Monday, February 13, 2006

America loves its lies

Every day, a phone rings somewhere in my newsroom -- and, I'd bet, in every newsroom in America -- and a caller excoriates some young reporter for being "biased." Sometimes, the story is fairly criticized, but mostly not. Readers have become increasingly bold (and nasty) in their demands for "fair and balanced" reporting. And it comes from all political directions, not just devotees of Fox News.

"Fair" is the absolute grail of most legitimate news reporters (a group that doesn't include Bill O'Reilly, Geraldo Rivera, most TV anchors and Nancy Grace, among others.) Good reporters have feelings, but they've learned to step back from their lesser beliefs to serve a greater belief: Fairness. A good reporter wants you, the Reader, to be able to make up your own mind. Why would I risk my credibility to win you over to my politics? Your politics simply don't matter that much to me.

And here's the reality: People don't want "unbiased" reporting. Instead, they want reporting with THEIR biases already built in (which is why almost every good story looks "biased" to about half the populace.) Ask yourself next time you read an account of a political squabble: Is it "unbiased" because My Guy looks better than Their Guy? Or is it "biased" because My Guy looks bad?

In a column headlined "When the 'facts' collide, honest debate is elusive," Pulitzer-winner Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald had an outstanding view of the issue today.
"It's increasingly the case that there's no such thing as the truth. Rather, we have truths, separate but equal. We choose the one we need, based on which best validates our preferred worldview. We get these truths from radio talk shows and Internet forums that manufacture them according to our political alliances and warn in dire tones against trusting truth that comes from ideologically impure sources.

"So extreme conservatives shun the 'liberal media' and extreme liberals shun the 'mainstream media.' And neither seems to get the joke that they're both shunning the same media for supposedly favoring the other side. Seems obvious to me that when opposing extremists each accuse you of supporting the other, you're probably hitting pretty close to the truth.

"... Once upon a time, we all drew upon a common pool of facts. You might interpret them differently than I, but we could have an honest disagreement because the facts themselves were not in contention. Now we have designer facts, facts that aren't facts but that gain currency because somebody wanted to believe them. The thing is, facts that really are facts, truth that really is true, doesn't always validate your beliefs. Sometimes it challenges and confounds them. That's probably the problem."

We support liars when they are Our Liars, yet suddenly become righteously indignant when it's Your Liars. We're comfortable -- even defensive -- with the lies Our Side tells, yet hypersensitive to any hint of inconsistency on the Your Side. We zealously believe every spam that says Your Guy is a pedophiliac monkey-rubber; we rise up against the obvious and destructive "lies" that Our Guy once double-parked near an old folks' home.

Does it come from a legal system where two professional liars test every stupid theory and expect the truth to be somehow discerned? Do we live in a world of competing expert witnesses/paid punditry? Are we watching too much Court TV?

America says it wants the truth, but as Jack Nicholson said (and Pitts quotes) .... we can't stand the truth. We love our lies.


Ivy said...

Its the truth.. People do not want the truth.. They can't handle the truth.. They want "their truth" and "their truth" only.. They want you to agree with them and tell them what makes them feel better..

Cris said...

Ok Ron,
I will accept your theory that most (some) reporters have the fairness thing.

I have a personal bias or two. Be it the reporters who lied to me to attempt to get the story they wanted (not just one but many and in 2 very different situations (a murder investigation and then in the aftermath of a tornado) or the PIO who informed me that the media had the right to ask what ever they wanted and I was obligated to give them what ever they wanted.

I would suggest that while some reporters have the fairness thing, fewer less have the ethics thing. I would suggest that this does not rest solely on the reporters heads, but on the editors pushed by publishers to sell more, so the advertisers will buy more ad space. i would also suggest that it is spurred on by the "right to know" that people seem to feel they have that violates anyone elses right to privacy.

I do not mean to be personally attacking. As I said, I have had a few personal experiences that have brought me to my own POV. I would like to hear your POV and others.

I honestly do not want to believe that the "Fourth Estate" is just a bunch of shredded newsprint on the bottom of the bird cage. But I find it more and more difficult to believe anything else.

Patty said...

I believe there are two sides to this coin, Ron.
Actually each person is different and has different motivations for everything. As we become jaded in life (and you know many of us do)about half of us become lazy and only do enough to get along. The piss and vingar that a young cub reporter has, if there is still such a thing becomes jaded also. This is in every proffession.
We see this with many big names in the media and hollywood stars. The difference in a hack from Hollywood and the Media is the
media is challenged more now days.
Hollywood hacks turn to politics and spew half truths because they are banking on no one checking them. You gotta admit this is everywhere on different scales.

As for me I would rather have the truth than a petty lie anytime. Of course that comes from my background.
Just my thoughts

Ron Franscell said...


It would be fruitless (and fibbery) if I said there weren't lying reporters, too. Unfortunately, we have several recent examples, such as Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass. My profession has just as many bad apples as any other. But I don't classify those people as "good reporters," whom I think are devoted to being fair above everything.

I can't speak to your examples because I don't know the details. I can tell you that what reporters THINK they know at any given moment is very possibly somebody else's lie. So we unknowingly ask honest questions based on the tip, a rumor or a blatant lie. It might seem to a source that a reporter was being deceitful, but he might simply have been tracking down a bad bit of information. (As for the PIO thing, the answer depends largely on whether you're a private citizen or a public servant. The obligation to give information is different.)

I believe the public is right to be as skeptical of media as they are of politicians (well, at least they're skeptical of politicians in the opposing party.) Back at the time of Watergate, reporters sent a message: Question your institutions. Well, the media is an institution, and I believe it's OK to question us and our motives.

But in many (most?) ways, the public has gone beyond questioning. On one hand, they've become quick accusers; on the other, they've simply stopped questioning "our guys." So the public hasn't yet developed truly "inquiring minds."

One example:

We had a reader complain about a sports story that she believed left out a key component (I believe her son wasn't mentioned, but I don't recall if it was an oversight or justifiable.) At any rate, the reader -- an African-American -- quickly played the race card, accusing the reporter of racism. She apparently couldn't tell over the phone that the reporter was black.

Bottom line: I still think the public doesn't want unbiased news. They want news that suits their biases. They want to be told what they already believe to be true, not what might, in fact, be true. And I feel a powerful obligation to give the fairest version I can, even though roughly half my readers will say I'm biased.

SingingSkies said...

Was hoping you'd comment on Pitts' column!

I suspect there has always been an element of society which prefers having others do their thinking for them, and choose who to follow based on one or two biases which happen to coincide. You ask about Court TV and the legal system being contributors to the 'choose between contrasting lies and we'll find the truth' method of operating. While I believe this contributes to the problem, I believe it actually starts earlier - in the education system.

If the underlying purpose of education is to teach people to think, then we've blown it! When the outcome of education became more and more based on the spewing back of data rather than focusing on understanding the principles which led to the data, we began to develop more deeply a culture which expects our authority figures to give us the answers instead of figuring them out for ourselves. This makes it easier for people to accept lies as truth, even when personal experience completely contradicts a particular 'truth'.

For those of us who choose to do our thinking for ourselves, though, those at either extreme fringe do tend to hold our feet to the fire in our thinking, because in spite of their obvious biases, they do occasionally remind us of facts/variables which need to be considered in our own reasoning. As much as I dislike O'Reilly's position on most issues (shock! shock! I have actually found myself in agreement once or twice!), he has made me take a step back and rethink a particular issue from time to time, for I do have my own biases to contend with as well.

I agree with Pitts. We have somewhere along the way lost our ability to discern a common pool of facts, which may lead us to disagree with each other. Wonder what it will take to get us beyond the 'my truth-your truth' method of discussing the very real and alarming issues which face us today.

btw - hope your young reporters are able to hear your support of their developing that sense of stepping back from their biases to present the news in a truly fair manner. We need more people willing to encourage those who may later step into the media limelight to develop a strong sense of ethics and, thus, break the continuing spiral into non-truth truth.

Houston said...

My complaint against mainstream media is not so much what they write, but more often, it's about the questions they don't ask. If someone gives you a lie or propaganda, and you know it to be so, what is your responsibility as an editor? Is the press simply a conduit for administration press releases?

This country went to war on lies and half-truths, reported to us by our daily press as absolute truths. When did it occur to you as an editor that the information you were getting from the government might not be true? Or do you believe that we're winning in Iraq?

If you do not personally believe VP Cheney's story about how he came to shoot a friend and fellow hunter, what is your obligation to the story? Should you mention that most of us would be required to submit to an interview by a law enforcement officer to determine whether or not we were drunk at the time of the shooting? Is failure to mention it an endorsement of a coverup?

Talk to us about the intersection of news and bullshit. I know "truthiness" when I encounter it. It's in that area that I'm never sure where the mainstream media stands.

Ron Franscell said...

Houston -- Wouldn't you say the mainstream media has been all over the issue of Bush's "facts" about Iraq WMD intelligence? A day doesn't go by that it isn't mentioned in a hundred newspapers, including your "local" one (which I read voraciously.)

I think you're illustrating my point: The facts that have been reported -- that Bush (at best) misinterpreted or (at worst) lied -- have been well-aired in the mainstream media for many months. But you apparently don't think the public has been convinced enough, so therefore the media has somehow hidden or downplayed the facts. (Gosh, I can't imagine the Beaumont Enterprise in Texas is the ONLY American newspaper that has reported Bush's incorrect assumptions -- or fibs.)

To me, the problem is NOT that the facts are unreported. It's that people are only listening to their respective liars. The Right believes Bush acted in good faith and there might still be WMD out there someplace; the Left believes he made it all up so he could kick Saddam Hussein's ass and grab some Mideast oil for his Texas buddies. I think the truth lies someplace in between.

And whether we're winning or losing in Iraq is a fairly subjective question anyway. We've taken our lumps, but we've also done some things worth doing. You don't believe we're winning yet, and I don't believe we're losing yet. Why would you presume your bias is superior?

Was it the right war at the right time? Probably not, but I would point out that many leaders who represent your views voted FOR the war at the time, and damn few private citizens were out demonstrating in March 2003. Opposition to this war has built slowly over time, suggesting that as we learn more and as we live through more of it, we gain wisdom.

As for Cheney, who told you he wasn't interviewed by wardens? That's not correct. In fact, they determined he didn't have the proper "stamps" for Texas quail hunting and he suffered what appears to be the same fate as every other hunter who hasn't gotten this particular new stamp. That's been reported in the mainstream media; It's not fair to say it wasn't reported just because you didn't see it. Besides, this whole affair shows the hypocrisy of the Farthest Left, which would normally be celebrating the shooting of a Republican Texas lawyer!

Our best decisions aren't born fully mature. Pro or con, we base our views on the facts we gather as we go -- which is exactly why I believe I must present facts, not "designer facts" that will make you happy. Sorry, friend, but that's the favor I'm doing for you.