Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A theory on the media, as inspired by the Cordoba House story

So CNN did this poll on national sentiment on the Cordoba House, and it's not exactly what one would hope for in this day and age. Why this is more than a local issue continues to elude me. Republicans want it to be a national issue, and CNN is willing to oblige them as always. The news media's coverage of this is as typically awful as one would expect. I don't know if I'd go so far as to call them sociopaths, but there is something off about the way they cover news these days.

As someone who reads stuff in the blogosphere I frequently read anti-media missives (and I've even written a few myself). I don't know if any of these has ever really hit the mark in terms of what's really wrong with the media. At some point I guess it clicked for me. The problem isn't excessive objectivity, as being objective merely means going by the facts. The opposite term is subjective, which is not really a desirable quality in news, though it's getting more popular (Thanks, Glenn Beck!). Additionally, the problem isn't excessive balance, which isn't necessarily a problem since many debates have multiple sides that have valid arguments. The problem is excessive neutrality. Evidently, being neutral is a highly valued journalistic standard these days. I could provide examples but, honestly, neutralism is so dominant in journalism today that I'd have a much harder time finding articles not written in this way.

Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of times where it's entirely proper to be neutral. I'm neutral in the carbon tax vs. cap-and-trade debate because I'm not an expert and both sides make decent critiques of each other. The concept of cap-and-trade is more compelling to me, but I am of the belief that simple concepts don't necessarily make the best solutions, so I remain neutral. There are lots of debates like that. There are also lots that aren't. The media, though, covers them all the same--in essence, the he said, she said approach that conveys data but lacks analysis. I suppose part of this is the courtier aspect of Washingtonians trying to move up in elite circles, but I think the real culprit here is the convergence of news and entertainment. Neutrality was never a journalistic value up until CNN started up, which makes sense since Ted Turner has always been at the convergence of news and entertainment. I often refer to Ed Murrow's takedown of Joe McCarthy here but I do think it's a good example of what journalism should do: it was entirely factual and balanced in the sense that Murrow treated McCarthy's contentions seriously, instead of attacking a straw man. But Murrow was not neutral at all. Nor was Cronkite when he questioned the Vietnam War, something inconceivable in an era when media personalities are fired for asking too many questions before a war starts.

You see, in entertainment, neutrality is a high value since you don't want to alienate potential customers. It's gotten to the point that you almost never see any political content in mainstream shows or films unless it's veiled (Aaron Sorkin is the biggest exception here that I can think of). But starting with Crossfire and going all the way through Larry King to Blitzer, John King and all the current gang at CNN, a new value system asserted itself. That Larry King was ever considered more than a male version of Oprah is exceedingly strange, but I wonder if he won't turn out to be the most influential media figure of our age when it's all said and done. I don't mean that in a good way. I don't know if this was Ted Turner's vision, but it wouldn't really surprise me if it was. The former sultan of AOL Time Warner has always been for mingling news and entertainment. He was, I suppose, the visionary whose vision was perfected with Fox News by Roger Ailes, and is now ascendant throughout the land. Data over facts is essentially what I think this comes down to. And look what it's gotten us.

*Updated to remove some tangential matter unrelated to the main topic.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.