lying?” like any normal person would after dealing with politickese for enough time.
The remedy here is to just fucking come out and say, “I’m Tom Brokaw. I think Kerry was incorrect, if not lying, when he said X and Y. And Pres. Bush was incorrect, if not lying, when he said A and B. The reasons are because of this, this, and this. You can read the original studies or whatever here, here, and here – in this paper, on this day, it was shown X and Y and A and B were wrong. Because of this, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush must be either mal-informed, or deceitful. I encourage you to read the original whatevers for yourself, and see if you agree. And please send in any arguments or evidence you have, and we’ll present it.”

Next week… “Well, it appears from evidence from NASA and 18 major universities sent in last week, that Mr. Bush was on the Moon when information contradicting A came out, so he may not be responsible for knowing it was 70% incorrect. 2 universities contradict this claim, but we view their credibility as in doubt because they are both Bob Jones U. However, we got 800,000 letters saying Kerry was right about Y; unfortunately, their evidence appears to be “Because he said so – and I agree”, which we would think is a low bar, and will have to report that it still appears Sen. Kerry is either lying or can’t read. Good night.”

Shocking? Well, is it somehow MORE useful that we don’t know what our correspondent thinks, that we don’t see how the evidence may be put together by a 3rd party, that instead of telling us they estimate a 70% incorrect statement to be an intentional lie, they show us a list of their own facts and don’t even bother to say “it looks like you’re in error where the facts are concerned, Mr. Senator”? Are we better off? Does hiding their opinions make their opinions go away? Does it make us suspect they are biased less? (Answer: no.*) And hey, if someone in the news, or in the readership, or in the punditry disagrees, have an editor from the other side represent the evidence, BUT FORCE THEM TO SAY WHY A,B, AND C SPECIFICALLY ARE WRONG, AND WHY THE 30% IS RIGHT.

Mis-aligned arguments are nobody’s friend. More later.

*(Pyschologically, as well, it would seem an attempt to be “neutral” is misplaced; studies show people give more weight to things that agree with what they know, and less weight to things that don’t; so a truly neutral part will in fact simply appear biased to everyone on both sides. May as well get it out of the way and simply be (or rather, show) your bias, for all to evaluate how it might affect your opinions?)

1 comment:

Daktari said...

Ok, you re-posted the link, so I'm gonna comment. Great post, BTW. So, here's what I think. You've got part of this right. I think of journalists like Edward R. Murrow when I think of someone with the balls to present a reasoned synthesis of the news. Maybe I'm wrong. Murrow is before my time. But that was my impression of him.

Nonetheless, I agree with your Brokaw narrative in part. I take exception to the 70% correct/incorrect approach. Think of general news stories that people disagree on. Let's say McCain is describing Obama's tax plan in a stump speech and says that Obama is going to raise taxes on people who make as little as $40K per year. He's actually said that. If Brokaw reports on this, he should say, "I have read Obama's tax plan, which is available on his web site. I have also spoken with two independent economists and four tax experts, none of whom are associated with either campaign. Consensus was unanimous: Obama's tax plan will not raise taxes on people making less than $250K per year. It appears that in the past, Sen. Obama voted yeah on a budget bill that included an increase on taxes that could affect people making $40K a year, but that bill also received the support of Sen. McCain. In fact, Obama's tax plan will lower the taxes of nearly all Americans earning less than $250K/yr."

The fact that Obama voted yeah on the budget bill is 100% true. The fact that his tax plan won't raise taxes on people making less than $250K is 100% true. The fact that McCain is misrepresenting his tax plan is 100% true. You can't combine independent events and modify the % truth to one event based on the others.

But you are right. The news outlets don't connect the dots. What do they do instead? They go to yet ANOTHER source, which they invariably state as an "independent fact-checking organization" and say that THOSE people have said that McCain's stump speech is misleading.

My problem with this whole scenario is that the news media itself should be capable of doing that kind of research (as I have described above in my hypothetical report of Brokaw speaking to independent and unbiased experts or better yet, BEING a reporter with the expertise to give first-hand commentary on said subject as people like Paul Krugman are) and presenting those kinds of facts to their audience. Some, like Krugman, do it. My problem is they present reasoned analysis in the editorial sections/segments of their programs. So Paul Krugman comes out and says that McCain is stretching the truth. But it's an editorial in a liberal newspaper. Why isn't it in the "hard news" portion of the paper? Why isn't it on the nightly news with Brian Williams?

Investigative reporting is dead. The sole purpose of investigative reporting appears to be to produce a "gotcha" moment. Now, cogent analysis of the facts is seen as biased, not because of the actual content of the article itself, which may be a completely reasonable synthesis of the available facts, but rather by the perceived biases of the news outlet as a whole.

I mean, recently didn't the freakin' National Enquirer break some big news story? Monica Lewinski or something. But no one believed it until the legitimate press looked into it. An extreme example, sure, but it certainly makes my point.