Sometimes, there aren't two sides to a debate.
Last week while enjoying the spectacle of fools doing what they do best, I bumped into a reporter from one of the city's all-news-all-the-time stations, who was doing some "man-on-the-street" coverage of both the health care reform advocates and the blithering shrieking morons across the street insisting that Barack Obama is a communist Nazi who kills babies and eats kittens.
I asked her if it was hard to treat the drooler brigade with respect, as if their ludicrous claims had any substance. "I'm used to it," she said with a weary smile. When I asked if the station intended to point out that a lot of their statements were just plain crazy, she told me: "That's not our job. We let you, the listener, decide."
"So everyone's opinion, no matter how detached from reality..."
"Not our job. We do 'journalism', and that's what we call 'commentary'".
"Ya know... oh never mind," I said with a sigh, before thanking her for her time and crossing the street for a better view of the circus.
A few minutes later, the reporter walked past my brother and me with an empty paper cup. "Do you know if there's a garbage can around?" she asked.
I pointed to a wastebasket on the corner. "Some people say that's a garbage can, but there's controversy, as others claim it's a dangerous nuclear bomb. You be the judge!"
I was joking around, but it's not funny: I've found myself almost entirely unable to listen to what passes for news anymore. Even sources I've typically trusted like NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered have been trafficking in "news" that either fails to tell the whole story, elevates manufactured scandals or -- worst of all --misleads its listeners.
Two weeks ago I nearly spewed my morning coffee all over the kitchen while listening to a Morning Edition reporter (I forget which one) who was talking about health care reform make the bizarre statement that there's no support for a public option, which flies in the face of polling that puts support for public health insurance at 77 percent. Similarly, this past Thursday, I listened to Debbie Elliott's story on racism and Obama, which included some questions about South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson's "You LIE!" outburst. One of the interviewees claimed Wilson's outburst was unfortunate "because this was the door that opened the major racial turmoil that we're having to deal with today." Elliott left out the fact that Wilson is a member of the Sons of Confederate veterans, which "has been taken over in the past decade by radical neo-Confederates who favor secession and defend slavery as a benign institution." Or that Wilson fought to keep the Confederate battle flag flying on the South Carolina statehouse. Or that the claim that it was Wilson who opened the door to "major racial turmoil" ignores highly public displays of extremism that responsible conservatives rightly condemn. And she didn't ask the people she interviewed if they knew that either. It was as if Wilson's background was impertinent to the whole topic of her report on racism and Obama.
In both cases, important information about the topic was either misrepresented or simply omitted.
And that's really at the heart of my problem with so much contemporary journalism: sometimes, there aren't two sides to a debate. When one group is detailing, with undisputed evidence, that the current health care system in the US is deeply flawed, and the other side's response is "Barack Obama wants to kill your granny and make us into communists," isn't it the responsibility of the news to point out that one side is clearly out of their gourds, or at the very least trafficking in misinformation? Isn't the whole purpose of news to clarify that which isn't clear, to provide the public with the information they need to make wise decisions? When a news reporter tells me "we let you the listener decide," isn't that reporter pretty much abdicating his or her responsibility to educate and inform?
So far as I'm concerned, the pretense that a reporter's job to just repeat what he or she is told (as Stephen Colbert so brutally illustrated a few years back) is actually undermining the public's trust in journalism, and at the worst possible time -- when newspapers everywhere are collapsing and the companies that bring you the news continue to shrink, treating the news as another profit center more kindred to entertainment than information. I can't speak for others, but every time I hear a reporter treat some whackjob's lunatic claim that Obama is a closet Muslim as if that's a legitimate point of view, I lose respect and faith in that reporter. Every time I hear someone from a partisan think tank invited to opine on NPR -- without that commenter's political leanings revealed -- I feel like someone's trying to sell me a bill of goods. I mean, why does it seem like David "Axis of Eeeeeevil" Frum, a former Bush apologist and barely-reformed wingnut is the only commentator Marketplace can get, and why is his record of wrongness never mentioned? When I hear the guy's name, I literally dismiss everything he's said because he's not to be taken seriously: what does that say about the show that hosts him?
So I find myself only tuning into KYW for the traffic reports. And I find myself turning off WHYY except for specialty shows like You Bet Your Garden and Radio Times, all the while muttering that I wish the station would devote more time to local news, which is typically quite good. [On a side note, maybe if Bill Marrazzo could sacrifice a few bucks from his salary, which "outstripped that of chief executives at WNET and WGBH, with five and six times WHYY’s revenues" and "exceeded the compensation of the heads of the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio" there'd be more money for local programming instead of re-runs, but I digress.]
It's more than a frustrating situation for a news junkie like me: it's dangerous for the wider community. As Will Bunch pointed out earlier this week with regard to the dying newspaper business, when the news dies, corruption will flourish.
The same could be said of what we see and hear on our TVs and radios, as the crazy are given the same respect as the rational, and the truly biased are treated as objective sources. When people stop trusting, they stop listening. And that's when really bad things can happen.
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