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Wednesday, August 11, 2004

On the Current Role of the Media (c. 1999)

Another rant from my dustbin. This was written in 1999, during the run up to the last presidential election. Interesting, again, how little seems to change over time.
On the Current Role of the Media
November 1999

For much of this country's existence, the media has controlled the popularity of public officials. Whether the papers were overt party organs or supposedly objective entities, media reporters know that they are the true kingmakers of the body politic. As the nation has grown to numbers beyond the imagination of the Founders, the power of the media has been that much greater.

How else to explain the recent attack on G. W. Bush by a supposedly objective news reporter? Were the questions warranted? Perhaps. But that is really beside the point. Given the chance to discuss supposedly large, abstract issues with a leading candidate for the Presidency, the questions were trivial and mundane. Should G.W. know the rulers of the four countries asked? Perhaps, but in the end not knowing who rules one country or another is really immaterial to the Presidency.

If obtaining oral sex in the White House is not an important factor in the day-to-day operation of the Presidency, then how can it be that not knowing which crackpot is currently "in charge" in Chechnya is at all important. No, the only reason the questions were asked is because the reporter knew that Bush most likely didn't know the answers, just like the vast majority of America.

Of course, Al Gore's office was quick to point out that he would have been able to answer, after the fact this is extremely easy. Al Gore wasn't asked these questions because he knows the answers. Rather, it was precisely because, on the spot, he wouldn't know the answers either. The reporter had an agenda in mind by choosing Bush to pick on, and that is not only discomforting but also counter to the supposed status of an objective free press.

An objective press is supposedly charged with providing information, not opinion, to the reading public. While it is informative that Bush didn't know the answers to his pop quiz, it is asymmetric information. It is now impossible to determine if Bush as alone in his lack of knowledge or if he may have known more than others. All other candidates for the Presidency have quickly put to memory the leaders of all but the most minor of countries.

Objective information is not compatible with asymmetric distribution. If the news reporter had worked for an obviously liberal-leaning organ, the interview would have never happened, or would have been much more controlled. Thus, Bush fell into a trap that was possible only by the reporter's working under the guise of objectivity. Not only does this do disservice to Bush, but also harms the public who is digesting the asymmetric information. Finally, such behavior reflects negatively on the press and as such harms it's stock of good will, which is already precariously low.

Many decry a supposed liberal bias in the media. Many others argue that it isn't there, but these arguments are illogical. Indeed, the very nature of the press makes them agitators and reformers and therefore it fits the mold of “the liberal.” The liberal bias is inherent in the press because good news, e.g., the status quo, is bad news. No magazine, paper or television news show will be successful reporting that all's wonderful with the status quo and nothing must be done to change the world. The liberal bias is inherent.

However, there is no need or justification for the bias to cause a severe asymmetry in the information being portrayed to the public. Indeed, the real issue involved with the Bush interview is the fundamental role of reporters. The traditional reporter role is simply to convey already existing information. This role is appropriate as long as the reporter is objectively conveying information. Whether the information is liberal or conservative in its content is really of secondary concern.

The new role for the reporter is no longer confined to the conveyance of information but seems more and more to be a creator of information as well. To but this more succinctly, the reporter is no longer simply reporting the news but is trying to generate the news. The reporter becomes as much or more important than the information being conveyed.

Obviously there is a fine line between the two roles. The fact that G.W. didn't know the leader of India was existent, and the information on its own is valuable. In this instance, however, the reporter's means of identifying and conveying the information became as much of the story, indeed in many cases took precedence over the information itself.

A similar situation occurred when Jim Gray "interviewed" Pete Rose during the 1999 World Series. Again, important information was obtained during the interview but the means of obtaining the information made it abundantly clear that Gray wanted a piece of the action as well. Gray wasn't satisfied with simply interviewing Pet Rose, but had to make the interview itself a source of news instead of the information conveyed.

Thus, the role of the media is changing, as it always has, in an ominous direction. Instead of conveying information alone, reporters seem to be taking it upon themselves as to what means to use to obtain the information, often at the expense of the objectivity supposedly embodied in the reporter's ethos. When the reporters take it upon themselves to be king makers, or more importantly, king destroyers things are starting to get out of hand.

Plenty of contrary evidence also exists. The hard questions of Bill Clinton's character and history were not asked in 1992 and 1996. The result was two elections in his favor but subsequent revelations as to the true nature of his character. Still today, though, the media in general seems unwilling or unable to ask questions of serious import, i.e., campaign financing, Waco and Ruby Ridge, nuclear espionage and so forth.

To date, the media seems to be looking for ways to set G.W. Bush up for public failure while simultaneously actively avoiding similar questioning of other candidates - most especially Al Gore and Hillary Clinton. This obviously is the revelation of the liberal bias of most reporters; they do not wish to pick on their own. This is not to suggest that the questions themselves are not useful and do not convey useful information, but that the reporters should not try to shift focus on the creation of news as news rather than the information being news.

The situation won't improve until reporters either forego the natural desire to be a major part of any story. Instead of letting the information conveyed stand on its own, the reporter seems to want to make the derivation of the information as important as the information itself. Thus, reporters are motivated to contrive news-making situations, themselves news events.

An alternative solution is for reporters to acknowledge and admit their perspectives in a given situation. Such admissions will obviously make the reporter's job a bit tougher, but no move should be costless. The gains to society as whole, however, would be great.

The media may never be able to totally avoid its king-making nature. However, the media must get out of the business of news-making and king destroying.

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