In 1997, legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee gave a speech about truth and lies in politics. He explained that newspapers “don’t tell the truth” when they (a) don’t know the truth, (b) quote someone who is lying, or (c) accept someone’s false “spin.” Even when they know it’s falsehood, the media generally won’t dare come out and say “That is a lie.”
[F]or better or for worse, we [have] aided and abetted in publishing something that wasn’t the truth, something that was a lie. I hate to hedge this by calling them non-truths; I like to call them lies. And even the boldest editorial pages, where such a comment might be appropriate, are reluctant to strike that hard, that fast. So we have to wait, searching aggressively for ways to prove the lie….
That was the 1990s. The media—television, radio, and especially newspapers—tried to act as watchdogs, and couldn’t always do so immediately. But at least the best of the media tried to dig into the story and prove the lie. We’re no longer in Bradlee’s era; the media has changed in several unfortunate ways.
First, right wingers have vast propaganda organs masquerading as sources of news. Obviously the biggest of them is Fox News, owned by extreme ideologue Rupert Murdock. But there’s also Rush Limbaugh, Christian right broadcasting, and a flood of blatantly right-wing magazines, pollsters, and websites. If we look at them honestly, none are “news” media. They are news-themed entertainment for the conservative base.
People can now get all their political and policy information from sources that are not attempting to deliver facts. We can’t stop well-financed right wingers from abusing the First Amendment. But why do legitimate reporters and news networks regularly insult themselves by pretending that they’re in the same business as Fox and that crowd? And more important, why do they repeat lies that come from the right-wing noise machine?
Second, the media has changed its “rules” to substitute balance for truth. In just about any mainstream news story (i.e., not including editorials and columns), the reporter will quote one side and then the other, providing a balance of views. But this technique sacrifices the truth when just a little independent research and objective reporting would find that one or both sides are lying.
The right wing fully understands these “rules” and uses them to launch outrageous falsehoods. The mainstream media repeats the lies and balances them with a quote from the other side. The right-wing strategy relies on the fact that mainstream reporters will almost never state an obvious truth or call out an obvious lie. Just when we need reporters to act as referees, they impersonate play-by-play announcers instead.
A corollary of the “balance” rule is that reporters feel they have to blame both parties nearly equally. Gridlock, therefore, is the fault of both parties even when Republican obstruction tactics are unprecedented. Money in politics is a bipartisan problem, even when Republicans grab the lion’s share. And both sides must be blamed for lying, even when that assertion is itself a lie. On progressive blogs we call this “false equivalency,” but that’s an idea rarely expressed elsewhere. As a result of this corollary, the media’s so-called “fact-checkers” are frequently the worst purveyors of false information. Bending over backwards to balance their columns, they declare that some detail where they quibble with a Democrat’s interpretation of statistics is the moral equivalent of a calculated lie invented by a Republican’s campaign.
Third, the media treats elections in a way that makes their stories useless to the democratic process. Months before an election a newspaper might run some serious comparisons of the candidates’ proposals. There may also be sporadic investigations of the candidates’ backgrounds. But overwhelmingly, campaign news coverage is limited to the very superficial matters of poll results, political strategy, and so-called gaffes. Again, reporters act like they are play-by-play announcers at a sporting event. And yet, democracy is not a sport.
A voter’s choice for U.S. Senate, U.S. House, or governor is enormously serious—it affects who will live and who will die, who will prosper and who will starve. It does not matter to our country and our world how theatrically a candidate recites talking points, or whether a candidate smiles or frowns, or if a candidate delivers satisfying zingers. What matters is the policies that he or she will pursue in office.
Perversely, the closer the election, the worse news coverage becomes. The last few weeks of coverage are devoid of substance. And yet, that is exactly when undecided voters are looking for information. Do reporters understand so little of politics that they don’t know this?
In recent years, the mainstream media have utterly surrendered its historic role in a democracy—the most critical job of the “Fourth Estate”—to speak and write the truth at a time and in a manner that empowers voters to do their jobs. The media must tell the truth; that was the point of Bradlee’s speech:
Where lies the truth? That’s the question that pulled us into this business, as it propelled Diogenes through the streets of Athens looking for an honest man. The more aggressive our search for truth, the more some people are offended by the press. The more complicated are the issues and the more sophisticated are the ways to disguise the truth, the more aggressive our search for truth must be, and the more offensive we are sure to become to some. So be it.