Thursday, June 2, 2011

Where Have You Gone, Jimmy Olsen?

I watched part of an interview with Bill Moyers last night on The Daily Show.  As Jon Stewart declared, Moyers is the most famous personality on PBS not made of felt and rubber.  I know the name of Bill Moyers, and I am familiar with his stellar reputation, but I “can’t say with certitude” that I have seen his work in the past.  I was nonetheless fascinated by a few comments he made during the discussion on the state of journalism.

Moyers said in response to a question that “news is what people are hiding; the rest is just publicity.”  While this is not true when it comes to tornado coverage, I do appreciate the point as it refers to personalities in the public eye.  Network infotainment programs have blurred news and opinion and marketing beyond easily recognizable distinctions.  Real news requires hard work to uncover, but hard work costs time, effort and money.  Even worse, sometimes the investment of hard work, time and money reap no programming dividends.  Parroting selectively released public information from popular personalities and politicians is easier, less expensive, and sadly, more profitable.  Follow the money.  Most news today is publicity, an extension of People magazine, if you will. 
The drive towards the mirage of objectivity in news has cowed the media into giving equal weight to all points of view, regardless of factual underpinnings of the claim(s).  In fact, non-factual content is usually more entertaining.  Our pols struggle to remain relevant and are forced to shout above the crowd to be noticed.  The quickest way to be noticed in a crowded digital landscape is to shout the ridiculous.  Look at Trump’s ability to lead the list of GOP hopefuls for the nomination, albeit briefly, based primarily on his bombast, name recognition, and shameless pedaling of a falsehood.  Certainly his standing in the polls was not driven by a thoughtful review of his policy positions and character.  C’mon.  That would require hard work, time, and money.  This is the guy who didn’t understand what the right of privacy had to do with the abortion debate.  It’s only the lynchpin of the legal basis for Roe v. Wade.  He was, and is, correctly labeled as a carnival barker, and a very good one at that.  The news programs became his publicity machine.
Sarah Palin takes a bus trip, without an agenda and without a stated purpose, and yet we follow her without a reason to do so.  We debate whether this is an effective way to kick off a presidential campaign that she has not declared.  If we ignore her, she will tweet something controversial and then retreat.  If we pay attention, she will provide us with no information of any value.  This is what passes for journalism - following a bus.  I miss the days when real reporters were allowed to ask ‘gotcha’ questions in the pursuit of truth.  “What did you know, and when did you know it?”  Now, tough questions are ‘biased’ and therefore out of bounds.  If Trump is a carnival barker, then Sarah represents the entire carnival, and media is buying front row seats to the show with our money.

The challenge in this environment for a busy electorate is separating the fact from the fictional, and I am starting to think that not enough people care anymore to spend the time researching the distinction.  My favorite illustration of this apathy revolves around a quote from Newt Gingrich, after he disparaged Paul Ryan’s sacred plan to transform Medicare into a voucher system: “Any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood”.  Now providing an actual quote from a politician, within context, regarding a major issue of the day, is dishonest.  Clearly, we live in an age where up is down, and black is white, as long as it is repeated often enough.  In a just world, Newt would have folded his campaign after making such a ridiculous statement.
It’s not just Newt.  Jon Kyl recently claimed that 90 percent of Planned Parenthood’s activities were abortion-related. The actual number is closer to 3 percent. A Kyl staffer defended the comment by explaining it “was not intended to be a factual statement.”  Of course it wasn’t.  And we were not surprised to know that facts were not going to be allowed to get in the way of a good sound bite.  We moved on to the next topic, quickly forgetting the last topic.

Simply put, I don’t know what to believe anymore.  Cynicism, once worn as a comedic cloak, is now becoming a suit of armor through which hope cannot penetrate.  Age will do that.  With some friends, I developed the smooth stone concept.  As we all know from basic physical science, rocks that are pounded by waves of water over long periods of time eventually lose their rough edges and submit to nature.  They become smooth, allowing the water to pass over more readily.  For me, a smooth stone describes someone who has lost their ability to disagree, to be shocked, to fight back, against forces more persistent, more engaged and more ruthless.  The smooth stone can no longer resist.

The independent voters in this country are in danger of becoming smooth stones, and the death of aggressive, thoughtful journalism may be the last wave that washes away their ability to disagree, to be shocked, and to fight back.  It is hard to hold back the current.

We live in a media world where one is ‘steadfast’ on Fox News, and ‘stubborn’ on MSNBC; one has ‘common sense solutions’ on CNN, and is incapable of understanding nuance on PBS; one is ‘principled’ on ABC, and ‘close-minded’ on NBC; one is a contrarian to you, but an idiot savant to me.  Science tells us that objectivity is impossible.  We change that which we observe.  Today, we just observe only those things that won’t change us.  It’s just easier that way.

Chris Mooney had an interesting piece in Mother Jones on the scientific basis for deeply held opinions being impervious to factual assaults.  His article ( is a must read if you want to understand how humans can ignore facts that do not match their deeply held beliefs, and how the dissonance can actually cause a person to become more entrenched in their beliefs, facts be damned. 

I’ve had enough talk of socialism, communism, and capitalism.  What I want is more journalism.

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