Wednesday, 21 October 2009

There's Always More Stupid

Reading through my list of American political blogs over the last two days, most of which have mentioned the White House announcement that whilst they will engage with FOX News, they won't treat it as a legitimate news service, reminded me of the brief discussion we had a while back about the state of the American news media. Amongst other things, I argued that a large part of the problem is that opinion is too often passed off as news, and that lies are too often passed off as opinions. FOX, of course, is the main offender regarding the former, and I held up the Washington Post op-ed pages as guilty of the latter.

I also reiterated my belief that there is little point wasting time chronicling FOX's total refusal to apply any journalistic standards to their news segments (as oppose to their opinion and editorial shows), because their scurrilous nature is so well-known nobody needs to be reminded of it.

Guess what? Turns out I was wrong. Someone out there still thinks FOX is just the conservative equivalent to MSNBC. And she's written an op-ed about it! In the Washington Post, of all places.

I can actually see the argument that it might not be a good strategy for Obama to freeze out FOX entirely. Pissing off the press is something to be avoided if at all possible, even if (or perhaps especially if) they're transparently in the tank for the opposition. It would be nice to read a smart piece on that. Does Obama do more damage to himself by dissing a propaganda outlet, or by legitimating it? There's probably a lot to be said either way.

Marcus can't manage that, of course. She doesn't have the chops. Instead, she asks us to imagine the uproar that would have occurred if the Bush White House had treated MSNBC that way. Which it did, of course, but this is an "opinion" piece, you don't need to let facts get in the way! Not content with that, Marcus goes back to the tried-and-tested fallacy that MSNBC and FOX are both "opinion journalism". Marcus offers no evidence for this claim, naturally. It's just an opinion! There's no need to back it up! Both sides are equally bad.

Yeah, sure they are. Even if both networks were equally devoted to making the news itself objective, it would be insane to suggest Olbermann and Maddow are simply the progressive equivalent to O'Reilly and Hannity (to say nothing of Beck). Of course, the two networks are not equally devoted at all. I'm not claiming MSNBC isn't biased, but it's not claiming Republicans are protecting pedophiles over veterans, or taking Democrat briefing memos and transcribing them into their newsfeed. Even if MSNBC is biased (and they have far more conservative commentators than FOX has progressive ones, which is to say they have any), "both networks are biased and thus equally worthy of condemnation" is no smarter than saying "chocolate and champagne both taste nice, thus they should cost the same."

Looks like I was right about the Post, but entirely wrong about it being commonly understood that FOX = bad.

Update: I had thought about finishing this post by conceding that as bad as the Post's opinion pages are, at least no-one had gone on a Jan Moir-style homophobic rant (apparently there is still some discussion as to whether referring to happy civil partnerships as a "myth" consitutes homophobia, I'm going with yeeeah). Hooray for Phil Donahue, then, who shows up just in time to warn us about the "perverted" gays, who "know, deep down, what they're doing is wrong". I'm also trying to decide which is more amusingly loony; suggesting the ALCU is similar to Fidel Castro; referring to the current majority in Congress as "the Party"; or suggesting that people dislike Mel Gibson because The Passion Of The Christ is nice to Jesus, as oppose to not liking him because he made a film that can be construed as anti-Semetic and because he thinks the Jews were behind every war in the world. I'll give a few points back to the Post for putting up a rebuttal, though.


Gooder said...

Surely if something is writted as an editorial piece than it's clearly that person's opinion and not something that is being framed as de-facto news. That after being what an editorial piece is.

If you something to show lots of research and all the facts than an editorial is not the place to look. Editorials exist to put froward an opinion and open areas of debate (see, it's working you're debating it and more often letters pages in following days/weeks papers will pick up the responses to the issue) there are not for detailed examinations of the topic at hand.

Pretty much what your blog post is and these are what editorial pieces have been for years and years - it is thier function in the newspaper. So should I start demanding you list all the facts to back everything you say in all your blog posts?

She says the other network is as bad as fox, you say it clearly isn't. Both sound like an opinon to me.

I may have said it before, I can't remember, but I think you're looking for the wrong kind of thing in the editorial opinion pieces.

SpaceSquid said...

My point was that being given space to write an opinion piece is not an invitation to lie/make shit up off the top of your head.

I accept that detailed research need not be shown in an opinion piece, but that isn't what I'm acts don't gepicking up on. There is a reasonable middle between just posting hard evidence and basing one's argument on a blindly asserted "fact". Not to mention the fact that the final part of Marcus' argument(Obama is aware that you can't just talk to those that agree) has several links. So it isn't as though there is some kind of aesthetic choice behind leaving out evidence; it's that she doesn't have any.

I vehemently dislike the "if it gets you debating, it's working" line of argument. Judged by that standard, Jan Moir's piece "worked" as well, and you found that pretty despicable. I'm not in any way suggesting Marcus' piece is comparable to that particular vicious screed, just that "If you talk about it, it's been successful" is a pointless bromide designed to imply an op-ed piece can't be bad, something we both know to be untrue.

Furthermore, trying to allege parity between the WP op-ed writers and a humble blogger such as myself is one of those things that sounds good in theory until you stop to think about it. First of all, you mention letter pages as the place for push-back on op eds, but the combination of a) the paper itself choosing the letters printed, b) the number of lunatic op eds the Post seems to be publishing these days and c) the fact that the letters generally aren't answered by the columnist themselves means that there is a degree of difficulty in pushing back against such pieces in a way there isn't with a website with an entirely open comments section.

Secondly, said comments section, of course, allows anyone who feels the need to immediately ask me where I got things from (as has happened in the past). In fact, I try very hard indeed to cite as much as possible the places where I've gotten the foundations for whatever argument I'm making. But that isn't really the problem here. The problem is that you want me to prove a negative. To prove MSNBC lacks the bias FOX clearly has, as evidenced by the link in my post. How exactly would one do that, except to note the absence of such articles on the other side? And there is an absense of such articles, from what I can see (there are articles alleging MSNBC bias, but none that come even close to suggesting parity with FOX). I did check before I wrote my post, but one cannot post the absence of a link.

The point here is that not all opinions are equally valid. If you say there are aliens hiding behind Pluto, I don't need to post pictures of Pluto's dark side to point out that absent evidence, it's probably not true, and that if you then base an argument on the assumption that they're real, you should probably keep it to yourself rather than publishing it in a well-respected newspaper.

So I'm not criticising all opinion, I'm criticising basing opinion articles on assumed facts that can't be backed up. Your willingness to ignore such shaky foundations is your own business, but if you really think the point of op-eds is to make arguments that cannot possibly stand up to a moment's scrutiny, I don't think I'm the person looking for the wrong things.

SpaceSquid said...

Read this:href= today and it expertly demonstrated the foolishness in equating "FOX and MSNBC are equally bad" with "FOX and MSNBC are equally bad". Boehlert offers a dozen or so of examples, mostly from the last year, of manipulation of basic facts to suit FOX's agenda. The money quote, though, is this: "If Zurawik is so sure MSNBC is just like Fox News, than he ought to produce a similar, detailed list showcasing obvious examples of how MSNBC has walked away from the traditions of mainstream journalism and has purposefully pushed falsehoods, lies and smears under the guise of news."

Substitute "Zurawik" for "Marcus", and you've got pretty much the point I was making. You can't counter a list of lies by FOX with a list of truths by MSNBC, it just doesn't work that way. That's exactly why it's disgraceful for people to simply claim parity exists without offering any proof.