Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Digging for the Truth

In one of my adult phases, I dared People Who Speak Empty Clichés to prove the truth of their clichés.  Anyone who tossed out the phrase liberal mainstream media or even the Palin invention, lame-stream media, earned sharp inquiries: which network? which newsreader? what story was never told? which report was spun topsy-turvy until the truth was just a puddle of lies and distortions?

Without exception, no one answered every question. A few, surprised to be asked, tossed CNN and the New York Times into the conversational fire, and I knew I’d won the argument. CNN, I snapped, might have been viewed as liberal in its early days because it tried to tell the whole story accurately and sent reporters forth around the world to tell stories from multiple points of view, but a left-leaning agenda was never in its playbook. It’s nothing like its Ted-Turner incarnation anymore, but I could be wrong, of course. Give me a story that was twisted and turned left instead of dead-center.

Without exception, no one thus challenged offered a specific story, a single betrayal; everyone just repeated the blather that Richard M. Nixon and his right-handed men sent forth. In their paranoia and malfeasance in office, they believed the best defense is a good offense so they smeared the media. I’m sure their misdirection is still traveling well beyond the mesosphere where alien life forms chuckle. And that’s my point: A lie told often enough becomes the truth.

Vladimir Lenin said that. Yes, Lenin, the Russian, he of revolutionary ideologies, the mastermind orchestrating the Bolshevik revolution, the ruthless leader of Russia reincarnated as the United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR). His is a name prominent in a list titled Fathers of Communism, and his cynical observation about brainwashing, also known as effective propaganda, has become a strategy for winning the day. In fact, the 2010 and 2012 elections prove that propaganda is alive and in use. The 2014 election appears to be founded upon propaganda as well.

FOX told itself and its viewers lie after lie, so often and so loudly that folks were caught off guard, down in the dumps, and discombobulated when other networks put Ohio in the blue column. Karl Rove, proving how little he understands demographics, protested in vain, leaving only vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan to take the reins and ride forth, telling more lies.

One lie that Ryan likes to tell is that his budget is new. It’s not. It’s 2011 Redux. He claims to rid the world of Obamacare; he doesn’t. He just wriggles around in its ingredients, tossing out all components favorable to people in need while retaining any component that saves money. He proclaims that his budget is fiscally responsible, but dissembles when asked to put pen to paper and prove his claims mathematically.

The budget that President Obama has put forth saves more money than Ryan’s, but most likely, few people know about President Obama's budget recommendation. It’s available to all, but not through the mainstream or even most cable media programs. Perhaps most important, the media should help the public understand that in proposing a budget, President Obama has fulfilled his Constitutional duty to recommend and request. It is the House of Representatives that’s charged with raising revenue, and Congress has the duty of finalizing federal budgets.

But FOX, Rove and Ryan are not the only voices spewing propaganda. The mainstream media is a co-conspirator, even on matters as important as the recent sequester cliff-hanger. CBS’s long-running Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer in the anchor-chair is a great example. Schieffer enjoys headlines like this one: "Bob Schieffer Blasts Washington" suggesting that Schieffer speaks truth to power, at least on the matter of sequesters and budgets, but I disagree. Schieffer merely said what many had already said, what most people already knew. He offered nothing new and certainly did not provide the full Monty. He said, "The idea was that no sane person would allow such cuts to happen. Well, guess what: even Washington managed to underestimate its own ineptitude. The sequester and the draconian cuts are about to happen, because the White House and Congress can't close the partisan divide and figure out what to do with them, which is disheartening to say the least."

To understand the sequester and partisan divides requires more than sixty words, and news has a responsibility to report the whole story or shut up. Schieffer, I suspect, will argue that viewers will not stay tuned for much more than sixty words. Viewers want 140-word Tweets, they want action, and as good voyeurs, they want a bit of titillation. If it bleeds, it leads has long been a media cliché, and thus, we who demand nothing more, tune in for the death toll at Newtown, the body count at Aurora, the latest sexual peccadillo from a sports icon, and the most recent hypocrisy from Washington.

Jon Stewart interviewed Bob Schieffer soon after Newtown and asked why messages from Ted Nugent and the NRA make the nightly news while counter messages from police officers and more moderate citizens do not receive fifteen-minutes of fame. Stewart wanted to know why the media spreads the distortions, why it takes no responsibility for the shape of the story, but Schieffer had no answer. . In fact, he may not have understood the question and certainly did not seem to recognize that he may be part of the problem instead of the solution.

Schieffer said that representatives from law enforcement had been guests on his program before, then complained that “we’re not hearing very much from them right now” as if he has no authority to give law enforcement a national voice. All he has to do is invite law enforcement to speak and give them a microphone so that their message may be heard widely, at least as widely as the fellow who offered that the Holocaust might have been prevented if Jews had guns.

Stewart probed Schieffer regarding the tendency to lead with blood instead of facts and reasoned arguments. Schieffer demurred, saying “I don’t know about that.” Stewart closed the interview without offering an extended web episode. He seemed to give up on Schieffer’s ability to take responsibility for the generalized and sometimes skewed messages he fronts. Indeed, Schieffer’s program often shows him giving politicians plenty of rope, then giving them some more because he lets them rant and dissemble without challenging their facts and figures.

Once upon a time, the minority had a tough time getting out its messages. Proselytizers and acolytes stood on corners passing out flyers. Occasionally, they were more furtive, weaving in and out of parked cars, placing pamphlets under windshield wipers. I remember receiving one of those from the John Birch Society (JBS). Its use of ad hominem, faulty logic, and doomsday predictions proved within the first paragraphs that JBS was a fringe element, one that attracts folks with preconceived biases or those who fear the present, change, and the future. A core JBS belief, for example, is that the purpose of many is “to destroy our constitutional Republic", and they cite the Declaration of Independence instead of the Constitution as proof that our nation was founded upon godly principles.

JBS has never been an organization that speaks for the majority of Americans. Its minority opinions have found vehicles, including social media today--as is its right. But many minorities enjoy celebrity status. Climate-change deniers, for example, a group no larger than 30% of citizens polled is treated respectfully in the media. Newsreaders routinely sit on the fence when pronouncing stories about climate change instead of asserting, as nearly 70% of Americans do, that climate change is not only real, but also a very real problem.

Indeed, the Tea-Party, much in the news, often invited to be the talking-head of the day on news programs, enjoys similar protections. Newsreaders allow them to speak without challenging the basic facts of their messages. The problem was so pervasive during the 2012 campaign that news-checkers and truth-diggers had more work than they could handle. Still the truth does not get through to that minority to which we often cater. President Obama’s citizenship is an excellent example. The media spread the doubt by legitimizing the doubters, by giving them a forum instead of consigning them to parking lots and windshield wipers. Media complicity fueled the fires of ignorance, leaving us with people who still believe that our president is an interloper. If only the media refused to chase bright, shiny things, they could have spared the Obama family all the veiled racism and unfounded suspicion.

Thus, the media are complicit in the partisan divide, in shaping the public debate, and in failing to inform the public, but we, the public, are complicit as well. We can and should demand better. We can and should object. We can refuse to support any news organization and newsreader who offers only chum--you know, the vile, bloody brew that draws sharks. We can double-check with before passing along a tale. We can change the channel instead of tucking in for an afternoon of vitriol with Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. We can, and we must.