Saturday, September 13, 2008

Journalists--An Endangered Species

The dizzying ramp-up of lies and distortions coming from the McCain-Palin campaign have left many Obama supporters scratching their heads and wondering what ever happened to journalists.

You remember journalists. They were the reporters and analysts who used to make sure that stories were true before they published or went on the air with them. Remember a couple reporters named Woodward and Bernstein who doggedly pursued the truth about Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal? They were journalists. Today, there are virtually no journalists left and none of the few who remain work in radio or television.

Those former broadcast journalists have morphed into one of three types of people. The first are the partisan pundits who cherry-pick among the factoids that support their points of view. This group includes virtually all talk radio personalities and many hosts of TV shows that typically bear their names. These programs are characterized by their lack of balance and the use of partial or incomplete information.

The second are the news readers--almost all of whom are physically attractive--who deal with political issues by inviting a loud, rude surrogate for each campaign to yell and scream at each other at the same time. This is what's called balanced reporting. The role of the moderator is to serve as a referee--not to worry about whether their guests are telling the truth.

The third group are people who used to be real journalists but have now become celebrities. These former reporters who used to be occasional guests on TV news shows are now daily guests on multiple programs. They earn most of their money by charging $25,000 to $50,000 plus expenses for personal appearances and spend much of their time blogging. They just don't have the time to check out facts anymore.

Wolf Blitzer, Andrea Mitchell, and David Gregory are among those who used to be journalists. Now they are celebrities with book tours, agents, and publicists. Don't get me wrong--I don't blame them. They should live and be well. It's just a tragedy for all of us that no one has stepped in to take over their old jobs.

The brilliance of the Karl Rove-trained handlers of the McCain-Palin campaign was to realize the vacuum that has been created by the disappearance of journalism and to exploit it by using lies and distortions to smear Barack Obama and build a phony resume for Sarah Palin.

The Republicans have used this playbook before. That's why so many Americans (apparently including Sarah Palin) still believe that Iraq and Saddam Hussein were involved in the 9/11 attacks. That's why the absurd Swift Boat ads worked so well against John Kerry. Democrats were scratching their heads wondering how their opponents could tell the same lies over and over and have the strategy work. Rove understood that the absence of real journalists meant you could ignore the posted speed limits and go as fast as you wanted--there were no cops around to catch you.

"In the last two election cycles, the very notion that facts matter seems to be under assault," said Michael Delli Carpini of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications. "Candidates seem to have learned that if you don't back down from your charges or claims, they will stick in the minds of voters regardless of their accuracy. The truth will be viewed as a matter of opinion rather than fact."

Shortly after Steve Schmidt took the McCain campaign out of the hands of McCain and his old team, things got pretty outrageous. McCain called Obama a traitor who was willing to lose a war and was a "me first, country second" kind of guy and then said he wasn't questioning Obama's patriotism. He said Obama cancelled a trip to visit U.S. troops in a German hospital due to lack of press coverage which was a lie. He has said and continues to say that "Obama wants to raise your taxes" while every independent study of Obama's plan has determined that 80-90% of Americans would get a tax cut under his proposal.

Through it all, the only people who seemed to get upset about this were the partisan commentators like Frank Rich, Keith Olbermann, Bob Herbert, and Paul Krugman who could be dismissed or discredited as Left Wing Liberals. The mainstream media simply reported the lies and attributed them to the McCain campaign but almost never pointed out that the information was false.

The McCain-Palin lie machine has been put into overdrive since the Republican Convention. They have stuck to claims made about Governor Palin's past positions on earmarks and the Bridge to Nowhere long after they have been proven false. They falsely accused Obama of calling Palin a pig and also lied by saying Obama wanted sex education classes for kindergartners.

The good news is that the level and frequency of lying by McCain has apparently jarred some sleeping journalists out of hibernation. Articles are FINALLY starting to appear pointing out the untruths that are being spread. The five most emailed articles from the New York Times today were all about the lies and deceptions being spread as truth by the McCain campaign. Charles Babington of the Associated Press just wrote a scathing article expressing his outrage over the tactics of the McCain-Palin campaign.

It will be interesting to see what impact, if any, this mini-wave of vigilance by reporters will have on the public's infatuation with Sarah Palin and John McCain's surging popularity in the polls.

Journalists of America--please come home. Please cut back on your personal appearances and celebrity spots for a few months. Spend less time standing on camera in sideways rain in Galveston and do your job again. Your country has never needed you more.


Anonymous said...

No journalists on radio? Try NPR.

Larry Gellman said...

Touche. NPR does a great job here and there. But who listens to it? I'm talking about the mainstream media.