Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Journalism: Epic Fail

The House has officially shown it's disapproval of Rep. Joe Wilson for his outburst of "You Lie", which was directed at President Obama during his address to Congress last week.

This whole sorry affair is a window into the way Washington operates, and in particular, the epic failures of mainstream journalism.

For the record, I don't care if Joe Wilson pissed on Joe Biden's desk during the speech; it's just not that important. And if Joe Wilson really believes that the president is lying, well, then he should probably say so.

But the media reaction has been pathetic. I watched an hour or so of cable news the day after this happened, and one thing is clear: they have absolutely no interest in finding out whether the president was lying or not.

Think about this. Pretend, for a moment, that you are a journalist. Your job is to find out important facts and then communicate them to the public. You are watching the president make a speech, when a congressman interrupts him and says that he is lying.

Do you:

A) Investigate whether this important allegation is true?

or do you

B) Spend countless hours bickering over whether it was rude for him to raise the subject?

The answer, of course, is "B". This is the sorry state of "journalism" in this country today.

Mainstream journalists just cover the soap opera. They are concerned with how things will look. They spend hours and days analyzing how they think the public will respond to certain policy proposals. They quote poll after poll after poll on subjects like Afghanistan, or health care reform, or torture, or the bailouts of Wall Street.

But the one thing they avoid like the plague is analyzing the actual policies! I don't care one bit how many people want us to escalate the war in Afghanistan; I want to know if it will work. I don't give a damn if 80% of 30-35 year old southern white Republican males think Obama was born in Kenya; I want to know if he was born in Kenya!

The opinions of all of these people don't matter unless they are informed. And it is the job of journalists to inform them! And they fail miserably at this job. And we fail miserably at our job, which is to hold them accountable for their failure.

Most of us treat politics like a sporting event. We just want to watch politicians score points, and win. And mainstream journalists aren't really much different than the guys on "Around the Horn".( Actually that's not really true; those guys actually do some analysis from time to time.)

Mainstream journalism exists mostly to perpetuate the status quo in Washington. But they know that they have to seem like they are practicing adversarial journalism, so they seize on these stupid, meaningless events (like Joe Wilson's outburst), and saturate the airwaves with endless bloviating about them in order to distract from the real issues.

If you doubt me, ask yourself if you ever heard anyone from the major cable news networks actually investigate and make a definitive statement about whether the president was lying. I will be shocked if you did, because the number one goal over there at CNN and Fox and CNBC is to feed you a steady stream of entertaining nonsense, so that you will feel as though you are doing your civic duty by getting involved in the important issues of today. And all the while, politicians will do what they want since you are not paying attention.

And if Americans really think that Joe Wilson's manners are one of the most important issues of the day, then may God have mercy on our souls.


  1. I agree with your general point--consumer media is more entertainment than information--but I did hear CNN investigate the allegation--I think on Lou Dobbs while I was ironing the other night (had tube on in background). They quoted actual proposed legislation (for once) and concluded that while previous versions of proposed bills might have had language loose enough to grant illegal aliens coverage, all current versions explicitly prohibited covering illegals. (The wording of the bill was unnecessarily obtuse and borderline contradictory though, per usual, which made the reporters just a little unsure of their conclusions.)

    But yeah, news, and especially TV, and really especially 24-hour TV news is more fluff than substance. Neil Postman argued in Amusing Ourselves to Death two decades ago that it's just the nature of the beast. With a largely shallow and distraction-seeking audience base, lots of competition just a click away, and paying sponsors to appease, TV news producers HAVE to dumb down, jazz up, and sensationalize the day's events. REAL issue analysis takes time to explain and effort to understand, and the assumption is that the average viewer wants a quick and exciting *something* to take their mind off their job/family/school/whatever. Thus, we get the most asinine and useless stuff ever, like polls about what other uninformed people believe, instead of good reasons why anyone should believe anything.

    But don't give up ALL hope. There's always Jim Lehrer over on PBS or maybe Democracy Now! on satellite or the web if you can stand Amy Goodman. And then there's the bloggers... :)

  2. Pete, Agree! The side show is the headline. A conservative site to watch is - clearly one-sided but does showcase crazy misdeeds od the msm - i am sure there is a lib version of this - and would like to know what it is. maybe by funneling through the two sides we can get a 'distilled whisky of truth"