On the Affinity of For-Profit News for ‘Colorful Lies’

Regular Huffington Post media critic Marty Kaplan finds something especially “discomfiting” (Jewish Journal, 2/16/09) about recent stimulus bill coverage and “what it says about the role that the media have carved out for themselves in American public life”:

If the job of the press were to help the public understand what’s really important, and to distinguish propaganda from facts, then Republican attempts to sink the bill by defining it as liberal pork would have gone nowhere. The endangered mouse that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was allegedly earmarking billions to protect; the Las Vegas supertrain that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was claimed to have snuck in; the rationing of health care that former New York Lieut. Gov. Betsy McCaughey accused Tom Daschle of hiding in the bill: None of these and other colorful lies would have gained any traction if truth value were a prerequisite for airtime. Instead, unfortunately, the more outrageous the allegation, the more irresistible it was to the media.

When reporting is reconceived as stenography, there’s no place in news for news judgment. The Republicans know this. If we trash it, they will come–that’s the GOP’s formula for gaming the Beltway press corps. With a handful of honorable exceptions, television journalists are particularly helpless in the face of phony charges. Instead of sorting things through, they just serve them up, to be repeated in the right-wing echo chamber on cable, talk radio and the internet. The closest the mainstream media come to helping citizens distinguish what’s believable from what’s baloney is the weaselly formulation, “Some say… but others say….” If citizens want to separate what’s true from what’s spin, well, you’re on your own, pal.

Writing that “of course that didn’t happen just yesterday,” Kaplan traces this attitude to back when “news became a profit center within entertainment conglomerates“: “To aggregate audiences and to sell their eyeballs to advertisers, it’s not necessary, and it’s awfully expensive, to take pains to figure out what’s accurate. It’s much better television, and it costs nothing at all, to hand a bullhorn to a propagandist. Nothing, that is, to the networks–just not nothing to democracy.”

Listen to the recent FAIR radio show CounterSpin: “Lori Wallach on Buy America Brouhaha” (2/13/09)