News Media: Why Political Reporting Is Mistrusted

News Media: Why Political Reporting Is Mistrusted

As our nation has become politically polarized, the media’s continued application of a “false equivalence” doctrine has caused and exaggerated disagreements and minimized areas of agreement on many issues important for the survival of our democratic tradition. Eric Alterman’s article, “Both Sides Do It: How false equivalence is distorting the 2016 election coverage” (The NATION, June 20/27, 2016), admirably describes how and why this media practice has been promoted by major media since WWII. We can hope for another that provides the solution our nation desperately needs.

Some suggestions may be helpful. Alterman identifies the NY Times which he calls the “worst offender,” but also “America’s most comprehensive and influential news-gathering institution.” He also cites—major offenders like the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Politico, and broadcast and cable media Sunday shows, though he says, “none come close to challenging The Times’ 1,300-person newsroom….” He describes “false equivalence” as first, loyalty to (so-called) “objectivity.” “No matter what the context, reporters feel compelled, for the record, to offer an opposing view….”

The “to be sure…” paragraph is an automatic “other side” statement, inserted to “balance” the article. (Why? One reason is to “satisfy” readers with opposing views of “equivalency,” whether false or not. Thus, media almost always mention “voter fraud,” as a reason to limit registration when there is almost no evidence that it exists. Or the comparison of 3,500 lawsuits against Donald Trump with one 40-year-old suit against the Clintons. The NY Times is well aware of the problem, has lost staff because of it, but still prefers to pretend ignorance.

Journalists used to call this “High Broderism” in the 90’s, and now “Fournierism,” named for Ron Fournier of the National Journal, and the Associated Press. A scholar, Jay Rosen. describes Fournierism as a “universal contempt for purists, praise for moderates, and the fuzzy pragmatism that is also called “bipartisanship.” Alterman says, “Fournierism underlies not only “both-sides-do-it” journalism but also the political posturing of the most prestigious pundits and so-called experts who populate the nation’s op ed pages and Sunday roundtables.” (He names names—Woodward, Friedman, Milbank, Dowd, Marcus, NPR.)
The article is most convincing and can be a guide for what to “look for” and beware of when reading or listening political pundits, on the so-called “they all do it” issues in the 2016 elections. Alterman calls this “journalist abdications of responsibility (and) harmful to democracy.”

So, what can be done, if anything, about “media malpractice?” First, a few publications try to minimize it. THE WEEK, The Best of the US and International Media, uses a format that frames the issue, and then presents opposing views. What Happened, What the Editorials Said, What the Columnists Said—is its approach. The weakness is, it STILL relies on media that are likely to be using the “they all do it,” doctrine.

The broadcast and cable media are the most difficult to deal with. However, print news media could be induced to provide some kind of “reality check” on statements—not silly “fact-checkers” who use “Pinocchios” to measure veracity, or self-serving partisan rebuttals. Tabulations of the number of lies by candidates in single speeches has been done. For example, Donald Trump was found to have knowingly “lied or distorted” over three dozen times in a single speech during the primary elections. A listing of those specific lies would be useful for the public during the three debates yet to come. Though media and the Democrats have this, it is not readily available to the public. However, it could be made available to the debate moderators and to the viewers in some way during the debates.

Another way to “short circuit” the media publication of lies is for there to be ongoing “truth squads” who will , objectively, evaluation the public statements of the candidates, their surrogates, and the parties on a daily basis, with scores and specifics on truthfulness, distortion, misleading or otherwise untrue statements or implications.
The media will continue to do what is usually does, from inertia, ignorance or partisanship or a combination, as long as it is profitable to do so. How the public can cause it to become more objective and concerned about its negative effects on the democratic process must involve some consequences for NOT being and reward for good performance. Financial reward is already high for broadcast media; for other media it is less clear.

Of course, the most efficient way to control objectivity is to limit campaigning and political activity from going on art unreasonable lengths. That will take legislation. Which will take Congressional action. There are good reasons why Congress’s approval rating is below 10%, One of them is their lack of honesty and integrity. As long as politicians can lie almost with impunity, depending upon a compliant media to let them “walk back” their statements, or pretend they have never made them, there will NEVER be a foolproof way to eliminate deception by corrupt and dishonest legislators. However, dealing with the media’s reporting CAN be made more objective and factual, if the public itself truly cares about knowing the truth.

John H. Langer, JD, Ed.D. Retired Federal agency manger, former professor of education, public school administrator, and writer of a number of articles and publications on education, public affairs, substance abuse and social issues. In writing a book on attention and memory as it relates to education, this blog is helping to focus attention n current issues, and hopefully, add something useful as well.

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