The mainstream news media, which is supposed to deliver truthful information to the public and call out lies by officeholders and political actors, actually causes bad political behavior. News reporters aren’t the only players at fault, but they’re probably the only ones who can change America’s toxic political environment.
Over the past 20 years, the mainstream media has altered the “rules” of journalism to substitute balance for truth. In just about any political news story, the reporter will quote one side and then the other, making it seem like there is an honest difference of opinion. But this technique sacrifices the truth when just a modest amount of independent research would find that one side is fabricating “facts.”
Because of this reporting method, right wingers know there is no penalty for lying. Average Americans have no idea who’s telling the truth in a typical he-said-she-said political story. Reporters could remove the incentive to lie by ignoring those “stories” or by covering them with some version of “Smith said [whatever] today but it’s simply not true.” And yet, the mainstream news will almost never state an obvious truth or point out an obvious lie.
Immoral people—whether they’re bankers, telemarketers, pro athletes, or politicians—will do whatever the watchdogs or referees allow. Today’s reporters allow everything. In fact, they’re not even referees anymore—they’re just play-by-play announcers.
Because the media won’t step up and tell the truth, Americans have endured years of absurd discussion about the President’s place of birth, we still hear claims of “death panels” in the Affordable Care Act, and many of our countrymen have no idea that climate change is not in controversy, that it’s scientific fact.
A corollary of the balance-the-story rule is that reporters feel they have to blame both parties nearly equally. Gridlock, therefore, is the fault of both parties even when one side’s obstruction tactics are unprecedented. Money in politics is a bipartisan problem, even when one side grabs the lion’s share. And both sides must be blamed for lying, even when that assertion is itself a lie. We complain about this “false equivalency” on progressive blogs, but average Americans have never heard of it. Ironically, the media’s so-called “fact-checkers” are frequently the worst offenders. Bending over backwards to balance their columns, they declare that some detail where they quibble with a progressive’s interpretation of statistics is the moral equivalent of a calculated lie invented by a conservative’s campaign.
Because the media falsely blame both sides, voters have no idea that an extreme Tea Party faction is actually responsible for the gridlock they abhor. Reporters constantly blame “Washington” or “partisanship” or “political bickering,” which is language that lays responsibility on both sides equally, when in fact the problem is the result of unprecedented political tactics. Most Americans never understood that a Tea Party faction caused the 2013 government shutdown. Almost nobody outside the Beltway knows that the House has been passing fantastically extreme legislation for the past two years. And voters are unaware that a minority of Senators are abusing the filibuster in a way that’s extraordinarily different from anything in our nation’s history.
Right wingers are not fools. They have adopted these tactics in large part because they know the media will never tell Americans the truth—they’ll never be held accountable.
Another way the mainstream media encourages bad political behavior is by covering politics at the expense of policy. All you have to do is read/listen to/watch the news to realize that the media loves to cover elections and hates to cover the thing that actually matters—how public policy affects the people. As a result, Americans know almost nothing about laws and legislation. For example, after four years of public debate, shouldn’t Americans have a basic understanding of the Affordable Care Act? But they don’t. This ignorance enables the ACA’s opponents to continue to lie about it, day after day.
The media’s ultra-focus on politics skews how officeholders and candidates act. Nowadays it is common for a candidate or PAC to launch a scathing web-only attack ad. If not for the media, this tactic would be a waste of time—almost no voter would ever see the ad. But the purpose of the ad is to get a news story, and it often does. The same is true for nasty, negative tweets by elected officials; it’s not done for the twitter followers, it’s to hook a news story. Candidates and officeholders who talk about policy and speak like statesmen just don’t get covered. The media encourages players on both sides of the aisle to act like jerks.
During an election campaign, a newspaper might run some serious stories over the summer when average voters are paying no attention. But after Labor Day, it’s all about the polls, political strategies, negative ads, and so-called gaffes. Just when persuadable voters are paying attention, news stories become devoid of substance. What are candidates to do? When they talk about real issues—health care, jobs, transportation, privatization—the media ignores it. The only way to get a story is to launch mindless attacks. So they do.
There is a solution. The mainstream media outlets could drop their current irresponsible and lazy style and do some real reporting.