Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Calling the action

I've written before about the problems which arise when the media which is responsible for shaping perceptions of what's happening on the political playing field fails to give a complete picture. Now, Anonymous Liberal at Unclaimed Territory argues that the media needs to take an even more active role in order to ensure that substance wins out over spin:
(W)ithin the context of commerce and the marketplace, we long ago realized that the average consumer is generally not in a position to tell whether or not she is being lied to or misled, whether by way of an advertisement or an overzealous sales pitch. That’s why, over the years, we have put in place a complex array of overlapping laws and regulations designed to protect consumers from being misled. If a company makes a claim which is even slightly misleading, it will quickly find itself up to its eyeballs in litigation, whether in the form of government enforcement actions, lawsuits by competitors, or consumer class actions (often all three). There are also any number of tort and quasi-contractual claims that aggrieved consumers can bring against the individuals and companies who deceived them.

As a result, companies take great care to ensure that their statements are truthful, and consumers can be reasonably confident that advertisers are not lying to them.

The same is not at all true in the realm of politics, where candidates and interest groups can pretty much say whatever they want and voters are generally left to fend for themselves. Lies and misleading claims are commonplace, if not the norm. The perverse result is that most Americans are far better informed (or at least far less misinformed) when they step into the mall than when they step into the voting booth...

For reasons that I don’t understand, our mainstream journalists and media figures always seem to operate under the assumption that the average person is capable of sorting through all the political information they’re bombarded with and reaching an informed decision. This despite the fact that half of our laws are premised on the exact opposite assumption, i.e., that people are easily misinformed by those with an incentive to do so.

I remember, for example, that in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, the media made a habit of noting that most Americans supported the invasion. Rarely, however, did anyone mention the fact that nearly 70% of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11 or the fact that the Bush administration had been going out of its way to foster that misperception.

As I’ve observed before, when it comes to covering politics, journalists today are much more like play-by-play announcers than referees. They no longer see it as their job to step in and call fouls, i.e., to call a lie a lie. This is a pity because--for the reasons explained above--it is in the arena of politics where we are most in need of referees; it is in the arena of politics where the normal referees (government officials, judges, private litigants) cannot operate effectively.
Unfortunately, it appears that at least some in the media are looking to head in exactly the opposite direction. See e.g. Tony Burman's list of media outlets which have slashed their newsroom staff - presumably making it far more difficult for those sources to cut through any inaccuracy before reporting on any given story. Which seems to be an odd reaction to the increased amount of content available through other sources: surely any media entity looking out for its longer-term best interests should want to stand out as a particularly credible source of information, rather than being just one of many voices passing along spin without adding any substance.

It's debatable whether the media is better seen as referee within the political game itself, or simply the main filter for interpretation of that action. And I'd think the announcer role is a perfectly appropriate one as long as it's carried out to the fullest, since it too should involve some reasonable willingness to provide an accurate depiction of what's going on.

But however the media's role is best described, it can only bode poorly if the media's ability to watch the game is being curtailed just as thoroughly as its willingness to point out all of the action. And if the current trend continues, then the main question going forward seems to be just how much longer the media can continue to undermine its own place in politics before new actors step into the role for good.

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