How to Cement Polarization and Ruin Democracy: Journalism’s ‘Ideology of Objectivity’

In 1787, Jefferson mused over the following question: Which would be a better society to live in, one with a government but without newspapers, or one without a government but with newspapers? His answer is not surprising. “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Jefferson and his fellow founders understood that, without a well-informed public, it was susceptible to being duped by self-interested rhetoricians. Unfortunately, if Jefferson saw the newspapers of today, I think he’d reconsider his answer. Today, most major media outlets, most of the time, on most major issues, practice a form of journalism that seems predicated on telling the reader something she probably already suspected were true.

Plenty of sincere news articles seem content to present both sides of a dispute without any regards for the wholly discoverable truth. Christopher Hitchens called this the “ideology of objectivity,” by which the word “objectivity” is operationally replaced with the word “balance.” After all, the journalist is to remain impartial, right? But objectivity proper ought to be completely obsessed with divulging the facts, regardless of who, if anyone, possesses them. Paul Krugman parodied this journalistic priority for balance over truth by imagining the entirely conceivable headline, “Views Still Differ on Shape of Planet.”

I take as a current example of this kind of reporting an article written on August 12 for the Washington Post entitled, “North Carolina governor signs extensive Voter ID law.” After a cursory precis of Governor McCrory’s approved legislation, we get the following “analysis:”

Democrats and minority groups have been fighting against the changes, arguing that they represent an effort to suppress the minority vote and the youth vote, along with reducing Democrats’ advantage in early voting. They point out that there is little documented evidence of voter fraud.

Republicans say that the efforts are necessary to combat such fraud and that shortening the window for early voting will save the state money. They also note that, while the North Carolina law makes many changes to how the state conducts its elections, most of its major proposals — specifically, Voter ID and ending same-day registration — bring it in line with many other states. More than three-fifths of states currently have some kind of Voter ID law, and even more have no same-day registration. Not all states allow in-person early voting.

“While some will try to make this seem to be controversial, the simple reality is that requiring voters to provide a photo ID when they vote is a common-sense idea,” McCrory said in a statement. “This new law brings our state in line with a healthy majority of other states throughout the country. This common-sense safeguard is commonplace.”

A spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association said McCrory’s “cynical” move will come back to haunt him.

“When he ran for governor, Pat McCrory pretended to be a moderate pragmatist,” the spokesman, Danny Kanner, said. “Today, he proved that he’s just another cynical, ultra-conservative ideologue intent on disenfranchising voters who might not be inclined to vote Republican.”

While there is significant resistance to Voter ID laws on the left, polls generally show the American people support them by large margins. Recent North Carolina polls and a Washington Post poll last year showed nearly three-quarters support requiring voters to show photo ID.

The Post poll also showed, though, that Americans are split when it comes to whether it’s more important to fight voter suppression or to combat voter fraud. And while Voter ID polls popularly, the bill covers much more than that.

Several similar efforts have passed in recent years in other states with Republican-controlled state legislatures and GOP governors, but North Carolina’s has drawn a particularly high degree of backlash from the left, given how far-reaching and all-inclusive the new law is. […]

The other big change in the law — a reduction in the number of early-voting days — could diminish Democrats’ historical advantage in early voting, which accounted for more than half of ballots cast in North Carolina last year.

But Republicans note that the law still requires the same number of hours of early voting — just over a smaller period of time. County election officials can either extend hours on a given day or provide more early voting locations.

It is amazing that this kind of “reporting” passes as journalism. What exactly does one learn here that one did not already suppose? Other than the names of a few angry politicians, probably very little. Democrats predictably view the legislation as an attempt to suppress votes, while Republicans praise the law as progress towards curbing voter fraud. I can quickly think of several questions I would have liked to have seen addressed in this article: Has there been voter fraud in North Carolina? If so, how much? Were voting irregularities the fault of voters’ deliberate chicanery or innocent mistakes? Will this legislation adequately address the fraud that has taken place, or does it potentially endanger more votes than it protects? Who wrote this legislation, and what information did they use when drafting it? How many voters will have to obtain ID cards in order to vote before the next election, and how difficult is it in the state to obtain such identification? Probably not until my twentieth-seventh question would I even think of asking what the spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association thought of the legislation.

But our journalist Aaron Blake isn’t concerned with providing information here. All that you, dear citizen, need to know is that Republicans like the law, and Democrats don’t. But I suspect you had already figured that much. Perhaps the greatest indication that journalists or media outlets at large are lazy and indifferent to fact-finding is the ever greater dependence of conducting and citing opinion polls. Journalists, one would think, ought to be in the business of educating the public, not telling it what other people think. Again, ask yourself how many times you have heard the results of a poll about the popularity or disapproval of the Affordable Care Act. Now, when was the last time you read an article about the changes in healthcare that was truly informative and elevated the collective understanding of the law? It’s is truly worrisome when the most visible journalist of the day, David Gregory, openly confesses on his program Meet the Press that he doesn’t fully understand how the exchanges or employer mandate parts of the law work, and then says that what he does know is that workers are upset because they are being charged a new Medicare surtax – which, it turns out, is actually false. (Only the top 2% of earners pay this tax.) Even worse, none of the journalists sitting at his table, including Eugene Robinson, David Brooks, and E.J. Dionne, had either the knowledge or temerity to correct him. Perhaps Gregory would have known this important fact if he weren’t constantly inviting politicians, strategists, and pundits on to his show to debate the “optics” of the ACA, or how voters “felt” about it.

The laughably “objective” Washington Post article cited earlier corroborates the findings of a study from 2009 regarding the real content of our news. Researchers from Pew looked at the articles generated for Baltimore’s newspapers for one week and discovered that 86% of the stories originated from a journalist’s simple regurgitation of statements made by politicians, spokespeople, officials, or other PR-approved sources, while the other 14% were the result of genuine investigative reporting. This finding is not surprising. Given the disappearance of ink-and-paper newspapers, newsrooms are having to shrink their staff, which includes the very journalists who produce their content. With fewer reporters and fewer resources, journalists are increasingly reliant on unfiltered messages crafted by media consultants and political strategists. Delaware, for example, does not have a single full-time reporter covering its state government.

This method of journalism, obviously, is not without its consequences. The sacrifice of the truth for a “he-said, she-said” presentation of current events only reinforces political hyperpolarization. Take, for instance, the strong opposition to U.S.’s support of the rebels in Syria. Detractors fear that arming or in any way aiding the opposition will only strengthen al-Qaeda. How many times have we heard this opinion, in one form or another? Compare that number to the times have we heard the name Adnan Khotoba, the man in charge of weapons procurement in the Free Syrian Army, who is tasked with collecting and storing supplies, ammunition, and guns from abroad. Any Western support for the rebels would run through him, a man who represents a secular faction that has suffered countless casualties and whose pleas for assistance have fallen on cynical and misinformed ears. Yet instead of introducing his name, position, or role into the debate, the media will relentless recycle the opinions of the president’s opponents in deference to the ideology of objectivity. What we find is that many journalists are indeed biased: they are biased in favor of logging opposing opinions and are against the revelation of facts that would put pressure on cherished talking points.

I don’t mean to exaggerate when I cite common journalistic practices as the possible seed of democracy’s ruin. But journalism indifferent to the unearthing of critical facts will translate into what Krugman has called “post-truth” politics, where the president is a Muslim socialist, a pragmatic centrist, and an NWO Wall Street puppet all at once. If democracy is to thrive, it needs a public that is educated rather than agitated, since our government’s very basis is, as Jefferson noted, the very “opinion of the people.”

I have to say, the more one seeks out objectivity, the more one finds mere balance. A recent report from the excellent media-critical watchdog FAIR identified glaring examples of the three major plagues of the contemporary media: post-truth balance, the rise of PR hacks, and journalistic laziness and deference to official spin. Below is an excerpt from Politico’s ‘objective treatment‘ of the issue of education in New York City during the mayoral contest:

For those [anti-privatization] activists, de Blasio’s victory – coming on top of a handful of other recent wins for their side – is a sign the tide might slowly be turning.

“De Blasio defined himself as the anti-Bloomberg, especially on education – anti-testing, anti-privatization and focused on listening to parents and improving classroom conditions,” said Leonie Haimson, a parent activist and executive director of the organization Class Size Matters.

His win suggests that the national reform movement has “grown stale and unpopular,” said Diane Ravitch, an education historian who has emerged as a leader of the opposition. “The voters of New York City have had enough.”

There were, of course, many other issues animating the mayoral primary. De Blasio, who now works as the city’s public advocate, consistently took the most liberal positions in the primary field of seven, decrying the vast gap between rich and poor in New York and promising to end the Bloomberg-era policing policy of “stop and frisk,” which he said too often targeted black and Hispanic youth.

But exit polls showed that education was a key issue for voters, and de Blasio made it a central plank of his campaign. He pledged, for instance, to maintain a cap limiting the number of charter schools and to stop providing rent-free space in city buildings for charters, which are publicly funded but generally privately run. De Blasio even directly attacked one of the city’s most successful and well-financed charter operators, Eva Moskowitz, who runs a network called Success Academies. […]

Conservatives, meanwhile, cautioned Democrats against assuming de Blasio will cruise to victory in November if he does secure the nomination. Democrats have a big edge in voter registration in New York City, but de Blasio’s pledges to impose new taxes on the wealthy and overhaul policing strategies may not go over well with all of them.

“It’s not over until the fat lady sings,” said Michael Petrilli, an education analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “And the fat lady, in this case, is [Republican nominee] Joe Lhota.”

Now, it is not as if there is no information in this article – there is. But, is there any indication as to which side has the better answer for actually fixing the city’s schools? It would seem to me that this is the kind of forum for debating the pros and cons of school choice versus public schools in a city that has tried both so that the potential voter might know whom to vote for. A concerned NYC parent with two school-age children might want to know, for instance, what the effects of Bloomberg’s approach have been on schools. Or, she might want to ask about standardized test scores in the public schools and how they rank nationally, and whether students are indeed learning, or whether they are become robotic test takers. Instead, Ms. Simon sticks to the formulaic, “supporters say,” and “opponents caution…” routine. There is only one way to punish this kind of laziness: stop reading it.

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