The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

Cunniff’s Corner: Media must put facts before all else

The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama that portrays the inner workings of a cable news show, was one of my guilty pleasures over the summer. As a journalism major, I know that most of what happens at the fictional “News Night” show on the fictional cable network ACN is nothing like what happens in real life, and that Sorkin radically simplifies the issues of the day and the difficulties news programs have in deciding what to run.

It’s entertainment, in other words, and it shouldn’t be taken seriously.

But there’s one sequence, in an exchange between “News Night’s” executive producer MacKenzie McHale and anchor Will McAvoy that accurately captures the biggest problem in the mainstream media today.

McHale tells a junior producer that, “The media’s biased towards success, and it’s biased toward fairness.” When pressed by another staffer to elaborate, Will chimes in with a ridiculous analogy to prove McHale’s point.

“A bias toward fairness,” he says, “means that if the entire congressional Republican caucus were to walk into the House and propose a resolution stating that the earth was flat, The [New York] Times would lead with ‘Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on shape of earth.’”

It’s a quote I often think of when watching coverage of politics today. Lies, mostly, but not exclusively, from the right pour out of the mouths of pundits, politicians and political ads, yet except for a few watchdog organizations (like Media Matters for America) and fact checkers (like PolitiFact and FactCheck.org), the spin and lies are reported in the same manner as the truth.

The best example of this comes when discussing the federal budget. Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and the rest of the GOP machine always harp on what a spendthrift President Obama is, saying things like he has “accelerated at a pace without precedent in recent history,” as Romney claimed.

That claim is categorically, ludicrously false. As reported by many, including PolitiFact, federal spending under Obama has risen at either the lowest or second-lowest pace in the post-war period, depending on whether you adjust for inflation.

That’s the fact — but when reporting about the state of the economy, outlets like Fox News say things like “He may have inherited a mess, goes the argument, but he made it worse by turning on a fire hose of deficit spending.” No mention of the snail’s pace that government spending has grown by during the Obama administration.

(An anecdote about how strongly this misconception pervades the national discourse — when I told my dad, who gets the vast majority of his news from conservative outlets like Fox News and the Boston Herald, the facts about federal spending under Obama, he laughed at me, like I couldn’t be so stupid to believe that).

The reason that these distortions circulate is because of most mainstream media outlets’ paranoia about being perceived as having a bias — more specifically, a liberal bias. Media outlets give people who deny reality, like climate change deniers, or birthers like Donald Trump, the same credibility as the people with the facts on their side. It’s maddening, terrible for our country, and the reason that the political discourse has made such a rightward shift in the past 20 years.

And it’s not helping people’s perception of the media either. A recent Gallup poll shows that Americans trust in television news is at an all-time low.

Is there a solution? Arthur Brisbane, recently departed public editor of The Times, was ridiculed for asking whether reporters should note when a candidate is lying. The response from readers was an unequivocal yes.

It’s easier said than done, of course, but politics would be much better served if the media served as a true watchdog, rather than merely pitting two sides of the issue against each other regardless of the facts involved. There aren’t two sides to every issue, especially when it comes to politics and policy, and the mainstream media should stop drawing equivalencies when none exist.

Barack Obama was born in the United States. He and his policies are not socialist. Mitt Romney is not responsible for the death of a laid off worker while CEO of Bain Capital. These are the facts. Facts should be reported as such, not passed off as a difference of opinion.

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About the Contributor
Michael E. Cunniff, Editor-in-Chief
I'm Mike Cunniff, a junior journalism major and the sports editor here at the Torch. When I was a little kid, I decided I wanted to be a sports announcer when I grew up. I used to turn down the volume while my beloved Patriots played and do my best Greg Gumbel impression as Drew Bledsoe fired pass after pass into the waiting arms of opposing cornerbacks. That was my dream until I was about 14, when I realized that I had neither the dapper looks or silky baritone voice to warrant plastering my face all over television (and billboards, and magazine covers. Dare to dream, right?). I realized, when I wasn't plagiarizing Sparknotes when writing English essays (kidding, mostly) that I actually enjoyed writing, and decided that writing about sports suited me better than talking about them. My favorite sports to watch/cover are basketball and soccer. I actually used to be a halfway decent shooting guard back in the day, before I did my knee in the offseason before senior year. I still love all four Boston teams (the Revs don't count), as well as Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League (I talk about them too much). I'm probably better than you at FIFA 12. Outside of sports and journalism, I like The Office, Bagels 'N' Cream, road trips and karaoke. __________ I like to joke with Mike that he’d react the same way to the Zombie apocalypse as he would in covering a major news break on campus — which is to say he wouldn’t really react in any particular way at all. Nothing seems to phase him. Anything — ANYTHING — could happen on campus, and I am confident that Mike would lead the Torch in the best possible reportage for that story. He has already demonstrated that ability in his superb coverage of the Sports section, and I know that ability would translate in a much larger role next year. -Bill San Antonio Editor-in-Chief, Emeritus

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