Left Coast Lies, Old Media Spin, and the New Media Revolution
FULL DISCLOSURE: This book was provided by Crown Forum publishing. I will follow MO’s MO and quote some sections of the book that support my views and gush about how right the author is.
This book was a bit of a surprise to me. I was expecting a lot of discussion about how Hollywood films and television were undermining America blah blah blah. Instead, it’s mainly about how Hollywood-esque tactics and superstar-like news personalities are bringing us news that appears to be entertainment. Or is it entertainment that appears to be news?
(For what it’s worth, I generally buy the “Hollywood films and television are undermining America” blah blah. But that, apparently, is a different book.)
Here’s a good place to start:
The news business itself is undergoing a Tinseltown makeover. To function as a free society we need information delivered to us in an accurate, unadulterated, and uncensored manner. But these days our needs and wants seem to be at odds a bit, because we’re looking to receive our news and analyses in fun, bite–sized morsels. The truth is that bare–bones facts can be so–I believe the word is–boring. So papers dress up communiques with eye-pleasing charts, headlines, photos, colors, and the like. Television uses brightly lighted sets, telegenic anchors, attention-grabbing sound effects, and arresting sound bites to give pizzazz to otherwise lackluster dispatches. And news organizations produce special reports and documentaries that aim to do more than just inform us; they try to make our imaginations take flight, tickle our funny bones, or scare the pants off us in a Saturday-matinee kind of way.
Ever so slowly things have gone through an adjustment. Now News is Big Entertainment. And Entertainment is Big News.
This is basically the heart of the book, and a big part of what’s wrong with the news media today. Well, that and all the lying.
Most readers of this site, no doubt, subscribe to the theory of media bias to the Left. I do, at least when speaking in general terms. I believe there’s a certain bias against whoever happens to be the President at the time, and a bias against all things traditional, regardless of political affiliation, but as an erstwhile Right-winger, the Leftward lean seems apparent enough.
Former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw has rejected the notion of the existence of a mainstream media bias. He told C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb, “The idea that we would set out, consciously or unconsciously, to put some kind of ideological framework over what we’re doing is nonsense.” As I read those words, I asked myself, How can anyone be sure whether he or she has not done something when that something could have been done unconsciously? I can’t figure that one out, unless Tom had been getting some assistance from the Amazing Kreskin.
Kreskin snarks or no, I don’t think that word means what Brokaw thinks it means. And honest debate, a cornerstone of democracy, suffers for it. I’m not talking about opinion columnists or pundits, here. I’m talking news reporting.
News legend Edward R. Murrow once said that there is no such thing as true objectivity in handling the news. In his view, the job of a reporter is “to know one ‘s own prejudices and try to do the best you can to be fair.” Not a bad approach to take in the news biz, or in life.
I don’t honestly think the problem is, so much, the fact that bias exists. I think the problem is the denial of bias by so many of those in the business and the unwillingness of so many consumers of news to admit that their sources aren’t untainted.
All that said, we should still expect journalists to strive to achieve objectivity–or as Murrow put it, to recognize personal bias and do one’s best to be fair. But many big-time news figures simply refuse to acknowledge any prejudices. Peter Jennings of ABC described colleagues as being “largely in the center without particular axes to grind, without ideologies which are represented in our daily coverage–at least certainly not on purpose.” NBC’s now-retired Tom Brokaw was especially adamant about the topic: “The idea that we would set out, consciously or unconsciously, to put some kind of ideological framework over what we’re doing is nonsense,” he affirmed. And CBS’s Dan Rather weighed in on the subject by saying, “I’ve worked around reporters all my life. Most reporters, when you get to know them, would fall in the general category of kind of commonsense moderates.”
If we’re talking across the spectrum of medial large and small, perhaps. But outside of Fox News, the Washington Times, the New York Post, and the Wall Street Journal, it seems that the Left-leaning ideology has a pretty savage stranglehold on major news outlets. Only the fact that Fox News continues to blow the cable competition out of the water prevents a virtual clean-sweep of the heavy hitters that inform the public at large and determine what the issues are.
Between chapters, Hirsen prints interviews with various news and media personalities. Confusingly, some of the interview quotes also run in the book proper and managed to bewilder me from time to time as I wondered if I was re-reading a page by accident. In any event, Bill O’Reilly has this to say about the changing face of Mainstream Media:
The Left has had a monopoly on the broadcast media and much of the print media for decades. And now they are taking it on the chin because conservative and traditional Americans felt they were underrepresented in the press. So once Fox News came on and said, “We’ll give voice to this point of view, this opinion, conservative and traditional as well as liberal too,” I mean we do that as well, they didn’t like it. They didn’t like losing their monopoly.
The real tipping point was that the elite media–the New York Times, L.A. Times, network news, PBS, NPR, CNN–in the past had demeaned points of view which they disagreed with, actively demeaned them by ignoring them altogether or by putting people on and just scoffing at them.
Now that message got across. Once Fox got up and did not do that, did not demean the point of view of the pro-life people or the NRA, they didn’t demean it–challenged it on occasion, but didn’t demean it–then the lefties really got crazed, because they said, “Uh-oh, now we are in a position where we are going to be perceived as being one-sided. We can’t have that, because our whole myth is that we are fair.” But they aren’t. They never have been.
The immediate reaction that 90% of those who don’t watch Fox News will be “But, but, but…Fox News isn’t unbiased!” They’re right. Most of them are also hypocrites. The point isn’t that Fox News is “Fair and Balanced”, though I think they’re the closest to that standard we have today, the point is that the question of biased reporting and slanted coverage are entering into the awareness of the public. And that the news empires do not like it. The world, the world they thrived in and controlled to large extent, is fading away.
Hirsen notes that journalism school teaches detachment, and O’Reilly cuts him off:
No, you can’t. You just can’t do that because then you have moral equivalencies going on. I mean, you have to decide if Saddam Hussein is a bad man or not. That’s part of being a journalist, deciding what the field of battle is, what the theater is. You didn’t send your reporters to World War II thinking, “Well, let’s give Hitler a break. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.” That’s ridiculous. You go in. You make determinations based upon what you know and what you see. And then you report what happens. And that’s objectivity. But you don’t go in like a zombie and say, “Gee, I think Goebbels has a point.” That’s ridiculous.
Now, O’Reilly commits the sin of using the Nazis in his analogy. To modern Americans, the Nazis were so clearly Evil that their value for comparisons is virtually nil. (Bushitler excepted, of course.) In the mind of most modern Americans the Nazis are, unfortunately, merely caricatures of archetypes. But the analogy stands if you put yourself into the shoes of Americans and American reporters living it in the late 1930s and early 1940s, before the mists of time and the fading of living memory began to lend an air of myth and legend to the tales. Today, we have a lot of folks giving Hitler the benefit of the doubt, and a lot of folks giving plenty of air time to those who think Goebbels has a point.
The films of Hollywood are not totally ignored, and Hirsen asks Peggy Noonan
Hollywood is playing journalist with movies like The Day After Tomorrow and Fahrenheit 9/11. How do you think these types of cinema are impacting public perception?
I don’t know. I suspect those inclined to believe a certain kind of propaganda come away reinforced. I suspect some who aren’t too informed find themselves impressed. I suspect some know that Hollywood these days is always pushing an agenda, and are not impressed by the propaganda but enjoy the entertainment. And I suspect a lot of people just don’t go. Fahrenheit was big for a documentary but not big for a movie. Day After Tomorrow I think kind of flopped but I sort of liked it because I liked the tale of survival part. But this all comes with the territory of freedom of speech.
Hirsen also notes this
Another invented saga, September Tapes, purported to describe the search for Osama bin Laden. It featured some actual documentary footage shot in Afghanistan, but with a twist: A single actor with scripted lines was surrounded by real people who were really reacting to those lines. Director Christian Johnston had to modify his script to conform to real situations that he and his team came across, including live ammunition and bounty hunters. The Department of Defense ended up requesting a full review of the footage because of the possibility of classified information being compromised.
I rented The September Tapes a while back, not knowing what it was. I couldn’t believe that it was the genuine article, as I’d never heard of it, but I decided to check it out. I think I maybe made it thirty minutes in before bailing. Bad. Bad. Bad. I was quite amused to learn about it in this book.
The moral of the story?
The correct answer to the media quandary is the same one we’ve been scoring with for over two hundred years–freedom. The more we encourage the establishment of New Media conduits through new technology, the more diversity of thought and the larger the array of choices that are available to us.
In this charmed situation, the burden of determining truth shifts to the court of public opinion. Much like the dueling advocacy in a legal setting, where each side presents its case from a distinct point of view, the information consumers, just like a jury, become fact finders. The New Media provide the “check” to the long-standing sources. The multitude of choices and voices enable us to unearth the truth, and we’re able to do so by using our own preferred modes. We’re in the digital driver’s seat. Finally. So now even when we’re hit with something as audacious as a Rather-stained memo or as demeaning as a Michael Moore schlockumentary we can be confident that the free-wheeling, pajama-wearing thumb typers, bird-dogging radio broadcasters, and cable fact sniffers will be on their tail.
As a blogger myself, of course, I’m buying this. Not that there won’t be pitfalls and new dangers to be alert for, of course. New Worlds are always like that. And we must all be careful of rashly discarding more of the Old than we need to. But there are going to be more sides to the story from now on, and they’re all going to be biased. If we all know that, and realize that all voices have at least a hint of that bias, we’ll have a fighting chance to continue the struggle for democracy and freedom.