Thursday, August 20, 2009

It Was Never Fair and Balanced--Now It's Not Even News

We are all painfully familiar with the many casualties of the deep economic decline that has ravaged the value of our homes, businesses, and investment accounts.

Another less obvious victim of the economic crisis has been the truth. Hatespeech and lies have been on the rise in politics and the media while fact checking has almost disappeared. The actions of those with a political agenda are reprehensible but at least easy to understand.

But I have always assumed that the real journalists would step in at some point and refuse to cover the rantings of crazy people, fanatics and liars as though they were actually news. For decades these types have stood on street corners handing out pamphlets and screaming about the coming end of the American way of life but none of them ever showed up on the national news or was written up in real newspapers.

But that has all changed in a big time hurry. Forget about "Fair and Balanced" or "News You Can Believe In." What we now see on cable TV is nothing resembling news. The entertainers who pose as newsmen now routinely spew lies, distortions, and biased opinions or provide a platforms of legitimacy to the sociopaths who do.

It's all right to have personal opinions expressed on television or the radio. Just label them appropriately.

There is a guy who sits near me at the University of Arizona games who starts screaming at the referees at the opening jump ball and never stops for a minute throughout the game. He and the other fans don't want the game called fairly--they just want their team to win. You certainly wouldn't ask the president of the Booster Club to be the referee. He would have no interest in being fair and balanced and could never be objective.

But that's what we now have on cable news. People who are on the payrolls of or involved with partisan groups or political parties are introduced as "analysts" with no disclosure of their obvious conflicts of interest.

For years Fox News has been the unofficial network of the Right wing and Republican party while hilariously calling it's coverage "fair and balanced." If Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity were actually fair and balanced then none of the Fox viewers would watch them--and they know it.

But during the last year, Glenn Beck has taken hatred, bias, and unabashed lying and demonization to a level that Hannity and O'Reilly could only dream about.

Last month, Beck went on the air and called President Obama "a racist--who hates white people" without giving any support or documentation for his claim. He also did not explain if Obama's hatred of white people extended to his own mother and white family members of the hundreds of white people he has chosen to advise and represent our country in his administration.

Just a few days ago, Beck came up with a blatant lie claiming that Mark Lloyd, the newly appointed FCC Diversity Chief will levy exorbitant taxes against Right wing radio stations with the proceeds slated to go to public radio, The fact is that Lloyd has neither the plans nor the authority to do any such thing. Non-Beck watchers should view this link as Beck and his guest talk in very specific terms about a complete falsehood.

When this happened, I was at the Aspen Institute FOCAS conference with 40 media leaders from around the U.S.

When the News Corp (the parent company of Fox) people at the Aspen conference were asked about how Beck could keep his job given his record of blatant fabrications and racist rants they admitted that they were personally embarrassed by his behavior. But they confessed that Fox has made so much money by pandering to the hateful Right wing that nothing is going to change in the foreseeable future. Maybe the fact that many of Beck's sponsors have recently cancelled their advertising on his show will make a difference.

The unfair and unbalanced hatemeisters of Fox have been recently joined by Lou Dobbs of CNN ("The Most Trusted Name in News") who for years has railed on a daily basis about how Americans are being victimized by foreign countries and undocumented immigrants who come here in search of a better life. In recent weeks, Dobbs became of hero of the Right wing with his endorsement of the Birther movement.

Apparently Dobbs and a many Republicans believe that Americans should not have had the right to vote for the man they wanted to be their next president because he was born in Kenya. The Birther movement is a thinly veiled racist effort to undo the will of the American people that has been promoted by a depressingly large group of people who simply can't deal with the notion that we have elected a Black president by an overwhelming margin.

The management of CNN, like the leaders of Fox, have not been able to turn their backs on the revenues that have accompanied the journalistic malpractice that in the past would have caused Dobbs to be fired. Today, the truth is apparently just a matter of opinion and it's just fine for a newsman to call the President of the United States a traitor, socialist, Nazi, Kenyan, and such with no evidence or supporting facts.

Chris Matthews of MSNBC provides a more troubling case study. Matthews has repeatedly questioned the sincerity and "grass roots" credentials of protesters at the health care town meetings and the sanity of the Birthers accurately claiming that they are either paid or political stooges or well meaning real people who have fallen under the influence of the political operatives who are trying to bring Obama down.

He has referred to the Birthers and the anti-health care reform mercenaries and liars as "whack-jobs, crazies, and nut cases." But then he invites these very people to be guests on his show to state their cases.

He does not seem to understand that once you provide liars, haters and people who bring loaded guns to presidential meetings with a platform, you have already lost the battle. If a person is crazy or hateful, they should get no platform at all. Once you start presenting "both sides" of an issue where one side feels free to rant and lie you have already lost.

There was a time when we could have expected our most respected journalists and news reporters to be an effective filter and only present us with issues and stories that had real merit. But the economic crisis facing all types of journalism have put us in a different place.

During the three days I spent with a broad range of print, internet, and media managers and contributors in Aspen, most of the conversation focused on financial survival and ways to monetize the variety of information services being provided and how to keep from going broke in a very challenging environment. Many were mourning the imminent loss of print journalism. Few were grieving over the ongoing loss of journalism itself.

I came away from this experience with a better understanding of what is going on and why. It didn't make me happier. Even in a tough environment, there is no way to excuse the blatant lying, distortion, and almost complete absence of fact-checking that is now business as usual at media organizations that claim to be reporting news.

It's just plain wrong to call it "Fair and Balanced" or "News You Can Believe In" and it has been for quite a while.

Now there's no way to justify calling it "news" at all.


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