Tuesday, November 06, 2007


The media: dancing around a point

Paul Krugman, in his excellent op-ed piece last week about Rudolph Giuliani’s false claims about US vs UK health care and what the Democratic candidates’ plans for health care reform are, not only takes Mr Giuliani to task for saying things he knows — or should know — to be false. He also takes the press to task for parroting the sort of misinformation that’s being thrown around, instead of calling it out for what it is:

It would be a stunning comparison if it were true. But it isn’t. And thereby hangs a tale — one of scare tactics, of the character of a man who would be president and, I’m sorry to say, about what’s wrong with political news coverage.

Let’s start with the facts: Mr. Giuliani’s claim is wrong on multiple levels — bogus numbers wrapped in an invalid comparison embedded in a smear.


And much of the coverage seems weirdly diffident. Memo to editors: If a candidate says something completely false, it’s not “in dispute.” It’s not the case that “Democrats say” they’re not advocating British-style socialized medicine; they aren’t.

The fact is that the prostate affair is part of a pattern: Mr. Giuliani has a habit of saying things, on issues that range from health care to national security, that are demonstrably untrue. And the American people have a right to know that.

This point is related to one made by the New York Times’ Public Editor back in September, when he opined that the news media have to use even language, avoiding politically charged terms like “liar”.

Mr Krugman’s point is somewhat different, though. If we create a charged atmosphere by describing someone with the word “liar”, we also downplay a situation by saying things like, “critics say” (or, worse, “critics claim”). It’s a matter of how we soak things in as we read them.

Suppose I lead a story with this: “In his commencement speech yesterday, the president of the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople lambasted climate-change activists for ‘trying to shut down the Internet with their scare tactics’, and told the new graduates that they should fight against attempts by liberals to ‘throw us back into an age of low-technology communication.’ ”

And then suppose that I go on in that vein, talking about the USND-at-H president’s speech, and in paragraph four or five I write this: “Climate-change activists deny that they are trying to shut down the Internet.”

What message is the average reader left with? Whether I meant it or not, my readers hear most strongly the university president’s bogus statement. In the interest of “even language” and an attempt to report “facts” only, I’ve given my readers the impression that there is, in fact, a push to shut down the Internet, and that it’s now been exposed.

That impression is made for a few reasons:

  1. We tend to attribute more authority to what we read earlier in the news article.
  2. We tend to pay less attention, in general, as the article goes on, so that we might not really notice the “denial”.
  3. Many readers won’t even get to the denial, having stopped reading altogether before that.
  4. Denials are often looked at as being sort of weasely, as attempts to hide the truth. Those making wild accusations know that, and count on it.
Sure, alert readers, savvy readers, skeptical readers will see the whole picture. But I’ve made them work too hard, and I’ve completely fooled the less savvy.

As Mr Krugman implies, the media needs to put the truth up front. “Though there is no evidence to support his claim, in his commencement speech....” “Mr Giuliani, contrary to all fact, claimed that the Democrats....”

This connects to what I said a year or so ago about how the media have adopted the Bush administration’s terms for things like “detainees”, which we would call “political prisoners” if they were being held by, say, the Chinese. Another example from the news of today is “waterboarding, an interrogation technique that opponents say is torture.” The media are allowing the government to whitewash its actions by buying into these euphemisms, and they should not be sucked into that. They should instead be saying, “waterboarding, a torture technique that the administration calls ‘interrogation’.” That’s not politically charged language that unbiased news should avoid; it’s the truth.

A result of the failure to do this is that public figures can say anything they want to, filled with all manner of lies, and those who are slammed by it will have to spend time and resources denying it... and a good portion of the public will believe the lies anyway, because they “read it in the New York Times.”

Update, 7 Nov: On this morning’s NPR news, Nina Totenberg reported on the Mukasey vote, and the controversy about his refusal to make a definitive statement about waterboarding. In it, she said that waterboarding is “a form of controlled drowning” (rather than the usual and false “simulated”), and said that it’s been in use since the Spanish Inquisition and has been considered a war crime for the last century. OK, now that is what I’m talking about. Thank you, Ms Totenberg!


The Ridger, FCD said...

Yes, absolutely. To begin, the media peddles this notion that there are two sides, with truth in the middle. But often, truth is on one side. "Scientists deny that the sun circles the earth." This is easier for reporters than actually doing any, you know, research.

And then there's this angle - the way the stories are written.

All in all, the media have abandoned their mission, which is to provide the public with the facts.

Lisa S. said...

Well said, Barry. But we all know the media, scared to death by the dreaded "L" word, abandoned its mission long ago. Why did Kerry have to waste so much time defending himself against the swift-boat scammers? Why did Max Cleland get slimed by the Rovers? (Or John McCain, for that matter?) Because the media weren't doing their jobs.

And the "two sides to every story" canard should have been put to rest years ago. There are not just two sides to every story. There are often three, four, five, more. Complicated issues are, uh, complicated. But most news coverage doesn't present them that way. It's cover-your-ass journalism, that's all: "Well, we presented both sides, we're free and clear." They're all Pontius Pilates. (Though, yes, in rare cases, as 'the ridger, fcd' points out here, there is sometimes only one side -- the facts.)

Anyway, it's the same old same old; this administration eats away more and more and more of this country's soul every day, and the media go blithely along, claiming all the way that they're just doing their jobs.

Dr. Momentum said...

The NYT knows that it did a crappy job in the early Bush years. I should hope they are thinking hard about rectifying that problem.