The Ministry of Disinformation

In my last post I noted that Mitt Romney is on the stump simply making things up. And in another post from April 26 I took a stick to Secretary of State Rice for not realizing that there is no Soviet Union anymore.

So what do these stories have in common? (Yes, there are politicians we’d do well to keep an eye on at the center of both stories, but that’s not the answer I’m looking for here.)

The problem is the reportage of these stories. In both cases, prominent political figures – a senior administration official with a PhD and a man who would be king – stand before audiences and say things that are demonstrably inaccurate. And in both cases, journalists at some of America’s premier press organizations dutifully type away, not bothering to even note the errors, and in the process help promote falsity as fact.

It’s one thing for a news agency to adopt a code that says “we just report the facts and we’ll leave it to the reader to make truth of it.” But America isn’t well served when the leading agencies of the Fourth Estate adopt ethical codes that say, “know what, we’re getting out of the fact business, too.”

In what meaningful way do Mark Landler of the New York Times and Perry Bacon, Jr. of the Washington Post, the two reporters who gave us these important stories, differ from transcriptionists? If their stories conveyed the facts – in this case that Rice mistakenly called Russia the “Soviet Union” and that a presidential candidate made reference to French marriage trends that apparently don’t exist and fabricated a link between a mass murderer and video games – there might be some value. As it is, all they have done is provide a wider audience for error and prevarication, and in doing so they have attached the long, proud reputations of their papers to the process of disseminating disinformation.

If this is the best a newspaper can do we’re better off without it. Better that a few hundred people at Regent “University” walk away misinformed about Seung-Hui Cho than the countless thousands who now have the lie in their heads thanks to the Post. Better that we not know Rice missed the fall of the Iron Curtain than to have the continued menace of the Evil Empire reinforced in the minds of our nation’s less informed citizens. If a public figure tells a reporter that his hands have morphed into flippers, and the reporter (who can clearly see that no, those aren’t flippers, those are hands) writes, without a hint of incredulity, that “Sen. Wackhat today announced that his hands have turned into flippers,” that reporter no longer serves any useful function to the public.

There simply must be a distinction between how a paper reports “my hands have turned into flippers” and how it reports “the sky is blue.”

Maybe this is part of why mainstream media outlets continue to lose mindshare to blogs and alternative media. Despite the fact that we have to sift through a 99:1 noise-to-signal ratio, it’s at least helpful to read people who are not ethically constrained from reporting what they plainly see right before their eyes.

15 replies »

  1. I guess my question is this – if news reporters have no more stake in what they report than not to point out inaccuracy and outright lying, what does that say about news reporters?

    And the news media they work for?

    And their view of readers/viewers/listeners they’re supposed to serve?

    Actually, I guess I have a number of questions, don’t I?

    Why do I feel that the answers are going to depress or enrage me if I parse this out?

    See what your questioning of our all-knowing/all-seeing media might do?

    See why they devote all that time to celebrities and other nonsense?


  2. One journo industry type has taken to calling it “negotiated news.” They go to press with whatever Dem and GOP spinners can agree to accept.

  3. I would like to hear of ANY incident of a story being SPUN for the benefit of Democrats by the Corporate media.

    Show me ONE!

  4. They’ve been beaten into submission by threats to “cut off access.” They needed to call that bluff a loooonnnngggg time ago.

  5. mparker: Heh – it sure doesn’t seem that way, do it? 🙂

    What happens, though, is that a story is in development and reporters talk to “both” sides (because they need to be fair and balanced). The spinners on both sides raise mortal hell and slowly but sure “objectionable” lines are excised.

    That’s the process, and I believe the “negotiated news” term emerged from the last couple election cycles. I agree that the process isn’t producing a lot of winners for the Dems of late, but up until recently I’d think that was mostly due to the fact that the GOP was just BETTER at it.

    Allen: Right. If I’m the Times and you “cut off my access,” I’m going to teach you what happens when a news agency truly serves the best interests of the republic.

  6. Thirty years of making sure the bar keeps touching the ground. Such a mystery. Such a mystery. Raise the bar 1/4″ and everybody starts debating why we need a bar, or what color we need to paint the bar. But almost no one suggests we just need to raise the bar and hold everyone to it. Nobody wants to be a “conspiracy theorist” so we adopt the most stupid and ignorant pose we can find as a nation so we can ignore factual evidence. The highest level of intelligence afforded to us, according to the media, is “King of the Hill” and “The Simpsons”, and now we wonder “what happened”? Mass murder, rape, shootings all over the media, so we worry like crazy about the littlest bit of sex and then we wonder what happened to our “peaceful” culture? Billions paid for advertsing in ten, twenty and thirty second slots, but “television doesn’t really effect viewers that way”. We threw the baby out with the bathwater when we started to accept that “magic single bullet theory” instead of just saying, “I’m not closing my mind, yet. I can’t decide just yet, so I’m just going to keep my mind open on that subject until there is enough information to really make a decision.” Anyone who tells you that you have to “decide now” on an issue that doesn’t immediately matter at the moment is conning you. And our nation bought the con “hook, line, sinker, boat, dock, and continent”. And now you wonder what happened? Stupidity happened–everybody closed their eyes and pretended it didn’t matter if we accepted the con. Now we know it matters and “we don’t know what to do about it”? DUH. Make noise about facts. Plenty of noise. What’s thermite?

  7. On a recent Moyers show, it was brought up that this started to occur during Reagan’s time. At first, they were calling him on his errors, and after a while, they seemed to think that it was more like picking on an old man, so they stopped doing it. As a result, the people of this country were led to think that Reagan wasn’t a fool, had a clue, and knew what he was talking about. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

    Now, they have been swallowing the bilgewater for so long that it’s just the way they do things. They have forgotten that they owe us a debt of truth for their rights to report. It’s time that we start reminding them of it and holding them to it. Money and profit should NOT be the reason for a newspaper or tv news program like it is now.

  8. It is troubling that the public’s checks and balances are slowly weakening — meaning our media, the public’s watch dog, is under the control and influence of government and corporations. The press is supposed to be the watch dog for the public, but without, a healthy democracy cannot survive or exist.

    Profit is the bottom line. As more corporations buy and merge the less news we get. During the past six years deregulation, that allows expanded ownership of radio stations, TV, cable TV, satellite, newspapers, magazines, etc., resulted in homogenizing the news content.

    The entire flow of information is controlled by 7 corporate conglomerates. They own: publishing houses, movie companies, music, etc… If something is adverse to the CW it will not get published. A handful of American investigative journalists whose work is black-balled, censured from appearing in American news also includes British and other foreign national reporters. The latter not because they are foreign but because they tell the truth.

    Ownership is growing:

    For instance Rupert Murdoch owns the Fox news channels and you know what a sham they are. He also owns news outlets overseas and Clear Channel radio stations.

    * Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation FOX, HarperCollins, New York Post, Weekly Standard, TV Guide, DirecTV and 35 TV stations),
    * General Electric (NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, Telemundo, Bravo, Universal Pictures and 28 TV stations),
    * Time Warner (AOL, CNN, Warner Bros., Time and its 130-plus magazines),

    General Electric additionally owns the Washington Post and a weapons manufacturing company. Hence their solid support to go to war is obviously a conflict of interest.

    Other powerful influences include advertisers. If a newspaper or magazine publishes an article the advertiser is not happy with they threaten to pull their ads. Money talks. So not only are the news sources controlled and owned by CEO’s with little to no interest in serving the public, advertisers additionally hold sway over what the public is allowed to know contribute to keeping the public uninformed.

    The free flow of information is vital in preserving our precious freedom.

    The fourth estate’s decline in quality and loose with facts puts the public at a disadvantage: without information or knowledge means we are less protected and more vulnerable to rigid control. Our freedom, our privacy and our way of life are in great jeopardy. Knowledge is key.
    If we want a just society in a free and strong nation we need solutions ….

    We could try calling advertisers threatening a boycott if they continue to intervene in what we, the people, read in the news? But therein is a problem, unless we know which advertisers are calling the shots, it would be fruitless ? Any other suggestions?

  9. At this point I would be fine if all the old media outlets simply went out of business for lack of interest. They should be on the verge of it already, due to their incredibly shabby practices. The simple fact is that in their current state, they are totally obsolete. Now, if they wanted to start actually doing their jobs, well, they could save themselves to some extent, but they just can’t do that for some reason, can they? Feh, who cares. We can get all our information elsewhere. They deserve what they get at this point.

  10. IMO, the biggest problem with the newspapers was greed.

    The private owners of the newspapers had successfully kept them in the black for a long time, and the large margins that the newspapers earned attracted the attention of Wall Street. So privately owned newspapers went publics or were purchased by large companies. Then, when the markets changed and technology did the Monster Mash on those margins, short-term return focused Wall Street demanded cuts in order to keep the newspaper’s margins up. That meant people had to be let go.

    I’m actually hopeful about some of the changes that are happening in the newspaper industry right now. There are a number of public newspapers that are being taken private again. I don’t trust a private equity firm to care about the news any farther than I could throw their building, but if their greed can get a newspaper or five out of the “must have 15% ROI every quarter or by God we’re going to fire some expensive editors and kill off the comics” glare of Wall Street, great.

  11. 15%? No, more like 30%. 15% is a license to print money in a lot of industries. If all the people who insisted that they had to retain the margins they had in the ’60s were replaced by people from THIS century you might be able to hope a little for the papers.

  12. A couple years back Cheney kicked the NY Times off of Air Force One in retaliation for reporting an inconvenient truth, but cutting off access works both ways: Barack Obama cut off Fox News after the G.O.P. propaganda channel reported a fabricated rumor that Obama had attended a madrassa in his youth. I hope he continues this “just say no to Fox” policy into his presidency.

  13. Since the end of the Fairness Doctrine and Onership Rules journalists has devolved from objective investigators to presstitutes. Instead of 150 media companies reporting the days events, 4 major corps-representing an extremely narrow viewpoint of the ultra rich are dictating what these presstitutes will be allowed to report.