Friday, June 30, 2006

Letting the Inmates Run the Asylum

I've been thinking about this post by Jill all day, in which she goes after the mainstream media, though not in the way Republicans usually do, naturally:

The mainstream media (I abhor that term enough, and certainly will not say “MSM,” sorry) prides itself on objectivity. I’m not sure that any credible journalist would claim that she is unbiased, but she will almost definitely assert that she tries to make her stories as fair as possible by preventing both sides of an issue. And while this sounds good in theory, it ignores the fact that often, “both sides” aren’t equally honest, equally credible, or equally supported.

One example: Abortion clinic bombings and murders of doctors. When these were especially popular among the “pro-life” crowd,there were several news shows which dedicated episodes to discussing them. So they’d bring, say, Gloria Feldt on to represent the pro-choice side, and pair her with some right-wing anti-choice wackjob who would often defend bombings and violent tactics, or at the very least derail the conversation while quietly standing up for the bombers, arsonists and murderers. Because, hey, that’s “both sides of the story.”

Right. And I don't think it's limited to the mainstream media, this obsession with being fair-n-balanced; I saw something of a similar sort in an intelligent design debate on a right-wing blog several months ago. The central point the anti-ID people were making--that, however enamored one might be of intelligent design, it shouldn't be taught in science classes because it literally isn't science--kept being rebutted by the pro-ID people with, essentially, chastisement to the anti-IDers to "be more open-minded." Look, I can be very open-minded. I can be so open-minded that I believe 1 = 0, but that doesn't make it any more so in fact. There's some truth to the stale old saw that it's possible to be so open-minded your brain falls out.

Likewise, it's possible for the news media to be so fair and balanced that they shift the perception of what constitutes "the middle" one direction or another. As someone who thinks she's kind of in the middle, yet is often told both that she's obviously a wingnut and clearly a deranged leftist, this phenomenon bothers me.

I have a couple of quibbles with Jill's post, but they're just that, quibbles. Minor stuff. Let me get them out of the way now so I can get back to the main point. It's a couple of things in this paragraph here:

Imagine what the outrage would be if, in discussing September 11th, network news brought out a supporter of Osama bin Laden argue with any reasonable American that the 9/11 attacks were necessary and justified. It would be outrageous, and unnecessary — the “other side” of that story doesn’t even merit acknowledgment. And when some wackjob does defend it (see Ward Churchill), his views are quickly taken to task by the media elite and conservatives alike. But when it comes to mainstream conservative issues — abortion, “treason,” etc — they demand to have the greatest wackjob possible represented.

Personally, I'd rather the network news HAD brought out a jihadist to argue with any reasonable American after September 11. That would have beat tar out of what they did instead: Running those vile Osama tapes over and over. Besides, any reasonable American confronted with an OBL fan on September 12 would have kicked that fan's ass six ways to Sunday, and that is a news hour I could get behind.

But okay, I know, that wasn't Jill's point. I just get easily sidetracked sometimes.

No, what I'm mainly not understanding is "they demand to have the greatest wackjob possible represented." When first I read that, I took "they" to mean "conservatives," though on re-reading it I'm wondering if "they" rather means "the media." If it's the latter, all I can do is acknowledge that Jill's identified the chief irritation right-wingers experience when watching the news.

The news almost never puts the kinda-sorta-wingnut on camera, not when it'd be so much more controversial, so much more must-see TV, to put on the totally-batshit-crazy wingnut. This sucks for the right-leaning news viewers because it only encourages their liberal friends to call them up afterwards shrieking, "How can you stand to be associated with people like this?!?"--as though every Republican has Jerry Falwell on speed dial and regularly lunches with Ann Coulter. Oh, and John Derbyshire is over every other weekend to tutor the kids in the hating of teh gay.

Getting back, though, to the part I agree with:

Now, we see right-wing pundits calling for the heads of a handful of brave journalits who risked quite a bit, personally and professionally, to give the American public a little taste of the truth. We see the New York Times being called “terrorist-tippers” (What about the Wall Street Journal, guys?), and one right-wing pundit called for the Times to stand in front of a “firing squad.” And we see these people being taken seriously, and presented as “one side” of the story.

Personally, I'm having a hard time reconciling notions like strict constructionism, the "dead Constitution," and, especially, limited government, with some of the venom being flung at the New York Times right now.

And the hell of it for me is, guess what? I don't think they should have run the story. I think the Times' defense that the terrorists knew all about Swift anyway doesn't explain why one of the nation's leading papers ran a story all about Swift on the front page. Either it's news or it isn't, Timesters; make up your minds. I think defense of the Times' decision to publish further falls apart when you consider that (1) despite this information being available on the internet as early as 2002, the Bali bombers apparently weren't aware of the program, the use of which helped bring about their capture, and (2) the Times sang quite a different tune on September 14, when they urged the administration to shut down the financial networks used by terrorists. Basically what I get from Keller's letter is that this program was News in the sense that the people have a right to know, but Not News in the sense that the terrorists knew about it already; that it was of Questionable Legality now but Direly Important on September 14; that it was a Secret Program with great potential for abuse, but that revealing that secret is Totally Not Harmful to antiterror efforts. In other words, I get contradictions and incoherence, all served with a generous side of martyrdom.

That doesn't mean I'm going to give a hearty thumbs-up to the suggestion we prosecute the Times for fucking treason.

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