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.