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June 04, 2005

Competing Truths

Speaking of Miller, Armando's post on him, which led Atrios to award Miller "wanker of the day", seems wrongheaded to me. Armando flays Miller for being so faux-naive as to lament that Americans are no longer persuadable by facts without laying all blame on a spineless, whiny media. As evidence, he brings up Okrent, references Miller's tic of crucifying the Republicans and giving Democrats a token criticism for good measure, and so on.

To me, this all seems pretty wrongheaded. When, exactly, was the media a truth-seeking missile? When were they honest and wholly aware of policy specifics? And did we agree with them then? Because I have a sneaking suspicion that the media we desire wouldn't be much closer to a media we like. When the left, myself included, imagines this platonic press corps, I think they've got something like themselves in mind, a nationwide operation that'll point out the right's lies and inconsistencies and apply the cynical interpretation that Bush so richly deserves. But that wouldn't cover it.

Problem is, Truth isn't necessarily lying on a stone tablet somewhere, just waiting to be reported on by newly-credible journalists. The right still has a few honest denizens left, and while they're quick to criticize Bush, they're just as quick to disagree with us. That doesn't make us wrong, but it means that this media we're imagining is really going to have a tough job separating truth from, well, not truth. Dan Drezner really does think Bush contributed to democracy in the Middle East, Social Security really does have solvency issues a responsible government would solve but that we have to downplay because this is a malicious administration, Medicare really is a fiscal mess, this country really does need to either spend less or tax more and Republicans won't do the former and Democrats won't admit to the latter, NCLB really is a good bill plagued by bad administrators, etc.

So when liberals go on this tear, I'd like to see them paint a picture of a media that doesn't offend. Is it us? Is is a fairer O'Reilly? Is it Duncan with a TV show? What? And how will it be able to navigate between what we think to be the truth and what the right thinks to be the truth when Republicans rediscover honesty and begin arguing their case coherently?

June 4, 2005 in Democrats, Media | Permalink

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Comments

Social Security really does have solvency issues a responsible government would solve but that we have to downplay because this is a malicious administration

Not so. It depends on whether the SSA economic forecasts turn out to be overly pessimistic or not. Even if it needs correcting, a responsible government would be more worried about Medicare (a whole lot bigger solvency issues) and the general fund (all revenue required to pay interest on debt by 2040 at current rate). A responsible government would take care of these problems and leave SS for another day.

Posted by: exgop | Jun 4, 2005 7:09:19 PM

Right, but that doesn't change what I said. According to the current estimates, which may be too pessimistic, Social Security will probably need some help. It wouldn't be a bad idea to devote some more resources to it now in order to be safe. As for Medicare, yes, worse problem -- I don't hear any Democrats proposing what it needs though: a tax increase.

The point here is that we're not blameless and a truth-spotting media would be calling a fair amount of bullshit on us. Politics works off much more than truth. If we're honest while Bush lies, he'll do terrible things to the country. If we refuse to prioritize political strategy above straight-talking solutions, we'll be marginalized as tax-raisers and banished from government. That's fine, it's how politics works. But the media we're envisioning would not be the media we imagine, it wouldn't just grab our line on the issues because it agrees with our end, it'd work off its own set of arbitrary rules that'd often produce bad outcomes for us and eventually be gamed by savvy pols. Including us.

So that's my question. What does this media look like? We hate the current incarnation, but paint me a picture of the next one.

Posted by: Ezra | Jun 4, 2005 7:20:05 PM

The so-called liberal media (sclm), which was a product of a few august institutions, passed away some years ago. Ezra is too young to remember, but I'm not. The liberal media of the 1950's and 1960's was NOT a product of liberal viewpoints or the post-war liberal consensus, per se; it was the product of a few individual leaders demanding excellence. It was the excellence of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, CBS News, which made them seem "liberal." And, it was the committment to excellence of their leadership, which made them strive to be good, to be accurate, to be fair, to be brave. The last faint semblance of that was Ted Turner at CNN; Turner was anything, but liberal in his viewpoints, but he was committed to some standards of excellence, and it made CNN seem "liberal" to people, who manifestly don't share that kind of committment.

The Daniel Okrent / Paul Krugman affair illustrates just how decadent the New York Times has become. Okrent would not know what "accurate" meant, if it hit him over the head; the simplest ethical standards are completely lost on him.

Krugman could have been justly criticized. If you want to see how, visit Brad DeLong's or Andrew Samwick's blogs. There you will see the relationship of facts, viewpoints, and "truth" and an example of Krugman letting his point of view overwhelm his fair and accurate presentation of facts. Far from making Krugman seem dishonest, it simply shows the value of differing points of view, and the necessary limitations of a brief rant two or three times a week, with no confrontation or correction. But, more than that it shows, by contrast, what a useless worm Okrent is.

Would some liberals and progressives be offended if Samwick were challenging Krugman and keeping him honest? Maybe. But, I would welcome it.

The liberal critique of the corporate media is not that a right-wing point of view has replaced a false neutrality, a la Fox News, but rather that incompetence and unprofessionalism has replaced everything. Read Somerby's Daily Howler or Brad DeLong. Again, and again, their point is that the reporters fail to honor factual accuracy, not that reporters fail to honor a liberal viewpoint.

Factual accuracy is not "truth" engraved on a stone tablet, but it is an achievable professional standard. The standard is "verify." Not "trust, but verify". Simply, "verify." And, what must be verified is not the trivial, but the substance.

You are perfectly correct to point out that journalist cannot verify a point of view. But, they can and should weed out outright factual lies. If they don't, they serve no other useful purpose, save entertainment. And, journalists are mostly piss poor entertainers.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Jun 4, 2005 8:05:30 PM

I say we start by restoring the Fairness Doctrine.

There is nothing wrong with openly partisan media -- as long as the viewer knows whose axe is being ground. There are still a few newspapers called the "Democrat" or the "Union Leader" precisely because that's what they used to be, years ago -- partisan papers.

Tell us who you are. Tell us why your agenda would be best for the country. Lay it all out, openly. Oh, you have a problem with that? You mean you pin-heads couldn't be elected dog-catcher if you were honest with the American public?

Sorry. How naive if me.

Posted by: urizon | Jun 4, 2005 8:15:25 PM

Matt Miller tends toward a pox-on-both-houses, teach-the-controversy (ie, give evolution and creationism equal time) kind of triangulation. He's fond of expressions like "on the one hand, Focus on the Family, and on the other, the NEA", as if they are equivalent and the sensible center is the midpoint between the two. That's why progs sometimes find him irritating, though of course he's nowhere near the worst offender in this regard.

Posted by: kth | Jun 4, 2005 9:16:04 PM

I think the basic problem is that liberals believe that the "honest and trustworthy" gap between the two parties is massive, but the press seems unwilling to make this distinction clear. Put another way, in the run-up to Watergate, somebody said this on network TV news (well okay, back then there was only network TV news):

'The Watergate break-in involved matters of national security, President Nixon told a national TV audience last night, and for that reason he would be unable to comment on the bizarre burglary. That is a lie.'

I think the "golden age of liberal media" is really just Watergate. Before that, the press was totally unwilling to cover reasoned public opposition to Vietnam (you should read some of John Kerry's old statements on this subject), was complicit in McCarthyism, fought FDR's attempt to get the nomination in 1932, and let's not forget the Spanish-American War, perhaps the closest analogy to today except without the messy occupation. I guess the muckraking days might also qualify as "golden age of liberal media"

Posted by: Electoral Math | Jun 4, 2005 10:27:32 PM

FWIW, a while back I jotted down a list of rough, disjointed thoughts on political discussion / the media etc., which I posted here. Two of the points:

. . .4. Putting the blogosphere aside, American political discourse as a whole is not doing very well now. I think the fundamental problem is that often people talk & talk & talk & talk, but nothing ever seems to get resolved one way or another. I don't think there was one discussion forum in the entire country during the Iraq war debate where 5 smart, sensible & well-informed pro-war people and 5 smart, sensible & well-informed anti-war people sat in a room together and thrashed things out for 8 hours, coming in the end to a conclusion on where they agreed and where they disagreed; not only on the main question, but also on ancillary questions like "If we do go to war, how should we fight it?" and "what WMD do you think Saddam has, exactly?". With a phone and a video camera, so the masses could watch & phone in. It's inexplicable to me why, say, C-Span doesn't have a feature where the staffs of TAP and the staffs of The Weekly Standard agree to carefully read & critique each other's magazines for a chosen week, and then meet somewhere and debate and discuss that week's magazine content. Or even more bitter enemies, like TAP and the Nation. As for the Iraq war, so also for social security privatization, global warming & Iran. In regards to global warming, I have never seen one conservative address the point "Why are the glaciers melting?". . .

. . .7. The job of a political press is not to "report both sides". The job of a political press is to get all participants to argue from the same set of facts, and not to allow anybody on either side to ignore facts they'd prefer to ignore, or to obsess over facts they's prefer to obsess about. Also, to get everybody to understand the various "worldviews" different people use to interpret the facts.

Posted by: roublen vesseau | Jun 4, 2005 10:34:33 PM

What does this media look like?

It still reports what people say, but in my dream it classifies each statement. It would have categories like Uncomfirmed, Proven, Dubious, Misleading, Proven False, Contradicts Previous Statement, Lie and so on. My dream media maintains a list of past statements by public figures, reporting each time new information suggests a change of category. Whenever someone makes a new statement, we'd hear some of the categories for their past claims.

Posted by: Omar K. Ravenhurst | Jun 4, 2005 11:27:07 PM

"When, exactly, was the media a truth-seeking missile?" Not in your lifetime. But strangely enough some of us were actually on earth and reading the newspaper at points before that.

"According to the current estimates, which may be too pessimistic, Social Security will probably need some help". Current estimates call for 2.0% productivity growth this year. "May be" in this context is more than weak, we are closing in on that amount of growth already.

"Social Security really does have solvency issues a responsible government would solve" Do you have numbers to back that up?

Pre-war critics of the Iraq war have been proven right. The results have been pretty much what we predicted. And you reciting conventional wisdom on Social Security is going to put you in that same boat of Democrats who just got it wrong. Again.

Posted by: Bruce Webb | Jun 5, 2005 12:02:57 AM

OT

The American Civil Liberties Union has been shredding some documents over the repeated objections of its records manager and in conflict with its longstanding policies on the preservation and disposal of records.
More

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jun 5, 2005 9:29:48 AM

Robert Zimmerman:
I read your link to the ACLU story and it appears that the shredding was in response to keeping SS#'s and other personal info secure. ACLU was required to pay a fine for being lax. One woman left because she didn't feel that shredders should be part of the ACLU. I'm a little lost as to what your point is.

Posted by: sgiff | Jun 5, 2005 9:54:14 AM

I won't forget how Edward R. Murrow took on Joseph McCarthy and managed to expose him for what he was. I'm old enough to remember when we had some truly great investigative reporters and they did what they believed was good for the country.

There will always be the run of the mill media personnel who will take the easy way out. But I'd like to see more like Bill Moyers and Seymour Hersch.

Posted by: Nora | Jun 5, 2005 10:01:44 AM

This was a serious, even impassioned post, and deserved a serious answer. I gave it more than a half-hour last night, but if I could think or write, I would start my own blog.

1)As said above, the "Golden Age" was more iron pyrite. There were some good people, but even they were rarely at their best. Ed Murrow, for every "Harvest of Shame" did two "Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller show their new home".

2) The power of the MSM is overrated and declining. Those of us who pay attention get irritated, but the number of people who read David Broder is tiny. The number who are influenced by Broder approaches zero. Remember Clinton's high approval, despite the Beltway's best efforts. Remember Bush's low approval despite the Beltway's best efforts. Enjoy your new job.

3) The power of the blogosphere is underrated and growing. Because the serious audience for political opinion is tiny, gains made by the blogs at the expense of MSM are more significant. Pay no attention to MSM's big numbers; most who watch watch in the same spirit as they watch American Idol.

4) I want my media to look like the blogosphere. My media is the blogosphere. How do the "uninformed" form their opinions? At the dinner table and watercooler, listening to the Freeper and Kossack argue it out.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jun 5, 2005 10:23:09 AM

I read your link to the ACLU story and it appears that the shredding was in response to keeping SS#'s and other personal info secure. ACLU was required to pay a fine for being lax. One woman left because she didn't feel that shredders should be part of the ACLU. I'm a little lost as to what your point is.

Well Squiff,
It's a matter of the hypocrisy of the ACLU. It seems it's "Shredders for me, but not for thee...". Their complaints against corporations and government have been at the harpy level and yet, there they are.....the ACLU with the same concerns over data that everyone else has.

Amazing!!!

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jun 5, 2005 12:22:17 PM

Jeremiads are usually misplaced, but it's entirely possible to conceive of a responsible news media. It's entirely within imagination that this country could have journalists who cared whether or not their sources were lying to them, exercised a modicum of judgment, worked reasonably hard, and had more aspirations than merely that of joining the kool kids klub. We don't have it now, and we may never have had it. But that's not a sufficient reason to wish for it, unless you think it's actually impossible to have grown-ups report the news.

(Duncan with a tv show would be great tv, by the way, but terrible news.)

Posted by: Tony the Pony | Jun 7, 2005 2:12:45 PM

sgiff---

"Mr." Zimmerman (our best guess is he's 15 years old with lax parental supervision) rarely has a point. You'll notice, for instance, that he makes charges such as someone's criticism "have been at the harpy level"---i.e., employing what he thinks is a clever reference or hyperbolic comparison, but somehow not quite there yet, and in any event splendidly devoid of content. If you wondered, say, what "complaints" Mr. Zimmerman is speaking of, you wouldn't be able to deduce the answer from his approximate explication. Nor is it entirely clear what he means when he writes "the ACLU with the same concerns over data that everyone else has." All in all, a fascinating anthropological case, but not really worth spending too much time puzzling over.

Posted by: Tony the Pony | Jun 7, 2005 2:21:36 PM

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Posted by: peter.w | Sep 16, 2007 10:45:13 PM

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