Monday, September 21, 2009

The News You Want, Not the News You Need

I can easily imagine the above phrase being used one day to promote a news organization. Okay, maybe they wouldn't phrase it quite like that, especially the second part. Maybe they would try to convince you that 'The News You Want Is the News You Need.' As technology has expanded our potential sources of information, the way we get the news has fragmented, and continues to do so.

The general consensus that I've seen out there is that this is a bad thing; it gives us the news from a narrow perspective, through a worldview that we agree with. Viewers of Keith Olbermann's show on MSNBC, it can be assumed, feel that Bush 43 was the worst president ever, and that Obama's main failing is that he's too conciliatory to Republicans. Viewers of Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity no doubt are already persuaded that Obama is a true danger to the Republic. And the more we watch these shows, the more strongly we believe this, because the programs present information to support our preconceptions. Now, media analyst Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post and CNN tends to separate the 'news' and 'opinion' portions of those channels; he'll say that while Fox's opinion shows are conservative, the news programs are straight and factual. I can't watch Fox News or MSNBC in Japan, so I don't know how true that is, but it would very much surprise me if, for example, Fox News didn't run more stories that while being straight news didn't have an inherent right-wing lean (that is, more stories like "Obama Misses July Deadline For Senate Health Care Vote" than "Overflow Crowd Watches Obama Pitch Health Care Plan"). It would be in the interests of their ratings to do so. Fox's audience can be said to inhabit a certain portion of the ideological spectrum, as does MSNBC's on the other side.

But it seems to me that this is not so different from the way the news has been presented all along; the difference is just a matter of type and degree. From the Sixties to the Eighties, when the TV news came from ABC, NBC, and CBS and the print news was led by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, the news was directed toward a particular portion of the ideological spectrum as well; it just happened to be the middle ninety percent. Anything that the Republicans and Democrats agreed on was simply accepted as common wisdom, and rarely questioned or analyzed. The leader of the Libertarian Party, for example, would have had a hard time getting on TV. No doubt some TV producer would have defended this as the way it should be. "Only one percent of the American people subscribe to his views," this imaginary producer might say. "If we give him airtime, do we then have to give it to someone else whose beliefs are accepted by one-tenth of a percent of the population? Where does it end?" This does seem like a reasonable argument on its face, but at the same time, it has the effect of not exposing Americans to points of view that they might not be familiar with, but might agree with if they heard.

It has, of course, been pointed out that the mainstream media tend not only to broadcast from a worldview that their viewers will agree with, but also from a point of view that is acceptable to the government. This fact has been written about extensively by Noam Chomsky, possibly the most famous person that most people have never heard of. A brilliant intellectual, he has been an unsparing critic of U.S. foreign policy, especially during the Cold War. He has always held America accountable for the gap between its declared beliefs and its actions, pointed out its hypocrisy, and noted the sometimes destructive impact of its policies on ordinary people around the world. His arguments are often dismissed, but rarely convincingly refuted. They are dismissed not because they don't make sense, but because he isn't among the ninety percent in the center. He doesn't come from the same worldview as most Americans do, and that virtually all of the American politicians, industrialists, and media do. (To get a sense of why this is, I recommend this hour-long documentary on YouTube in nine parts. It's almost twenty years old, but still very relevant, and well worth watching.) He points out, for example, that in the late '70s it was much easier to find media coverage of Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia than of Indonesia's genocide in East Timor, because the former was done by a pro-Soviet regime and the latter by a pro-U.S. regime. Obviously, you don't have to be anti-U.S. to disapprove of genocide; Chomsky argues that the media and the government are intertwined to the extent that the media, while not following the imperatives of one political party, buys into the general Establishment agenda and acts as a witting or unwitting propaganda arm. If the news were gathered and reported by an outside agency, one with no stake whatsoever in the U.S. government, Establishment, or popularity, dedicated to being scrupulously factual and avoiding any point of view, the news would look quite different, I'm sure Chomsky would argue.

Again, this could be defended as natural; after all, the government reflects the people, and this is what people want. If we wanted something different, we would elect different politicians, and the media would reflect a different Establishment status back to us. So, let's say that Fox's audience covers 20% of the U.S. ideological spectrum: the 20% that's the farthest to the right, except for the most extreme one or two percent. Let's say the same thing for MSNBC on the other side, leaving a little over 50% for CNN and the broadcast networks. (This doesn't translate into higher ratings for CNN, though, as the partisans tend to be more enthusiastic and watch the news more. As I've heard said somewhere before, there's no such thing as a raging moderate.) So, then, what's wrong with this? Or, more precisely, why is it all right for us to get our news from a source that's biased toward the Establishment, representing (let's say) 90% of us, but not one that's biased towards our political party, representing 20%? Aren't they both biased?

With the health care debate, we've seen some extreme results of this kind of fragmentation: the bogus 'death panels' claim was spread far and wide on Fox, reported as assertion on its news programs and asserted as fact on the opinion shows. But this seems to me to be not a problem of fragmentation, but one of poor reporting and insufficient analysis. It would be possible for an ideologically biased news operation to nonetheless report news accurately; it would simply be selective in what it reported. I don't mean to defend this fragmentation of news, but I do think it should be considered that at least in concept, it is the same as it ever was.

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