Medium and message
by Ari Armstrong
The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on November 4, 2004.
The media also took a beating in this year's presidential election. The left thought the media gave Bush a free pass preceding the Iraq war, while the right blasted "Rathergate" and the New York Times's pre-election story about explosives of ambiguous destination.
And I wasn't the only one who thought it peculiar that the left-leaning Denver Post endorsed George W. Bush on Oct. 24 -- right across the page from a pro-Kerry column by Bob Ewegen and Julia Martinez. They are members of, you guessed it, the Post's editorial board.
Within the week, Boulder Weekly and Westword each expressed surprise, and Westword reported the Post's owner, Dean Singleton, "will neither confirm nor deny the theory that he overruled a pro-Kerry majority on the Post's editorial board."
Meanwhile, political attacks by both sides misrepresented candidates' viewpoints, pulled quotes out of context and neglected crucial context. The worst example of this, to my mind, was when Michael Moore showed a clip of Bush in a tuxedo talking about the "haves and the have-mores." As DaveKopel.com points out, Bush was speaking at a charity event to raise money for sick people. The tradition at that event is for speakers to "roast" themselves, something Al Gore did, too. A MoveOn ad also quoted Bush out of context.
Unfortunately, if people have any reason to mistrust the media, some turn to overtly biased sources for information. Or is it that, because people crave sensationalism and emotionalized partisanship, the media inevitably pander to such desires?
Last month I joined a panel discussion in Denver about "media and democracy." Michael Tracey, who teaches journalism at CU and writes about media for the Rocky Mountain News, also attended. The panel, along with various other discussions and film viewings, was graciously hosted by a new group called Organizing Political Education with Non-Partisanship (OPEN). I enjoyed this event, but it was ridiculously partisan. Most of the panel members, films and information booths were energetically left, and most audience members were fanatically pro-Kerry.
And yet the event's organizers invited a few with different views, and my fellow panel members were knowledgeable and civil. Partisanship is not a sin. It is possible to be both fair and opinionated. That is, we can passionately advocate particular ideas and values and at the same time be fair in evaluating the evidence and responding to our intellectual opponents. Advocacy need not be the enemy of objectivity.
Decades ago, newspapers were overtly partisan. Today, editorials are fenced in. Yet advocacy journalism regularly spills into the "straight" news pages. Maybe it's time to move the partition. There's plenty of room for "just the facts, ma'am," but there's no point in stuffing partisanship into "news" stories. For example, the Rocky Mountain News ran a "news" story about Pete Coors' positions on guns that I considered a hysterical hit-piece. Of course, the story became the basis of a misleading attack ad.
When partisanship masquerades as news, both the opinion and the news are damaged. Writers sometimes go through the motions of quoting "both" sides -- even if there are more than two sides -- but they don't bother to check whether their sources are telling the truth or discussing all the relevant issues. A "news" writer can thus offer a "balanced" story that is technically true in every detail -- except that it's complete rubbish.
Also, I'm not sure of the value of "editorial boards" or the endorsements of newspapers. Only an individual mind can hold an idea, and a paper is an inanimate object. Why don't individual writers simply state their cases? Writers may band together on particular issues if they wish. At a minimum, it would be nice to see the names listed of those who support particular house editorials.
A couple of my fellow panelists at the OPEN event were concerned about the corporatization of the media. I pointed out that they're ignoring the proliferation of independent sources of news and views -- such as my own FreeColorado.com. Never in the history of the world has it been easier to read so much news from so many sources. "Fair and opinionated" is the journalistic ideal for the new media. I'm the first to admit mainstream media hire much of the talent and do much of the hard fact-finding, but perhaps the old dogs can pick up some new ideas.
What we all lamented at the OPEN event was the relatively poor state of political education. Tracey blamed "consumerism," and the other panelists advocated additional "public" oversight of the media. I countered that letting the political class decide what is in the "public interest" is dangerous. Tracey argued the "public" class is better motivated, but I'm not convinced of that, and, anyway, benevolent motives hardly guarantee correct conclusions.
Free speech requires, primarily, freedom from political coercion. Government should protect well-defined property rights without giving corporations special privileges. Then, let media compete on the market. Notably, the free market includes voluntarily funded nonprofit organizations, too.
I felt brutalized this election season. What's the cure? Parents and teachers must train the youth–and themselves–to read, understand math and, above all, think critically and evaluate all news and views with a measure of skepticism. Deceptive attack ads don't work on people who can think.