From the Department of False Equivalencies

One can hardly argue that something awful hasn’t happened to our news media in the last few decades, but those actually in the media still steadfastly, and at times almost comically,  refuse to see it.  In short, a calculated plan by the right, beginning in the 1970′s, has reached glorious fruition in 2010:  the right no longer needs the media; its candidates proudly run for office speaking only to cheerleaders, of whom there always seem to be a lot.  This was no accident.  Burned by a powerful free press, Nixon was the first Republican to begin attacking the very notion of adversarial reporting, and didn’t hesitate to single out outlets like CBS and the Washington Post, who exposed him as the sleazy authoritarian he was, and threaten, sue, or contest broadcast licenses as punishment for doing their jobs as outlined in the First Amendment.  Later, he tossed out the carrot of the Newspaper Preservation Act, which furthered consolidation of media monopolies, rightly assuming that larger, more profitable conglomerates would be friendlier to Republicans, and worry less about high-level corruption.

Reagan took this a step further when he did away with the Fairness Doctrine, all but eliminated the public service requirements of broadcasters, and jovially needled major outlets for their imagined “liberal bias,” which at the time was a pretty laughable notion, given the reverence with which the media treated the Great Communicator, but is even funnier now, since they still do.  Before long, the AM Radio dial was (and remains) 99% conservative, even in Democrat-dominated markets, and a whole new consciousness emerged, untethered from reality.  Bill Clinton greatly exacerbated the problem with his Telecommunications Act of 1996, which is incidentally the same year Rupert Murdoch spent a half billion dollars launching Fox News, and further consolidation quickly followed.

All this time, newspapers, the last bastion of in-depth news and community service in the industry, continued to cannibalize once-revered names in journalism; clobbered by the ever-increasing demands of Wall Street for the kind of profits that would make Nike blush, formerly independent papers like the LA Times, Washington Post, and yes, the New York Times cut staff and content, raised prices, and thereby steadily drove readers to cable and the internet.  Politicians now proudly ignore the media entirely and benefit from it;  Rick Perry was elected governor in Texas without a single newspaper endorsement.  CNN’s John Avlon was moved to write about this sorry state of affairs, at some length, while ignoring the, well, elephant in the room:

Keith Olbermann’s suspension for making political contributions to three Democratic candidates is just the latest example of the problems that come with the rise of partisan media.

In the fallout, other MSNBC personalities were also found to have given to Democratic candidates, while Media Matters uncovered the fact that more than 30 Fox News hosts and contributors had donated to conservative candidates.

No such Democratic contributions have come to light, of course, but Joe Scarborough, Pat Buchanan, and other MSNBC contributors did contribute to Republicans.  Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, I say.

Whole news networks are being transformed into little more than on-air advocates for political parties. The idea of objectivity is now increasingly dismissed as a myth rather than honored as an ideal toward which the news industry should strive.

Uh, only one network is such an advocate, and that’d be FOX.  MSNBC has four liberal hosts, along with the Bush-worshipper Chris Matthews and, of course Joe Scarborough.  MSNBC has sponsored no rallies, made no large corporate contributions, and, by the way, does manage to do its advocacy without flat-out lying, unlike at Fox.

Americans are self-segregating themselves into separate political realities — responding to the proliferation of information by consuming news that confirms their political prejudices. Loyal viewers see opinion-anchors like Olbermann or Glenn Beck as the only “truth-tellers” in town, while dismissing the rest of the media as cowardly or biased. We are devolving back to the era when newspapers were owned and operated by political parties.

See, Glenn Beck is JUST LIKE Keith Olbermann, even though Olbermann doesn’t, say, compare any President to Hitler or tell people, nightly, to stockpile guns, gold, and canned goods for the imminent apocalypse.  But, as Murdoch himself said, Fox beats CNN in the ratings, and I’m beginning to see why.

The result: Partisan warfare is on the rise, and trust in media is on the decline. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has documented the trend and concluded that “virtually every news organization or program has seen its credibility marks decline” over the past decade.

Well, the abysmal performance of the media during the Bush years, with the glaringly ironic exception of Keith Olbermann, may have had something to do with this sad state of affairs, but since Avlon works for Glenn Beck’s old employer, he’s paid not to see this.

Even C-Span, which offers unedited coverage of public events without commentary, has experienced a steep — and absurd — decline in believability. In this hyperpartisan environment, people literally don’t trust what they see with their own eyes. Polarizing for profit might be good for ratings in the short run, but its bad for the country.

And who has the highest ratings?  Who is the most polarizing?  And finally, whose audience believes the most false things?  If you guessed Fox, you’re considerably smarter than Avlon.

Olbermann’s on-air protégé Rachael Maddow described the difference between MSNBC and Fox as this: “They run as a political operation, we are not.” She added, “The point has been made and Keith should be back hosting ‘Countdown’” — less than 24 hours after his suspension.

Avlon naturally sidesteps the plain factuality of Maddow’s statement…

It’s natural for Maddow to defend Olbermann — they are close colleagues, talented broadcasters cut from the same ideological cloth. What was more surprising was the number of conservative commentators who rushed to Olbermann’s defense. They embrace the idea of hyperpartisanship in all things news and opinion.

No, stupid, they embrace their own hyperpartisanship, and as expected are clinging to the coattails of a legitimate news organization to justify their own behavior.

Fox News — which rarely loses an opportunity to attack the left — gave comparatively little coverage to Olbermann’s suspension. Here’s the reason for their reaction: Conservative media warriors welcome outright liberal advocates, because they justify the right’s own ideological approach.

No, because they lie 24/7, they like to foster the idea that everyone else lies, too.  Fact checking would help here, but isn’t forthcoming.

Olbermann symbolizes a fight for public opinion that the right believes it can win. After all, at any given time roughly 50 percent more Americans self-identify as conservative rather than liberal. A 2009 Pew poll found that 15 percent of Americans call themselves conservative Republicans while just 11 percent describe themselves as liberal Democrats.

The reason the right believes it can win is because “neutral” outlets like CNN routinely give lies and truth equal billing, and as always, the lies overwhelmingly come from just one side of the political spectrum.  Further, the polls he so grandly cites are just the usual lazy and pointless ones about labels rather than policy; when people are polled about actual policies, liberal policies (regarding taxation, war, social spending, and on and on) reliably win hands-down over conservative ones.

If right-wingers give Americans false choices between the two, they know they can win. But this approach ignores the plurality of Americans who are in the center — and the fact that independent voters are the largest and fastest growing segment of the electorate. That is a huge unmet market looking for a strong advocate.

That’s what CNN thinks it’s doing, and look how that turned out.  Never mind the idiocy of anyone needing a “strong advocate” for the “center,” which has steadily marched further and further right than ever before in American history, thanks in part to muddle-minded gasbags like Avlon, who never tire of seeing Republican shit and telling America it’s really Shinola.

In the current hyperpartisan media environment, it’s easy to forget that it hasn’t always been this way. Broadcast icon Edward R. Murrow was not a registered Democrat or Republican — he was an independent. Before courageously taking on Sen. Joe McCarthy, he was considered an anti-communist, supporting, for example, the execution of the Rosenbergs as spies for the Soviet Union. He wouldn’t have dreamed of giving donations to political candidates.

Murrow was anti-crazy.  CNN, on the other hand, thinks crazy people are worthy of a fair, non-fact-checked airing, balanced by someone relatively sane.  Olbermann is sick of that false dichotomy, and gave a few bucks to keep crazies out of Washington.

Murrow’s colleague Charles Collingwood said, “His politics were based on old-fashioned notions of morality and honor, not ideology.” If this sounds simply old-fashioned, it should not. This idea is at the enduring heart of both good government and good journalism.

Sounds like Keith to me, but unfortunately, not like CNN.

Sen. Patrick Daniel Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” But the current polarized political environment results in Americans engaging in civic debates armed with only their own exaggerated partisan “facts” — for example, the latest overheated myth that President Obama’s trip to India was going to cost $200 million a day and be accompanied by 34 warships — and cynicism becomes justified with the knowledge that news anchors are shilling for political parties. This is ultimately dangerous for a democracy.

See?  Republicans lie, every day, so that means liberals should just let them, for fear of being “partisan.”

The current spin cycle might be hitting such a sickening extent that there is a demand for something different — that’s the impulse that I believe was behind the success of Jon Stewart’s Rally for Sanity last weekend. After all, 44 percent of Americans born after 1977 identify themselves as independent, according to the Pew Center. The American people want something more than the predictable parroting of partisan talking points.

Independent on-air journalists don’t have to be without opinion to be nonpartisan — they just have to be honest brokers, punching left and right as their conscience and common sense dictates. We need to play offense from the center and create a strong alternative.

The ideal of independence is being degraded by the proliferation of partisan media. The fact that undisclosed donations by opinion anchors like Olbermann are being defended is evidence of how far off course we’ve gotten. The lines between political and media figures are blurring; we are getting used to journalists functioning as party apologists while elected officials sound increasingly like radio talk show hosts.

But the search for the truth doesn’t conform to a partisan prism. Reasserting reasonable standards of independence can help restore trust in the news media and help stop the political Balkanization of the United States.

Oh, for Pete’s sake.  It’s telling that a dozen years of Fox News’ systematic, flagrant and consequential journalistic malpractice didn’t ever spur Avlon to write this astonishingly inept and clueless piece, back when such a thing might have helped stop an idiot like George Bush from being elected, and/or stopped a disastrous war or two.  He finally got off his lazy ass yesterday to pompously and long-windedly whine about Keith fucking Olbermann’s (disclosed) contributions to a few pretty unimportant Democratic candidates.

I guess at CNN, that’s enterprise reporting.

13 Comments

  1. dirigo says:

    Murrow’s always a good historical “decision point.” Eric Sevareid too, thank you a lot, by golly. Oh yahh …

    • cocktailhag says:

      I wanted to cut the article for being so long and boring, but every bit was so deliciously corrupt and stupid, I kept it all, and Edward R. Murrow, too. Who’s this guy to talk about real journalists long gone? They’d be rolling over in their graves, if you ask me. Like CNN, pretty soon, at this rate.

  2. dirigo says:

    I’ve strolled through Grand Central Terminal in Noo Yawk over the last few days.

    MSNBC has plastered posters about its various news “personalities” all over the place. Among those gilded pates, and patesses, displayed, is of course Keith. Or, if you like, Keef!

    I noticed that amidst the now evaporated kerfuffle regarding his “offense,” suspension, and reinstatement, none of the posters of Keef were torn down or otherwise disappeared from the great Gotham train station.

    Just a vignette about the media fun house mirror from a former broadcast NEWSMAN!!! – turned actor.

    It may be, given the unintended consequences of American broadcast news – which yoked the idea of “immediacy” (get it on first and get it right) to a reasonable standard of “hard news” delivery with, well, show business (Think Kukla, Fran and Ollie giving the news, weather, and sports) – it really couldn’t have arrived at a more crazed intersection of noise and nonsense than what we have now.

    I mean at the time, say in the late forties, when teevee invited itself into living rooms all over the country (did anyone ask?), the relative innocence of Betty Furness selling washing machines in her hoop dresses, or swaggering ads for Luckies, placed snugly between stentorian news personages like John Cameron Swayze, or whomever, seemed to be so swell through its vaseline-smeared black and white lens.

    What could go wrong?

    Well a short if simplistic answer is, obviously, entertainment values eventually trumped news values; and how could it not, with ratings to think about, linked to sacred ad revenues?

    Straight broadcast news could only thrive, and then survive, for a very short time in historical terms. It was never, in its best incarnation, an engine for growth.

    But as a trained actor who once “presented” the news on both radio and teevee, albeit in small and medium markets, I was always puzzled by the performance dilemma built in to the news delivery structure.

    Most people I met or worked with, when I did it, were not actors really, and not really terrific performers either. And in fact I found that with the advent of consultants, the dye was cast, such that the clownish, boorish, self-parodying news personalities would one day take over the asylum, driving out the “intellectuals” and conveyors of facts, leading to a collapse into the massive nuthouse of 21st century broadcast news and “commentary” that we see today.

    Not to claim to be a seer, but I had a conflict with all this almost thirty years ago, while in it, and got out.

    No regrets personally, but the nation is suffering terribly from this hoax. That’s what it’s become, and while I think it came about largely by accident, people like Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch have exploited this peculiar vacuum to the hilt.

    I’d bet Ed Murrow, who famously complained about television failing to live up to its potential – stating that such a failing would mean the machine would be nothing more than wires and tubes in a box – would be truly bereft were he alive today to speak to the problem.

    That’s not to propose Murrow for any kind of sainthood; but he issued a warning some time ago. No one listened.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Ah, that was the era that brought us our first completely manufactured TV “journalist,”my all-time favorite, Jessica Savitch. TV news was no longer the price you paid for your license to print money, but now it was itself a profit center, lavishly promoting its “stars,” just like MGM or what have you.
      (I wonder if her picture was in Grand Central when she came to NBC… I bet it was)
      You got while the getting was good.

      • dirigo says:

        The cognitive dissonance became unbearable, not only while I was being “consulted” about my on-air bearing in West Texas, while stealing away to watch Savitch “nightly newsbreaks” in the editing room (Jessica was “hot, hot, hot,” as Mick would say), but also while trying to plumb the meaning of the Dan Rather sweater flap back around that time, somewhere in the eighties wasn’t it?

        I tell ya: something ceased to add up.

        So I wondered what my future might be if I simply decamped to entertainment and not be a faker about it.

        The faux news personalities cannot admit to the big fake. If they did fess up, the companies would have to shut down all the transmitters and put all of the talent on the dole! Not to mention the account executives.

        • cocktailhag says:

          That’s it, really, and I say it (as do others) all the time. Everyone in the industry is so complicit that they all lie for each other out of sheer habit. Our loss is (hopefully) their gain. So far so good.

  3. retzilian says:

    I just wish we had a clear option, instead of foraging for underground newspapers and trying to sift the wheat from the chaff (and most is chaff). I wish we had a tv network that was “all the news, none of the bullshit.”

    And nobody had to be any good at anything but reading the ticker tape, as far as I’m concerned.

    But none of the networks are simply giving news, although the BBC is kinda still good, or the closest one.

  4. nancy says:

    Closely related and a bit more profane, in case you missed it, looks like Driftglass might have had you in mind with his evisceration of what he calls the Sunday morning “Mouse Circus” on our tv screens which we’re all supposed to regard as the combined received wisdom of the punditry.

    http://driftglass.blogspot.com/2010/11/sunday-morning-comin-down.html

    • cocktailhag says:

      Wow. I didn’t need to write this blog; Driftglass already had it. (Not so much that great minds think alike, but that the story has been so blindingly obvious, yet still unmentioned, that lots of people must be thinking along these lines….)
      Great article, and great catch. Thanks.

  5. retzilian says:

    Drifty is one of my daily reads. He’s in Chicago and often blogs about the local political scene, but he also does some good photoshops and parodies that are well worth a daily look.

    I just sent him $$ for his annual birthday fundraiser. He’s the same age as I am. OLD. He’s only one of a handful of bloggers I support with actual cash.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Ah. old like me; hence the “hag” in the nom de blog. (The voice on FDL radio should have tipped me off…) He’s great, and I’ll read him more often.