Monday, August 24, 2009

Media Impotence In An Age of Liars

If the death panel fiasco portion of this relentlessly dishonest campaign to kill health care reform teaches us anything, it's that traditional media needs some journalistic Viagra, because about half of the citizens polled believe that Obama's plan actually includes death panels.

Even now.

Columbia Journalism Review weighs in on the current state of mainstream media and posits that stenography isn't the same thing as reporting. It's a well-worn phrase that has been kicked around by progressive web sites and bloggers for at least ten years, kindled by the hot coals of the media's collapse in the run up to the 2nd Iraq war.

Welcome to the dance, CJR.

There's been much discussion in these parts about media coverage of topics like the death panels, and several points keep being hammered by those with skin in the game - primarily, that he-said/she-said journalism isn't really reporting. Anyone cogent enough to transcribe words from a recording to paper (or its electronic equivalent) can play that silly game. But when one side of the arguement is blatantly, knowingly false, the media does a great disservice by treating it as fact, rather than demanding proof while refusing to advance the position without documentation.

CJR calls this out as follows:

So what’s a journalist to do? We can start by not by making a more concerted effort not to disseminate false or dubious claims in the first place. That’s obviously not a foolproof response; the “death panel” claim, for example, was given a boost when Sarah Palin advanced it on her Facebook page. But just because the mainstream media is no longer the ultimate gatekeeper doesn’t mean that it should fling the gates it does control open wide, allowing half-truths, misleading interpretations and outright lies through just because they’re advanced by people in positions of power.

Right-wing doctrine is amazingly effective in this regard:
  1. Tell a lie
  2. Claim you were misunderstood
  3. React with feigned outrage
  4. Rinse and repeat
Each time the lie is repeated, it is reinforced in the minds of those who hear it, and traditional methods to blunt false messages are woefully ineffective. Going on television or responding in print to refute the lie simply keeps it in the air, like a beach ball at a summer picnic.

Stephen Colbert might joke that he doesn't trust facts, that he prefers to go with his gut, but there's something to his approach. It's called confirmation bias, where we tend to seek out information that supports previously held beliefs while avoiding anything that challenges what we know to be true.

Segments of the population who are convinced that Obama isn't a US citizen, or is a practicing Muslim, or a closet socialist, have absolutely no problem making the leap to death panels. It confirms what their gut is telling them - there's something shady about this guy.

Perhaps journalists should converge and create a scribe's version of the Hippocratic Oath.

First, do no harm.

Image by Lawrence OP via flickr

1 comment:

  1. Old Russian saying...You can tell same lie 1000 time but not change truth!

    Difference between USSR Communist media and USA "mainstream media"

    In Russia government make media say what they want - even if lie.
    In USA "mainstream media" try make government what they want - even if lie..
    .....eventually they become same thing?!

    I Igor produce Obama Birth Certificate at


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