Thursday, 13 August 2009

Commentarium

Senor Spielbergo asks in comments:
Here’s a question (one I don’t know the answer to, I’m genuinely asking). Is the standard of news coverage in America actually lower than Britain? I mean everyone can get behind making fun of Fox News, but I’ve certainly also made fun of ITV news, The Sun (the most commonly read newspaper in the UK by the way), The News of The World etc etc. The only bits of American media we tend to get are the bits where they make an utter hash of it, so I’m wondering if that’s not a fair representation. They clearly have lots of other stations and newspapers, so is the overall standard actually any better than ours?We obviously read / watch the news sources we like, and ignore all the ones we don’t (in terms of British news), so I’m wondering if this biases our view when we look at American media.
Tomsk responded to this whilst I was writing my own reply (raising an excellent point regarding OFCOM), but I think it's worth going over this in detail.

First of all, it's important to note that comparing FOX News to ITV isn't necessarily helpful because it's comparing outlier to outlier. I mean, on it's worse day it would be an intolerant insult to suggest ITV resembled FOX News in any way, but that's besides the point. One of the major problems regarding FOX is that, in addition to being a right-wing noise machine that should be wiped from existence and history with all possible speed, it does things so badly, so objectionably, and with such glorious disregard for objectivity, that it colours the entire discussion. Any time a conversation starts on the quality of American news media, you have to wade through people saying "Well, sure, there's FOX, but we know they're crazy." It's as if FOX's blatant worthlessness means everything else looks better by comparison, and that if anyone raises an objection to how the US handles news, it must be based on what we've seen from O' Reilly, Beck, and a bunch of Barbie Dolls (I'm not being sexist; I mean it literally).

So let's not talk outliers. Let's talk about the average state of the American media. The average state is: it's fucked.

There are a number of reasons why this is the case, some of which are across the board, and others of which are specific to TV. Firstly, Tomsk is entirely right when he points at the fact that American news sources don't need to avoid bias, and it's worth following through on that a little. If you don't need to avoid bias, and you don't need to admit bias, then the end result is that the news itself becomes nothing more than he-said, she-said argument. This would be damaging enough on its own, but at some point the right managed to persuade enough of the population that the media was biased to the left for the idea to become "conventional wisdom" (read "an idea so commonly believed no-one need ever provide any proof for it") and once that happened there was no way out. No-one could point out the accusation was unsound, because that was proof they were on the left in any case (it's unfair to blame Americans for the "if you attempt to debunk lies about X, you must be X" formulation, but they've taken it to dizzying new heights; there are still people out there who think McCarthy's biggest flaw was that he eventually gave up, and that those who brought that about were Commie traitors). At this point, most of the major news outlets are under constant pressure to prove they aren't biased to the left, which they can only do by becoming biased to the right, or at least becoming over-representative of the right (both in terms of hosts and guests), which isn't exactly the same thing but is still legitimate cause for concern.

The next problem is in the difference between news shows and news channels. We have individual news shows that need to consider ratings, of course, but in America the competition between channels is so dogged and desperate that their shows are under far more pressure to come up with the goods. And what the goods turn out to be is sensationalism and scandal. Not the sort of scandal that comes from having broken the law and the Geneva Convention for years whilst President, of course, the scandal that comes from having had some blow-jobs whilst President. [1]

The Drudge Report has a lot to do with this; a vicious, low-brow partisan site which manages a massively high update rate (an advantage available only to those who ignore such details as fact checking and critical thought) and which specialises in the grubby sort of story that people claim to dislike but in reality gobble up in droves. The success of Drudge has led to almost every major news outlet to one degree or anther beginning (or continuing, or concluding, depending on who we're talking about) the slide into becoming nothing more than squalid gutter-press peddlers of smut. Often this is embarrassing, but it can spill into rather worse forms. Take Lou Dobbs' show on CNN, for example, on which he repeatedly expresses his belief that Obama was not born in the US, and is thus an illegitimate president. CNN itself has declared this rumor discredited, but Dobbs won't stop banging on about it, and CNN don't dare muzzle him for whatever reason, despite the rather ugly racial undertones that he's dragging in with all the crazy. [2]

This is another problem with the ratings wars, it has thrown up news personalities. These people attempt to make the news more interesting, but as a result the actual facts get mixed up in the editorialising, because you're not watching the news, you're watching Dave Randomname's take on the news. You have O'Reilly and Beck on the right, Maddow and (to a lesser extent) Olbermann on the left, and various people in the centre (which usually actually means the right to all intents and purposes). Now, Maddow doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as O'Reilly and Beck in terms of quality and intellectual honesty, but the problem of battle lines remains. Once you decided on which personality to tune in to, you run the risk of seeing the world through their eyes. The stratification of news into "liberal" and "conservative" shows also means that the focus rapidly becomes the combatants themselves, and not the causes, which makes for good ratings, but shitty, shitty news (it's the severity of the problem and of the battles that makes the difference between these people and, say, Paxman over here).

Jon Stewart mentioned something along the above lines when he visited Crossfire, as a matter of fact. I mention this because the video of that encounter is kind of revealing, in that Tucker Carlson responded by trying to claim The Daily Show isn't a perfect example of news reporting either. He was attempting to defend his own low journalistic standards by comparing himself to a comedy show (a comedy show that actually does a better job informing the public than so-called "serious" news shows, but that's beside the point). The constant refusal of media personalities and journalists to hold themselves accountable for their own standards has become endemic in America. Perhaps most famously, MSNBC reporter David Gregory argued, apparently with a straight face, that it is not the responsibility of journalists to tell the public when they are being lied to. This is the case even when the lie is transparently easy to detect; just last week psychotic GOP members told the country there is language in the healthcare bill that will lead to the euthanising of old people, and I read a column that stated "Democrats state that this provision is not in the bill." You know what? Check the bill! This is your goddamn job! [3]

Once you combine the left-right war (which I think the media is probably more responsible for than the actual parties, which makes Gregory's suggestion that its the public that has to do its own damn fact checking all the more egregiously offensive), the sensationalist quest for ratings, the desire to titillate rather than educate, seemingly an entire generation of journalists who don't think they need to do anything more than spell-check press releases [4], and an associated problem that American politics reporters don't actually seem to like politics [5], and you have the mess US news is in right now.

Finally, on the topic of more general media, consider the Washington Post, which is supposedly one of the best newspapers in America (only the NYT and arguably the LA Times could be considered better, or so I'm told) but which regularly runs editorials by some of the most embarrassingly ill-informed people. Remember when George Will used that "no global warming in your adult life-time" bit? That was in the Post. Bill Kristol was also there for a while, which has to rank as one of the worst journalistic decision in the last ten years. Most of their editorials are written by conservatives, which again is an attempt to dispel the "liberal media" myth, but what baffles intelligent observers is how transparently false so many of the claims made within those editorials are.

The Post was also recently was discovered to be selling tickets to "informal" dinners where various high-influence people could buddy up to Post underwriters. My point is that this is (or was) one of the most highly influential papers in America, and it's become reduced to letting idiots give its opinions, and requesting money in exchange for making friends of its underwriters.

Again, this is one of the top three newspapers in a country of 300 million people.

So, yeah. Spielbergo's original point that we might only hear the worst of American news, whilst observing the entire range in our own country (or its Crown Dependencies) is a fair one, but once you spend some time immersed in this stuff, it actually ends up looking worse, rather than better.

[1] One hundred years from now, assuming this planet hasn't become a ball of radioactive dust ruled over by giant cockroaches who worship the few nukes that didn't go off, history scholars are going to have to explain to their students why Clinton avoided impeachment by one vote, and the idea of impeaching Bush was laughed at by almost everyone, and the poor kids will all lose their faith in humanity and become Republicans, or worse, French.

[2] Another issue in all of this is that American libel laws work in such a way that you can't sue someone unless you can prove what they said was false, which is pretty hard (an unfortunate consequence of valuing free speech above not having your name dragged through the mud for no fucking reason), so media personalities have almost no fear of the law (though the FCC will slap them for saying naughty words, or accidentally losing pieces of their clothing) . Why their bosses don't slap them down for this kind of stuff isn't clear, though a desire for sensationalism would seem the most likely conclusion.

[3] Bob Somerby spends a lot of his time cataloguing the reasons why Gore lost in 2000 (or to be more specific, why the count was so close that it was possible to steal the election from him in Florida); and he pretty much blames the media throughout, which is pretty fair. For now, though, I'm just going to highlight the second debate, in which Bush lied about his tax policy, and then told the room and the public that Gore was lying when the Vice President corrected him. You know how I know it was Bush who was lying? From reading a breakdown of his tax proposal. Wouldn't you expect the journalists covering the debate to check who was in the right? Well, tough luck, I'm afraid; they told the public "Bush and Gore claim the other is lying", and then went onto whether Gore was "too boring". I seem to remember someone saying correcting Bush made Gore look "arrogant" as well, which surely must put us at the nadir of journalism, not only will they not tell the public when they're being lied to, they'll also complain when other people do.

[4] This joke stolen from Stephen Colbert.

[5] First noticed, as far as I'm aware, by Digby (who lives here), who noted that sports journalists like to talk about sports, and entertainment journalists like to talk about entertainment, but politics journalists like to talk about blow-jobs and barbeques. Just this week we've heard journalists complaining that Obama seems to be too invested in the details of the problems America faces, and how to solve them.

10 comments:

Senior Spielbergo said...

OK, next logical question:

If we accept that the US media reporting is rubbish, how are we (as people who don’t live there) expected to form an unbiased view of the situation over there? From what you say unbiased reporting doesn’t seem to exist (and I can pretty much accept that as every blog posting I’ve ever seen is majorly slanted from one side or the other), then surely we just run the risk of believing what we want to hear (i.e. if we’re lefties we’ll listen to the US lefties, if we’re righties we’ll listen to the US righties regardless of what the truth actually is). So when it comes to an issue we’ll just have a left wing point of view, or a right ring point of view to choose from, and no unbiased viewpoint to get information from (which presumably would care about the truth more than anything else). Is there any US equivalent to the BBC that practices unbiased reporting over the search for more ratings?

SpaceSquid said...

First of all, it's important not to lump all left wing and all right wing opinions into one big lump and chuck them in a bin marked BIASED.

Everyone has bias. Not necessarily left-right bias across the board, but nonetheless, we're all biased somehow (the "centre" included). The key isn't to find those without bias per se, it's to find those who recognise their bias, and the bias in others, and compensate accordingly. In other words, what you want is intellectual honesty, the ability to critically challenge one's own thinking and the thinking of those that tend to agree with you. One of the main reasons I identify with the left is that by and large they are much better at doing this. We have, as Tomsk says, our own collection of nutcases, but the fact they don't rise to the level of major players is precisely because their whacked out ideas (see "Bush arranged 9/11") are shot down by their own side.

Moreover, the fact that one is, say, biased on the left on issue X, it does not follow that X is not the correct position in any case. This is kind of parenthetical to this discussion, but one of the ideas that irritates me most about people in general is that if the left says X and the right says Y the best option is somewhere in-between (in America at least, for example, not having 47 million people without health insurance is a left wing position, at least as they understand the term). I'm not saying there isn't a sensible middle in any given case, but I'm irritated by the suggestion that the two ideological wings invariably exist on either side of the truth.

As to how to learn the truth, that's less difficult than you might think. Search out the websites that offer full transcripts, not just untraceable quotes. Search out the ones that address specific arguments, rather than employing the old "some have said" straw-man fallacy. Check the links a site uses to make sure they say what the site claims they say. And follow a given site for a few months, if you have time, to make sure they don't habitually contradict themselves or engage in hypocrisy. Have a look for sites such as Obsidian Wings, who have multiple bloggers from across the political spectrum, and who occasionally spend time constructing posts questioning the arguments of their fellows.

In my case, I just make damn sure I read the smartest people around. Kevin Drum is my favourite commentator on the left, there is no way to read his blog for more than a few days and come away with the impression he is disingenous or blinded by bias. Steve Benen is almost as good, though he has his flaws. On the right, both Daniel Larison and Andrew Sullivan (when he isn't ranting about his Sarah Palin conspiracy theory) are both very smart and intellectually honest.

Gooder said...

Frankly I think it's impossible to guage the state of the American news media without actually seeing/reading/hearing hundreds of hours of said media. (Or at the very least extensive reading and I mean dissertation research level reading)

I really don't feel an acurate representation can be formed from the small snippets well get over here and the odd comment.

I have a lifetime's experience with British media and so have a good understanding of it, I have consumed incalcuable hours of it, I will never come near to having the same understanding of American news media short of moving to the states for the next twenty years of my life.

I doubt that in a 24/7 news media that there is no reproting of jsut the news and investigative journalism that is incisive and fair. We just don't here about it because it is no use in arguements about news bias.
I assume that most of a news channel's output will be very much like what you see on BBC News throughout the day - reporting on the current stories with little editorial content.

Yes, you obviously have the editorial and magaizne shows in the shedules but I'd wager they are very much the smallest part of the scheduling in terms of hours.

But of course I'm speculating and projecting the model I know becuase I haven't seen hours and hours of the output.

I'd take a stab and suggest that vast majority of american news media (don't forget when you say news meida you talking everything from the local newspaper up and that is a massive amount of material) is much the same as ours just that the extremes are more extreme.

SpaceSquid said...

"Frankly I think it's impossible to guage the state of the American news media without actually seeing/reading/hearing hundreds of hours of said media. (Or at the very least extensive reading and I mean dissertation research level reading)"

Those things would help, of course (and I most certainly am at least approaching the former at least, though not as thoroughly or as independently chosen as would perhaps be ideal), but experience is roughly directly proportional to accurate gauging, there is not some ceiling of authority as you appear to believe.

"I have a lifetime's experience with British media and so have a good understanding of it, I have consumed incalcuable hours of it, I will never come near to having the same understanding of American news media short of moving to the states for the next twenty years of my life."

Also true, but being more informed on X than Y does not imply an opinion on Y is automatically not worth considering.

"I doubt that in a 24/7 news media that there is no reproting of jsut the news and investigative journalism that is incisive and fair. We just don't here about it because it is no use in arguements about news bias."

That's one interpretation. A more sensible one would be that if 90% of a channels output is unbiased and 10% is, it's the latter that is concerning. Going back to FOX News, for example, as concerning as it is that a vicious propaganda machine can exist and be considered objective by so many, the real trap lies not in biased channels (or at least it doesn't for those with any shred of intelligence and honesty), but in biased segments of channels that are assumed to be honest.

Of course, it can't be denied that I am more likely to come across biased articles by dint of the on-line company I keep. Given that I keep tabs on the blogs on the other side of the aisle as well, though, and I've read more neutral assessments of the US media as well (maybe not to dissertation level, but...), I think I have enough to go on. Certainly I have enough for it to be worth debating on specific points, rather than having the entirety of my argument dismissed.

"I'd take a stab and suggest that vast majority of american news media (don't forget when you say news meida you talking everything from the local newspaper up and that is a massive amount of material) is much the same as ours just that the extremes are more extreme."

On a local level, that would be difficult to argue, not because I agree, but because I lack the necessary knowledge. On the national level, I think you're badly mistaken, for the reasons I've given in my post and you seem to have bypassed entirely.

Tomsk said...

I think Gooder has a point about not really getting a feel for the media landscape when not living in the country. Even when we were in Germany I had a feeling of slowly getting disconnected from what was being said and talked about (even though I could get most media over the internet), particularly when it came to politics.

On the other hand we are exposed to a great deal of American media whether we like it or not, and we can even go seeking it out if we have a masochistic streak. So I don't think it's impossible to have an informed opinion about its quality.

Also, via the magic of the internet you can get views of well-informed Americans on their own media. For example, The Columbia Journalism Review - at the moment they have a very insightful indictment of the debased level of political debate in America.

Senior Spielbergo said...

“I think Gooder has a point about not really getting a feel for the media landscape when not living in the country. Even when we were in Germany I had a feeling of slowly getting disconnected from what was being said and talked about (even though I could get most media over the internet), particularly when it came to politics.”

I think that is an important point. While I get plenty of UK media (can’t get away from the damm stuff), even in my slightly detached country I know that I don’t get the full picture that someone who actually lives there does. Likewise I know that if anyone just read blogs, forums, and media about Jersey they would have a completely slanted view about the island. While “the man on the street” is a bit of a commonly used statement, knowing what the man on the street thinks is rather important to actually having an understanding of a place. My experience is that there are countless news stories and political debates that the general public couldn’t care less about, or by virtue of actually living there realise its just the media creating a mountain out of a molehill. Likewise there are plenty of “stories” that the public all know about, but never gets reported.

As a rule the media, blogs, and any other form of communication we may get exposed to only ever discusses “extremes”, the things that are either unusual or a source of debate. No newspaper / tv channel / political bog is going to devote the bulk of its time to the common everyday occurrences that are actually what truly reflects what a place is actually like / what people actually feel, so instead all you get are the controversial issues, or the unusual issues that actually probably aren’t a fair representation.

Gooder said...

Ok, I'm not sure what you are saying I've missed about the mainstream media national media.

It will still be mostly straight reporting with some opinion and editorial like (as I said) BBC News 24.

The odd commentator does not characterise a whole media, paper or station. I wouldn't characterise the Guardian by the pieces written just by Polly Toynbee for example or even the Mail just by Littlejohn.

SpaceSquid said...

"I think Gooder has a point about not really getting a feel for the media landscape when not living in the country. Even when we were in Germany I had a feeling of slowly getting disconnected from what was being said and talked about (even though I could get most media over the internet), particularly when it came to politics."

I wouldn't argue with that, just with the idea that it isn't the case that assessing the state of a foreign country's media is impossible, given sufficient time and effort, especially since, as you say, there is plenty of reading material on the subject available on-line if you know where to look.

SpaceSquid said...

Sorry, Spielbergo that should have read "as Tomsk says."

Onto Gooders comments:

"Ok, I'm not sure what you are saying I've missed about the mainstream media national media."

I wasn't saying you'd missed anything, I was saying you'd bypassed all my points, in favour of arguing that they couldn't be valid because I don't live in the States and am not a mdia studies student.

"It will still be mostly straight reporting with some opinion and editorial like (as I said) BBC News 24."

First of all, for someone so convinced it's nearly impossible to judge the status of a foreign media system, you seem very happy to make pronouncements about said systems. Secondly, the central issue lies in the balance between the two for each channel, and the obviousness with which the two are separated.

"The odd commentator does not characterise a whole media, paper or station. I wouldn't characterise the Guardian by the pieces written just by Polly Toynbee for example or even the Mail just by Littlejohn."

There are two problems with this. Firstly, comparing newspaper columnists to TV commentators isn't tremendously convincing (in the case of papers like the Washington Post, the problem isn't the individial commentators but the overall slant of them as a group, and in the wretched quality of the editing). Secondly, American TV commentators really do characterise their channels, or at least are seen to. Complaints of liberal bias of MSNBC frequently involve criticisms of Maddow and Olbermann, for example. Individual commentators are made into sticks for beating entire channels (which isn't always unfair; once Glenn Beck tells people Obama has a deep hatred for white people, or O'Reilly tells his audience an abortion doctor is a "murderer" and "someone needs to do something abou this guy", you've crossed a line). So the personalities we're talking about colour the way channels are seen, and the way channels are seen colours how they function (hence the problems Phil Donahue ran into, as linked to in post).

Or, look at it another way (much as the CJR piece Tomsk offers does). If the state of the American media really is no different to ours, then why are we watching near-riots across the US over a line in proposed legislation that never existed? Why do 30% of Southern whites believe Obama was born in Kenya? How have the current generation of Americans become the least politically well-informed in history? Why are people still not sure whether or not the US tortured prisoners during the Bush administration? I mean, I'm obviously no fan of the Republican party, but I don't think they could pull off this kind of regular assault on fact without help from the media, whether conscious or not.

No. The symptoms of a failing media are everywhere, and the causes have been discussed at great length by people smart enough to make our heads spin (some of whom are linked to in my post, Glenn Greenwald in particular is very good on the subject). I guess my point is that you can disagree with some or all of that, and some or all of my own take on it, but simply saying "We can't know, but in any case here is what it will be" isn't very persuasive.

Gooder said...

I never said you're opinion was invalid just that personally I feel I could'nt form anm opinion reliably without really engaing the material (but that's just the social scientist in me) and you need to be aware that whatever conclusion you reach it's likely to be based on a very small section of the news media.

Ok, yes you do read a lot about it but you're still only getting a small fraction of (and opinion on) a whole nation's news media.

As for misconceptions you speak of, are those any more common than similar misconceptions over here? If there are how much of that is too do with American as a nation rather than the media (most states are larger than our whole country - is how much someone know about events in New York from say Texas comparable to our experience of Russian issues from here?)

As for what I've said of the American media, I'm just extrapolating from what I know (our news media) and as I say accounting for the fact the extremes will be more extreme. And as I say I'm only taking a guess (a stab) at it.



I understand where you are coming from but remain to be convinced that American news media is as broken as poeple claim it to be.

The New York Times seemed roughly comparable to our broadsheets when I used read it semi regularly a few years ago (though granted things might well have changed since then), the aspects of American news on television I have seen has been of the straightforward reporting of the story type.