November 7, 2008
POLITICS/POP CULTURE: Crichton On The Rags
Patterico goes to the archives with a quote from the late and very much lamented Michael Crichton on why we believe the newspapers even though we know better:
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the "wet streets cause rain" stories. Paper's full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
One of my recurring themes on the media is that the preference for liberal politics - big government, social liberalism, political correctness, disdain of conservatives and the religious - is really only the tip of the iceberg of what is wrong with the mainstream media. The state of sportswriting, business and legal journalism, pretty much anything that gets covered in the papers and on TV is subject not only to political bias but also to a whole host of other individual and institutional biases and prejudices and axes to grind, laziness, sloppiness, failures of substantive knowledge and logical reasoning...the blogosphere has no shortage of flaws of its own, but the fact that so many bloggers have had careers doing things (the law, the military, business, medicine, etc.) means in general that you get a class of people who have substantive knowledge and exposure to more rigorous disciplines than the typical journalist. Crichton, with his medical background, brought that same advantage to his craft as a novelist, and we were richer for his work (I read a whole bunch of his books; my favorites were The Great Train Robbery and Disclosure).
When Democrats lose they blame the public for being dumb. When Republicans lose they blame the media. But the corollary to the latter is that a biased media puts one over on an unsuspecting, ignorant public. So in the end the blame game is really the same thing, although Republicans are shrewd to not blame the public directly and to instead scapegoat a few "elites". Blaming the media has become the new victimology for Republicans. You won't win in 2010 with that mindset.
I think the media was unusually bad in this election even compared to 2004, especially in the area where the media can do the most damage, which is simply refusing to cover stories. As I went through that whole Integrity Gap series it was just amazing how much stuff there was out there about Obama's record - much of it from people like Kurtz and Freddoso, but quite a bit of it reported in scraps by the mainstream media, especially the local media in Chicago - that the national media just never addressed or never pieced together beyond the fact here and fact there buried in long, meandering profiles. They just didn't want to discuss Obama's record at all.
That being said, the GOP swims upstream against this stuff all the time. The lesson for 2010 and especially 2012 is getting better at going over their heads, cracking through the filter, finding ways to force the media to cover stories, and - as in 2004 - finding ways to humiliate them when they push things that are just made up.
The GOP owns media, it does not need to "swim upstream". That's a bunch of wild eyed hooey.
What has changed since 2004 is an outlet, mainly MSNBC, for progressive thought. What will die is so-called "unbiased" reporting, which we've all known was BS for a long time. Merely the stories they choose to cover shows a bias. Now, I'm not for Faux Noise to claim it is "Fair and Balanced" when it is run by Roger A. and owned by Murdoch, but I'm ok with its existence. CNN tries to be "unbiased", but that is a utopia that does not exist. Fox v. MSNBC is fine with me, I don't need me no CNN trying to pretend it is neither Fox nor MSNBC.
Now I'm all for integrity reporting, where they resist spin using outright lies, but just don't tell me it's unbiased. That's journalism professor BS.
As a group, journalists probably do tend to be more socially liberal than the general American population. I would guess that they're more likely to be in favor of abortion rights, gay marriage, etc., reflecting their relatively cosmopolitan background. I think it's also true that majoring in journalism is poor preparation for understanding or critically thinking about the subjects they subsequently write or broadcast about (as we see from former journalism student Governor Palin's comically pathetic understanding of the Constitution, foreign affairs, economics, etc.). However, as an agnostic economic-socialist and social-libertarian, I would take issue with your contention that conservativism or religion gets unsympathetic coverage from a mainstream media that consists of relatively few outlets virtually all owned by some of the largest corporations in the nation and world, depending on their advertising revenue from many of the other largest corporations in the nation and world. Having worked in large organizations myself, it's unrealistic and illogical to suggest that individual reporters have more influence on content than owners, advertisers, or editors. If there are any "institutional biases" in journalism, it would be a bias favoring the military-energy-financial state corporatism that describes our existing economic order, a status quo endorsed by both major political parties and rarely, if ever, challenged by the conventional media.
You mention sportswriting. Today I was listening to a sportstalk station. The topic was Dustin Pedroia as compared to Fred Lynn and Carlton Fisk. All Rookie of the Year and Gold Glove winners.
In the course of a half hour of my drive, between the two hosts and three or four callers, not a single person mentioned any fielding stat other than fielding percentage.
The problem with the media isn't political bias. It's shallowness. Which is a kind of intellectual bias. It's a bias toward easy answers, easy scapegoats, short term thinking, and simplistic story lines.
With regard to Obama, the media did refuse to cover his past, and I expect they'll continue to do so. But they will actually cover his present. That was also how it was with Bill Clinton.
"If there are any "institutional biases" in journalism, it would be a bias favoring the military-energy-financial state corporatism that describes our existing economic order, a status quo endorsed by both major political parties and rarely, if ever, challenged by the conventional media."
That's a great theory that is quickly debunked by simply reading any news story promulgated by either AP or Reuters.
The Great Train Robbery was excellent. The guy seemed to be a 25 hour day gay, some one whose productivity makes you think they had an extra hour in the day.
His stance against the pop-science arguments creeping into the global warming debate were excellent.
Crank, I build ships for the U.S. Navy for a living. Every once in a while, the local rag here in San Diego will do a piece on shipbuilding and the complete lack of understanding with respect to the ins and outs of ship design and shipyard production that is displayed in the article is almost comical
Michael Crichton best novel was The Andromeda Strain. However State of Fear was his best work. His debunking of the global warming religion while portraying the enviromentalist as villians was nicely done. If Al Gore would actually read that book, maybe he would see what facts really are instead of the tripe he keeps selling.
Crichton's newpaper comment is well said. Why people continue to believe what they read in/hear from the main stream media confuses me. If the Congress pushes the Fairness Doctrine, I hope they also apply to their media friends just like they want to apply it to talk radio. We can dream can't we?
"I became a journalist so I would not have to rely on journalists to tell me what was happening in the world."
He would be appalled at that rendering, so let me correct:
"I became a journalist because I did not want to rely on journalists to tell me what is happening in the world."
Certainly the well-researched citation of "any news story promulgated by either AP or Reuters" by an obvious expert on the political economy of the media like Joel B. is a more meaningful commentary on the institutional biases of the mainstream media than, for instance, examining the consolidation of media ownership by a relatively few corporations with the legal mandate to produce a profit for their stockholders.
And, of course, the fact that individuals such as Noam Chomsky or Robert Fisk or Chris Hedges are more readily recognizable figures than William Kristol or Thomas Friedman or Bill Bennett to the average television viewer in the US lends even more anecdotatal evidence to the argument of a left-wing and anti-religious bias of the MSM.