WASHINGTON – Consider this superficially innocent excerpt from a recent (February 28, 2008) article in The Wall Street Journal dealing with Obama’s announcement of a timetable for US withdrawal from Iraq: “Bush aides once talked of leaving tens of thousands of American troops in Iraq into the indefinite future, citing the examples of postwar Germany, Japan and South Korea“. So, you read this and you may get the impression that the Bush administration had the ambition of occupying Iraq potentially forever. Now, this is patently untrue; witness the fact that the Bush administration negotiated a status of forces agreement (SOFA) with the government of Iraq which clearly set a deadline for withdrawal from cities by mid 2009 and complete withdrawal from Iraq by December 2011. So much for planning to stay for “the indefinite future”. In fact, as it turns out, that Bush timetable is not that different from the new one just announced by President Barak Obama. So much so that Obama’s plan has been endorsed by Senator John McCain, his Republican opponent in the recent presidential elections. As to the parallels with US troops in Germany and other countries, these are idiotic. The stationing of US troops In Germany and Korea was and is about the protection of these countries from foreign invasion, not about the need to have a US occupying force in order to fight an ongoing insurgency and keep domestic order. So there are troops and there are troops. Talk about apples and oranges. Shouldn’t a journalist know the difference?
Again, this excerpt is not particularly egregious in terms of the consequences of error and distortion. The Bush administration is gone and thus its alleged policies and or wish list about Iraq have become irrelevant. Likewise, wrong historic and political comparisons are not uncommon in the media and thus they will not be cause of outrage.
But this is precisely the problem. The fact that errors or distortions appear and that in general they are not corrected, while nobody really cares, is evidence to the fact that, even in the so called “quality press”, one can write sloppy (or tendentious, as the case may be) stuff, make stupid, historically erroneous analogies and get away with it. But, as a result of this, the unsuspecting reader is fed errors and misrepresentations from which he is likely to draw the wrong conclusions.
Another common form of distortion is the “friendly” interview in which the interviewee is allowed to say anything they want, while the journalist nods, even when confronted with blatant falsehood. Take as an example Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan. In recent media appearances she has come out strongly defending the auto industry bail out. OK, you may say. She has to do that. Detroit is in big trouble and it is in her state. The auto industry is so important for Michigan. How could she not defend it? Fine. But only up to a point. Why should interviewers not question her assertion that, after all, all other automobile manufacturers around the world are also in a crisis and they have all applied for state help. So –asks the Governor–what is the big deal about Detroit? After all, just like all the others, they are seeking emergency aid. And they should get it, because it is all about saving jobs, etc.
“Yes, Governor –the journalist should say– all other automobile manufacturers worldwide are in trouble because there is a global recession; and it is true that they are asking for and getting financial assistance. But the fact is that Detroit has been structurally in trouble for the past thirty years, without doing much about it. For this reason, while it is true that the crisis has hit everybody, it is a devastating blow to the US auto companies that were poorly managed way before. This is the truth. For this reason, GM’s problems are not on the same scale as Toyota’s. The skeptics may go and pick up and old copy of “The Reckoning”, the 1986 best seller book by David Halberstam. That book documented the passivity of Detroit and its inability to innovate and thus confront the emerging Japanese competition. So, the crisis of the US auto sector and the need for swift remedial action was known and amply documented back in 1986. While attempts to turn thing around have been made, the general picture has only deteriorated over time, witness the horrible financial conditions of the automakers accompanied by steady loss of market share, well before the financial crisis“. But nobody really said this.
And so, the Governor of Michigan, conveniently ignoring a long history and massive amount of data about the failures of the Big Three, goes on TV talk shows saying that Detroit is essentially another victim of the financial crisis and that their plan to emerge victorious from the crisis is very solid. Again, to a degree we can allow a politician to be the ex officio defender of a very large cause affecting her state (and, admittedly, way beyond her state). But does her advocacy role allow such a level of distortion so that people are supposed to ignore the systemic mismanagement of the US auto sector? Still, lacking any further probing and clarification on the part of journalists not doing their job, the average viewer watching the interview can come up with the idea that the Governor has a very valid point and that we should save the US auto sector, just like everybody else around the world is trying to save theirs.
And then we have the energy “debate”. Conservatives, to score points against the supposedly misguided tree hugging liberals, during the recent presidential elections campaign demanded with the loudest voice that we should do away with all environmental niceties and drill as much as we can on shore and off shore here at home, so that we could get our own oil and stop buying it from the Middle East. They did so using friendly media outlets that did not question the “facts” as presented. Here, as elsewhere, there is a mix of truth and complete fantasy. Is there more oil to be extracted in the US? Absolutely. But, even according to the most optimistic estimates, there is not much of it. Maybe an additional million barrel a day, maybe two –if we are really lucky. This additional supply, while welcome, would allow us to cut down a bit our oil imports, now about 12 million barrels a day, or roughly 65 per cent of our consumption. But it would not change the larger picture which indicates the progressive and fairly rapid depletion of domestic oil reserves. In terms of overall known world oil reserves, the US, with 3% of the total, comes to number 14. In theory this is a respectable showing, except that we are by far the largest consumer and so these reserves will satisfy only a modest percentage of our consumption and they will go fast. So the idea that we have all this untapped oil that would take care of most if not all our problems, while we are prevented from getting to it by stupid liberal policies that undermine energy security, is a dangerous falsehood. It is a falsehood that fosters partisanship in as much as the conservatives want to portray themselves as the defenders of US energy security; while depicting the liberals as essentially unpatriotic and silly people who would gladly sacrifice US national interest to protect wild animals in Alaska or seals somewhere else.
And yet, instead of consistently presenting the issue of additional exploration in context, the media, depending on their politics, have joined one side or the other of this polemic about “to drill or not to drill”. Lost in the cacophony are the hard facts. “Yes, America, it is possible to extract more oil, and within reason it should be done, as more oil extracted at home is better than less. But, at the same time, we the media are presenting to you the complete picture: the US has consumed most of its oil deposits. And, given our high consumption rate, soon we shall have nothing left. Hence the need to have a new strategy based on other sources”.
Multiply this partisanship, errors, sloppy reporting and egregious distortions by the thousands of media outlets and one gets to the uncomfortable conclusion that, in this very new era of information saturation, it is very hard to “know” what a “fact” is and whether opinions expressed on the basis of these “facts” are even remotely connected with reality.
In theory, one could make the case that the proliferation of new media and the low barrier to entry in the world wide information circuit accessible by hundreds of millions via the internet should help quality of information reporting. With more and more independent voices checking on whatever is being said or written, more and more people doing research and fact checking, this should discourage all practitioners from engaging in total fabrication or even partisan distortion. In the end, as everybody is paying attention to what everybody else is saying, the “truth” would finally emerge.
But, paradoxically, it is not so. The proliferation of media outlets –and cable TV news is the primary example— simply means that people watch the outlets of their choice not to get information but only to hear views that confirm and reinforce their existing biases and preformed opinions. Watching someone who articulates what I already believe seems to be comforting. If this attitude were confined to opinion, it would be bad enough. But now, this “artistic freedom” has been extended to facts. And so, the lines of demarcation between news and editorials have disappeared. We are all “entitled to have our own facts” –it seems. And, on the basis of these fantasies, we can opine whatever we want. Those who say we are wrong are dismissed as partisan political opponents and that is the end of the debate.
The old fashioned traditional media, rightly or wrongly, were believed to be guardians and honest stewards of some level of “objective truth”. This may have been wishful thinking in many instances, but at least it was assumed that there was an ethical code that would force media outlets to report the facts. Well, now there are no such standards. Partisan media have openly morphed into long political commercials. It is bad enough that TV political ads routinely distort the facts through manipulated polls and out of context “quotes”. Now this practice has become routine for most media. It is quite clear that, by picking and choosing, one can make almost any point about any subject. Of course, this is not new. Distortion has always been around. But it was not routine and it was not open and blatant.
Well, what is the point of this tirade? It is quite simple. We would all concede, at least in principle, that a vibrant republic is predicated on informed citizens. In our world, information comes mostly from the media. The observation here is that the myriad of diverse outlets did not spur a renewed commitment to improve and sustain the necessary effort aimed at presenting facts, while clearly separating reporting from commentary and opinion. In fact, the new media are mostly about advocacy. The intent is not to inform but to recruit followers.
The average reader/viewer, by believing what is dished out by their favorite outlet can believe that George Bush wanted to occupy Iraq indefinitely, just as we are occupying Germany. They can believe that General Motors is another victim of the global financial meltdown and that we should help Detroit just like the Germans or the Japanese are helping their equally suffering auto manufacturers. And they can also believe that, if Washington would just do away with this nonsense about environmental concerns, we could get busy extracting our own oil and this would pretty much take care of our energy problem for quite a while. All this is troubling.
Essentially there are two issues here. The first one is the open morphing of information into advocacy and propaganda, whereby he who has the loudest voice and deeper pockets may carry the day. The second issue is sloppy journalism, no fact checking and the inability to present news within an appropriate historic context. The two combined have created a mess within which people are inclined to choose their version of reality on the basis of ideology and not reason. If news and information was presented in context, then people would have a better chance of evaluating it and to form their opinion. Without context, news is a messy, sometimes incomprehensible, stew of stuff; and so the best way of sorting it out is by following one’s own pre-selected media outlet that has a pre-cooked opinion on the issue.
The promise of the internet was that we could all gather in this virtual ongoing town hall meeting offered by cyberspace. As we are all alert and tuned in, nobody could get away with falsehood or misinformation. The aware, watchful citizens would know and cry foul. Well, so far it has not turned out this way. Media proliferation has mostly meant fragmentation of the enormous audience according to ideological preferences. Just like people may choose to read about jogging, as opposed to gardening or fishing, people also choose conservative as opposed to liberal media because this or that better suits their political biases.
The problem is that this way –by accepting ideologically biased information as the only kind that is available– as a society we risk losing an essential prerequisite for fruitful debate: the common ground of a shared reality. In the realm of science, with occasional lapses, scientists are not allowed to create their own version of reality simply because this would better fit their theories. While many mistakes are made by scientists, there is a consensus that scientists collectively are looking for the discovery and understanding of facts. In human affairs this is more complicated because we have facts and intentions and wishes and interpretations and opinions etc. But the higher degree of complexity, if anything, should make those who are in the news business to at least try to be as accurate as possible about the facts.
If we conclude that we are all entitled to our own facts “because this is the way I see it” and that political debate is mostly about the power of persuasion based on rhetorical ability, then it is all about ideological screens and not about dealing constructively with the issues that will determine our future.
Ideologues and ideological struggles are not new. What is new, in the context of a modern, scientifically and technologically advanced democracy, is the progressive loss of a common ground. Outlandish propositions and falsehood are countered mainly by other biases articulated through a variety of media outlets that are mostly about advocacy and propaganda and no longer about information. The media, including the new media enabled by the internet, having become open partisans of this or that, have abdicated their role of presenters of well documented facts. This way, facts have become subjective, just like individual taste in food or clothing. But if we are allowed to create our own subjective realities, then, without a shared understanding of what is happening, we shall progressively lose the precondition for having constructive debates. And this cannot be good.