Monday, August 27, 2012

Do Media Really Matter To Media Matters?

In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote Edward Carrington that "were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." Probably the single most quoted (and misquoted) remark ever recorded on the subject of the free press. Both an informed population and news media that act as a check on power are indispensable bulwarks of democracy.

Of course, today's huge corporate media entities don't care very much about quaint, 18th-century liberal notions of their place in society. Their concern is to attract an audience in a prime demographic to sell to advertisers. They aren't a check on the Establishment. They are the Establishment. We live in an age in which most "journalism" is merely crude stenography and where--most bizarrely, it seems to me--news outlets  consider "fact-checking" a thing entirely separate from normal reportage and set up special, segregated apparatuses like Politifact to handle it.[1] The need for a firm, watchdog press hasn't gone away though. In this modern world, in fact, it's more important than ever. When the press fails to live up to its responsibilities, the watchdog needs watchdogs. Big, loud, mean ones that keep it up all night when it fails to do its duty.

I don't suppose my regular readers will find at all surprising the importance I attach to thoughtful, intelligent press criticism. These days, press criticism can, in my view, be just as important as the press itself. The various venerable institutions that toil in this particular vineyard include Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, the Columbia Journalism Review, and Project Censored.[2] The most prominent, however, is Media Matters For America.

Everyone loves a story of redemption and MMFA was born in 2004 of founder David Brock's desire to make up for his years spent as a right-wing hatchet-man and sleaze-merchant. Since its inception, MMFA has done a lot of good work. I've promoted that work over the years, praised it, expanded on some of it. Maybe half-a-dozen MMFA articles in earlier years were the result of tips I provided. Sometimes, when I've thought the work fell short, I've criticized it. Not, I think, unfairly, though observers will certainly judge that on their own. MMFA has the potential to be an invaluable resource, as, indeed, it once was.

That it is, unfortunately, falling well short of this in more recent years is a source of disappointment. And also of articles like this.

MMFA describes itself as a "progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media." In its own telling, the organization

"put in place, for the first time, the means to systematically monitor a cross section of print, broadcast, cable, radio, and Internet media outlets for conservative misinformation--news or commentary that is not accurate, reliable, or credible and that forwards the conservative agenda--every day, in real time."

MMFA crafts articles "documenting conservative misinformation throughout the media."

That's quite a task. Insofar as the national news media are made up of huge corporate interests that are themselves part of even larger corporate interests, they are, by definition, conservative entities. This is a direct conflict with their purpose in a democratic society, to act as that check on power. They are power and they have agendas of their own that rarely coincide with too much rocking of the boat. The range of debate and of opinion that is allowed within the press culture is quite narrow, often excruciatingly so, and is heavily skewed to the right.[3] MSNBC's discovery, in recent years, that liberals not only exist but often make good news-show hosts has improved this situation somewhat. It's certainly quite a change from the days, only a few years ago, when the channel's managers fired Phil Donahue for questioning the Bush administration's warmongering against Iraq[4] and much of the larger press had a no-liberals-allowed policy. But MSNBC has, unfortunately, become a segregated entity,[5] inaccurately characterized as a liberal mirror of Fox News. Most of the rest of the press is still playing the same old game--framing issues in a conservative-friendly manner; obsessing over pop trivialities and "human interest" stories that affect no one at the expense of coverage of actual issues of public importance; outright burying important stories that would be inconvenient to the powers-that-be; staging "debates" in which righty bomb-throwers are matched against mushy moderates and even those with no discernible politics at all; eschewing hard questions of those with power in exchange for access to them; embracing a false notion of "balance" that reduces reporters to stenographers who record only competing claims by political factions and make no effort to inform the public of which is correct or truthful--a false "balance" that, perhaps most egregiously, presents radically disparate misdeeds by opposing factions as if they were equal and defuse what would be public discontent with corruption by persistently suggesting "they all do it."

Given all of this and the fact that what, at present, identifies itself as politically "conservative" absolutely wallows in misinformation, misrepresentation and falsehood, an entity like MMFA would seem to have its work cut out for it. One would expect to punch up its website on any given day and see, consistent with its stated mission to comprehensively monitor the press, articles exposing this conservative misinformation in a wide range of media outlets.

And one expecting that would be disappointed.

Media Matters may suggest media matter but the only outlet about which it really seems to care very much these days is Fox News. I see this every day but I wanted some hard numbers, so I tracked MMFA's complete output for a period of 13 days, including both articles and audio/video clips (which are offered without commentary). From 8 Aug. to 20 Aug., MMFA ran a total of 199 items. Of that, 108 were about Fox News and another 12 were partially or mostly about Fox.

While the fact that MMFA spends over 60% of its time on a single media outlet is, in and of itself, fairly damning, it's even worse when one puts this in the larger context of the press in the U.S. While Fox News is, overall, the highest-rated of the cable news networks, the highest-rated program on Fox, the O'Reilly Factor, draws about 3 million viewers while the lowest-rated network evening newscast--the CBS Evening News, at present--is averaging about 5 1/2 million. The highest-rated network evening newscast at the moment--NBC Nightly News--just drew over 7.8 million viewers. That same week,[6] the three network newscasts, all of which run against one another, had over 20 million viewers. And that's just the evening newscasts. The networks also have morning, prime-time, late-night, and weekend news programming.

MMFA barely touches these behemoths. In the 13-day period of my survey, MMFA ran 3 research articles about the failure of the networks (and other news sources) to adequately cover various aspects of climate change. There was, in this period, only one additional item about any aspect of the CBS News apparatus (an article about a Mitt Romney interview with CBS This Morning), two items about ABC, both about the same episode of ABC's This Week (an article about comments by a Fox commentator and a video clip) and three items about or partially about NBC--one about remarks by a former Fox News commentator and the other two about one installment of Meet The Press. That's it. Eight articles and one video clip--less than 5% of MMFA's output (and even two of those have a Fox connection).

With print media, the story is much the same. The five biggest newspapers in the U.S.--the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the San Jose Mercury News--have a combined average daily circulation of 6.7 million. During the period of my survey, those three research articles already noted address climate change coverage by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and USA Today. In addition to that, the Wall Street Journal got two articles, plus a third that barely mentions them; the New York Times got only one article; USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and the San Jose Mercury News weren't the central subject of any. So even given the most charitable reading, seven articles (less than 4% of MMFA's total), only four of which are unique (less than 2% of the total).[7]

Now, of course, not all media outlets are equal. If one goes strictly by bulk, Fox News is certainly a purveyor of more right-wing nonsense than anyone else. Bullshit is, in fact, its primary--nearly sole--product. That's what makes it such an easy target. It's the easiest thing in the world to write about Fox News--just turn it on anywhere, take in the first thing that's said, check the veracity of it, which will inevitably be found wanting, and write an article. Repeat. That's MMFA lately, perpetually shooting the arthritic fish in a really small barrel that is Fox News while allowing the big dogs to roam the range at will, often to offer up, with complete impunity, exactly the same nonsense for which Fox is being criticized.

While Fox generates the most nonsense though, the major vehicle by which right-wing misinformation is delivered to the public isn't Fox or the far-right press it represents. It is, rather, the same vehicle by which news itself is delivered to the public: this large mainstream press MMFA is mostly ignoring. While this author has, for some time, had in mind something like this article, the thing that finally spurred me to undertake it was the incredibly poor press coverage of a series of recent and related issues and MMFA's complete failure to call foul on it.[8] I would argue that it's far more important to counter right-wing nonsense delivered via that mainstream press. It is pervasive there. It reaches a far greater audience. It has a greater impact and and much more serious consequences.[9] MMFA used to cover much more of it. It should do so again.

I'll end with this: One of the many pernicious lies of the American right is that the national corporate press is "liberal media," controlled and dominated by a hardcore, hostile left. Generally (though not always) divorced in present-day usage from its anti-Semitic origins,[10] the charge is relentlessly made by the American conservative elite as a means of undermining the confidence of its followers in any source of information outside its sphere of control and, more broadly, to undermine the entire notion of an objective fact. The success of this campaign is one of the most serious problems facing the U.S. at this time, a large portion of the population that has come to believe puerile political fantasies of the moment can define and dictate reality itself. Fox News is acknowledged by everyone to be a right-wing outlet. When a progressive media watchdog devotes so much of its time to that single right-wing outlet while mostly ignoring everyone else, it only feeds that "liberal media" lie and the mania behind it. It says to afflicted righties that even a hostile liberal organization that comprehensively monitors the press finds little in that press about which to complain except material from a committed conservative outlet. In brief, whatever good MMFA can still be said to do, the Fox obsession can be said to make it part of the problem.

That's very unfortunate. It should change.



 [1] Special apparatuses that often do just as poor a job as the regular reporters and have an even greater capacity for misinforming due to their pose as "non-partisan" fact-checkers.

 [2] Right-wing outlets devoted to press criticism, such as the Center For Media & Public Affairs, Accuracy In Media and especially the Media Research Center, don't actually practice media criticism but function, instead, as Ministry-of-Truth-style reality-control projects, principally concerned with manipulating a segment of the population for political ends and wholly unconcerned with the truth.

 [3] While conservatives are omnipresent and even outright reactionaries with protofascist views (Pat Buchanan, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, etc.) are warmly welcomed as commentators by much of the press, radical lefties are entirely absent and, outside of MSNBC, liberal die-hards are exceedingly rare.

 [4] Eliminating, in the process, the only show on which skeptical views were even being aired.

 [5] Al Gore's Current TV, having roped in some refugees from MSNBC, is trying the liberal host route. As with MSNBC, results are mixed.

 [6] And I'm using that week because during the previous one, which also fell within the scope of my survey, NBC's ratings were artificially high as a consequence of its Olympic coverage.

 [7] For further contrast, while MMFA ran 13 unique items on the total output of the networks plus the five biggest newspapers, it ran 16 items concerned with right-wing radio talker Rush Limbaugh, plus another 4 that were either partially about both Limbaugh and Fox or were about Limbaugh reacting to or repeating something on Fox. The network + newspaper audience is in the tens-of-millions; Limbaugh's show is said to draw about 3.5 million listeners per day but the various systems for rating radio are notoriously shaky and it's probably even less.

 [8] I wrote about them in recent days here and here. The short version is that MMFA challenged Fox News on the Chick Fil-A matter but gave the rest of the press, which was just as guilty as Fox, a pass and when it came to the coverage of the Family Research Council in the aftermath of the attempted terrorist attack on it, MMFA was entirely missing in action--even when Fox News obsessed about it for days, that became one Fox story MMFA didn't touch and hasn't touched.

 [9] To mention but one really big example, Fox News wasn't the reason the Bush administration was able to lie the U.S. into a war with Iraq; the absolute refusal of the rest of the press to do its job and challenge administration claims was.

[10] The charge, as born decades ago, was "liberal Jewish media."

No comments:

Post a Comment