Abstract thoughts on media coverage of politics

As we develop our view of the world, decide what the injustices are, and determine what should be done, if anything, to address these injustices, we naturally speak with a firmer voice over time. We become more certain of what should be done. We learn how to combat opposing arguments with increasing vigor.

The danger in intellectual development and expression is that the mind actually closes in the process. Are we more interested in winning arguments than understanding how the world really works? Are we allowing for the very real possibility that we could be wrong? Because of this, we sometimes ask for civility in our debates. It is a principle that tempers our otherwise unbridled enthusiasm. We are forced to hear our opponents, to address their points with logic and exploration rather than ridicule and ad hominem attacks. We speak strongly but with a humble voice that is open to criticism. Civility also enforces respect for our fellow men and women, signaling to others that we care about them as human beings even as we view the world differently. Civility is self-evidently a powerful force for good in mankind. Civility does not displace intellectual engagement. When someone expresses their view, we should still examine and challenge that view.

Related to civility, but different, is objectivity. Objectivity, at least as it is practiced today in the media and political debates, tends to really mean one thing: give both sides equal time and avoid making judgments. Objectivity is an amorphous concept that newspapers seem to strive for. But it doesn’t really exist, and it is perhaps the cowardly cousin of civility. For where civility asks us to hear and then challenge different viewpoints on their merits, objectivity tends to challenge no view point, presenting each to the viewer or reader as equals. This is an intellectually dishonest practice.

Choosing what story to run itself constitutes judgment on the part of a paper’s editorial board or a TV network’s producers. How much time or space to give the topic, how prominently it should be featured on the paper, how much money and resources to devote to a particular story: these are all editorial decisions. There are sometimes stories that naturally demand frontpage coverage, but many stories appear at the discretion of the editors. Given the fact that editors have already made a judgment and decided what should be presented and how, it seems disingenuous to then avoid making judgments in an actual news piece. If a politician says something that is patently untrue, should we merely report what is said? Or should we report that what they said runs contradictory to established fact and history?

The dilemma of newsrooms is a difficult one. If one political party disregards facts and truth more than the other, and the paper commits itself to exposing their lies rather than being “objective”, there is the very real risk of being seen as a partisan source of news that loses the trust of readers. There is the additional problem that there are very dangerous partisan sources of news that exercise editorial judgment against truth (think Fox News). Newspapers and newsrooms are naturally wary of turning into something like that, thus they practice objectivity.

Today this objectivity, or laziness, pervades much of the media and modern journalism. Journalists write about two sides in major political debates, giving equal weight to each side’s view, and presenting the issue in the most uncritical manner. There is a Republican side and a Democratic side, and each is entitled to its view of the world. It is not our job, a newsman might argue, to decide which is the right view and which is the wrong view.

In this context, it is interesting to look at the debate over deficits and sovereign debt. One side outright refuses to consider any revenue increases in addressing the problem, instead preferring what would amount to massive cuts in welfare programs that would harm many Americans. The other side is considering a mix of revenue increases and spending cuts. When presenting both as equals despite the absurdity of one side’s argument, we wrongly attribute blame. In some sense, giving just the facts to readers and viewers would be ideal. But instead of getting facts and analysis of evidence, what we have is he-said she-said with no real fact-checking. Readers and viewers are to an extent misled about the political system as false equivalence is made between the political parties.

All of this is worth keeping in mind as news reports come out regarding the Supercommittee and their failure to reach a deal that would effectively deal with the long-term debt problem.