Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Problem With the Media May Not be Lack of Balance

In her book The Right is Wrong, Arianna Huffington devotes a chapter to the media's search for truth, or abandonment of it, depending on how you look at it.

Huffington is a former Republican who left the party when she realized that they had gone completely crazy.  If you recognize her name, it's because she is the founder of the Huffington Post.

She claims not to be angry with the right-wing media.  After all, they are only doing what we expect them to do, so we don't read their papers, listen to their radio programs,  or watch their television stations.

They have become part of our culture, so we're aware of them, but they don't have an impact on our own views.

Where the problem lies, she believes, is with what is supposed to be the mainstream media.  Those charged with providing unbiased news and seeking the truth in every story.

However, in today's toxic political climate, an attempt to seek the truth, may be an archaic principle, because the mainstream media has allowed the Right's radical ideas to become "ordinary".
A key to understanding the fanatical Right's takeover of the Republican Party and how their ideas spread to the rest of the country is looking at the role of the media—not the Fox News pseudo-newsmen or the talk radio blowhards, but the respectable, mainstream media. Without the enabling of the traditional media—through their obsession with "balance" and their pathological devo­tion to the idea that truth is always found in the middle—the radical. Right would never have been able to have its ideas taken seriously. If not for the media's appeals to balance, nea-conservatives would have been laughed out of the court of public opinion long ago. And when the media do attempt to dig into the ideological underpinnings of debates about policy and current affairs, they get buried in another form of disorder. (1)
Fox News and Sun TV have contrarians on all the time, but only to set them up for ridicule.  They are not seeking the truth, but simply reaffirming their truth, to the people who watch their programs.

When Shelley Glover remarked in a CBC segment, that "it is a well known fact that all cops vote Conservative and all criminals vote Liberal", she should have been rebuked. Yet her insane comment was allowed to stand as legitimate. A contrary point of view, that we have a Conservative law enforcement, instead of one paid with the tax dollars from those of all political stripes?

The Left/Right Paradigm

Richard Nixon was the first to suggest that there was a left wing media bias.  From his inauguration in 1969, until the day he left office in disgrace, he exacted his revenge on the press, once stating:  "One day we'll get them - we'll get them on the ground where we want them.  And we'll stick our heels in, step on them hard, and twist." (2) 

His anger wasn't unjustified, though it had nothing to do with a left bias, but a stalker columnist named Jack Anderson,  who matched dirty journalism with dirty politics.  As for the rest of the media, Nixon simply didn't like getting caught.

However, since that time, the media has enabled the Right to set the tone of debate, by establishing a left/right paradigm.  Thus all arguments are now based on left/right "opinions", instead of established facts.

Climate change is a perfect example of this.  Jim Hansen, a climate scientist and director of NASA's Goddard Institute, wrote in the New York Review of what happens when highly qualified experts try to make their case in the mainstream media.
I used to spread the blame uniformly until, when I was about to appear on public television, the producer informed me that the program "must" also include a "contrarian" who would take issue with claims of global warming. Presenting such a view, he told me, was a common practice in commercial television as well as radio and newspapers. Supporters of public TV or advertisers, with their own special interests, require "balance" as a price for their continued financial support. Gore's book reveals that while more than half of the recent newspaper arti­cles on climate change have given equal weight to such con­trarian views, virtually none of the scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals have questioned the consensus that emissions from human activities cause global warming. As a result, even when the scientific evidence is clear, technical nit­picking by contrarians leaves the public with the false impres­sion that there is still great scientific uncertainty about the reality and causes of climate change. (3)
Can you imagine if today's media was around at the time of other scientific breakthroughs?  When Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for polio, would we have Stanley Knowles (CCF/NDP) and Louis St. Laurent (Liberal) arguing its merits and pushing to immunize all Canadian children, with contrarian Solon Low (Social Credit) calling it a Jewish plot to suck money out of the treasury.

Of course not.  We trusted science and science prevailed in combating the disease.

So why are we leaving information about the devastating results of climate change, and human activity that is accelerating it, to politicians and political pundits?  Harper claims that it is only a "theory" and that Kyoto was "essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations." (The Star, January 30, 2007) and we allow that to stand, just as we allow Glover's remark that all cops vote Conservative to stand.

Instead of truth vs lies, science vs non-scientific opinion, and fact vs myth, it has all come down to left vs right.

Not So Much Anger as Disappointment

I have found myself many times getting angry with the media, and not the obvious right-wing media, whose job it is to spout nonsense, but with the mainstream media.

As Huffington suggests, it is because of disappointment.  We expect more and get less.  In an effort to seek balance, they have allowed the conservative movement to frame all debate.  We know that Canada's crime rate is the lowest in history, but apparently only those on the left pay attention to the facts.  And by giving the contrarian viewpoint, that crime is on the rise, so we need more prisons; there is an implication that the facts may be open to debate.  A confused public shrugs and moves on.  They'll let future generations deal with the mess that this change in direction will create.

During Harper's first and second term, every time that conservative corruption was revealed, the MSM countered it by bringing up the Sponsorship Scandal.  In other words, yes the Harper government was corrupt, but what about those darn Liberals?  They gave him an excuse.  And yet not one mentioned that most involved in the scandal, were hired by Brian Mulroney (4), in the first Adscam.

With such an entrenched right-wing media, the old rules of "balance" no longer applies.  What we need is argument against right-wing nonsense, instead of providing it with a platform.

And What About the Auditions?

There is a joke often thrown around, that many journalists and columnists are jockeying for senate seats, so that their work becomes their portfolio.  It is well known that Mike Duffy had been trying to get a senate seat for years, but it was his complicity in the annihilation of St├ęphane Dion, that finally gave him his coveted spot.

But what of others, like Angelo Persichilli?  I used to enjoy his columns, with the exception of the Quebec bashing, until he started acting weird.  Becoming the Liberals' Jack Anderson (2) he turned into a tabloid writer, listening in on private conversations, in an effort to discredit them at every turn.  He went from a respected columnist to a peeping tom.

So should we have been surprised that he was given the top job on Harper's communications team?  They needed someone without integrity, who would do anything to dig up dirt on Harper's political opponents, and he proved with his latest columns, that he was up for the job.  Or I should say down.

We have some very good journalists in this country, but the Chantel Heberts, Evan Solomons and Lloyd Mansbridges, must step up to the plate and debunk conservative spin, instead of turning the crank.  Talk to experts not idiots, or risk joining the latter.


1. Right is Wrong: How the Lunatic Fringe Hijacked America, Shredded the Constitution and Made us All Feel Less Safe (And What You Need to Know to End the Madness), By Arianna Huffington, Aldred A. Knopf, 2008, ISBN: 978-0-307-26966-9, p. 5
2. Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture, By Mark Feldstein, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-374-23530-7
3. Huffington, 2008, pp. 23-24
4. On the Take: Crime, Corruption and Greed in the Mulroney Years, By Stevie Cameron, Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 1994, ISBN: 0-921912-73-0


  1. Arianna should look at her own Canadian operation and think again. Our best progressive voices are virtually silent on that site while Sun Media writers and Blogging Tories too often dominate the opinion pieces, thankfully leaving the reportage fairly neutral. Huffington Post brings with it a 'centre-left' paradigm. In a country starved for progressive voices in the media, why shut them out from a known progressive source?

  2. I had no idea Shelly Glover made that statement. How do journalists keep a straight face?

  3. Jymn. I'm not sure but I believe that she sold Huffington for a lot of money. I thought she mentioned something like that on Bill Maher's program. I've been surprised with the content of Huffington Canada myself. And yes Glover really said that Beijing

  4. I often wonder what is the motivation for the Stephen Harpers, Tony Clements and Jason Kenneys (etcetera) of Canada. Do they just like to hate for the sake of hating? Do they just like to destroy for the sake of destroying?

    To take a beautiful thing, that is appreciated by all, and to smash it to bits is an act that would appeal to an adolescent sociopath. Is this what the Harper Government amounts to? A collection of like minded adolescent sociopaths?

    Or maybe the Harper government operatives are just greedy, and desire lucrative jobs as corporate board directors, corporate lobbyists or think tank executives once their adolescent political ambitions have been spent?

    Regardless, history will not be kind to this dim gang.

  5. This obsessive need for balance will always favor the more extreme view. Even when we place facts alongside insane ramblings, we actively shift the center of the debate off towards the nut jobs perspective. The center should always be the facts, let opinions fall on either side at whatever distance they naturally lay. Then people can actually judge who is closer to reality, not some ever shifting center which legitimizes factual opinion by shouting left wing bias! There's a reason faux news shouts 'fair and balanced' from the rooftops, because as long as they contribute to one half of the equation a center still technically exists, even if it no longer represents the average or populist opinion, or anything sane and rational for that matter.