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Too often, cable TV news shows follow the party line

Fox News and other cable outlets frequently feed viewers cherry-picked factoids or outright distortions.

The Communist Party journalists I knew while serving as press attaché with the U.S.  Embassy in Warsaw in the late ’70s would be very comfortable working in the partisan world of American cable television today. They’d be particularly at home at Fox News, where the object is to further the party line, just as it was in Poland when, President Gerald Ford notwithstanding, the Communist Party dominated political life.

The line being promoted at Fox is the polar opposite, of course, but the principle remains the same: Get the party’s version of events, then find information and talking points that support it and undermine any counter narrative. Fox News feeds us what Poles were given by party or state media: cherry-picked factoids or outright distortions that support the party line. When you tune in, you know you’ll be receiving only news and comment that conform to the Republican Party’s agenda.

Everyone knew the game

In Communist-era Poland, everyone knew that was the game, and ordinary Poles regarded their media accordingly. They tuned in to news programs on state radio and television – and they had to, since the government maintained a monopoly on broadcasting – to learn what the party wanted them to think about events.

Then, for a reality check, they turned elsewhere. They looked at the empty shelves in their stores, the cracked concrete apartment buildings where they and their extended families crowded together, the shabby clothes they could afford with what they were paid at state factories. They did not see the workers’ paradise the party propagandists described.

The resulting credibility gap was so wide that one of those huge Russian T-54 tanks could make U turns in it. Gallows humor was the default method of coping with the absurdities of daily life. In a typical example,a worker commits some minor indiscretion at the factory.  The manager docks him a week’s pay, saying:  You’re lucky. In the old days you would have been shot. When he gets home, the worker tells his wife: It’s worse than I thought. They’re rationing bullets now.”

When the news bulletin came out one evening in October 1978, announcing that Karol Wojtyla would become the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church, the anchorman on Polish TV gave it 15 seconds or so, then moved on to the latest tractor production statistics. Lacking instructions from the party, he didn’t know what to make of this bombshell. (Ordinary citizens did; many partied all night in the streets of Krakow, Cardinal Wojtyla’s see.)

Viewers seeking reinforcement of their views

There is no media monopoly here in America, of course, and we can always flip channels.   Many don’t, however. And it’s not only the right that tunes in mainly to the network that reinforces their ideological leanings. MSNBC reliably provides political porn for liberals, though last week when President Obama fell on his face in the first debate, the network’s reporters and commentators said so loudly and clearly. It would be hard to imagine anything comparable on Fox, which tends to hire rather than berate its heroes who come up short.  

In Communist Eastern Europe, media functionaries were called journalists but were considered hacks (or, in extreme cases, court jesters) by underground media or foreign correspondents based in the region. They were in effect party operatives. Their motivations varied; a few may have believed in Marxist theory and acted out of conviction. But most served the regime for personal privilege and advancement; that was how their bread was buttered. Come the revolutuion, most went into different lines of work.

Here at home, we used to believe in journalistic objectivity. The job of reporters was to discover the truth and print it, “without fear or favor,” as the New York Times put it.   Opinion and reporting were to be kept clearly separated. Commentators were expected to have an ideological perspective but to back up their views with solid reporting and facts.  

Confirming beliefs, rather than challenging them

We still have some journalists who try to follow such ideals – and media organizations that support them. Unfortunately, too many of us turn only to Fox, MSNBC or other partisan media outlets that confirm rather than challenge our beliefs. 

When we rely on such one-sided reporting, it’s no wonder we’re at loggerheads, unable to find common ground or reach a consensus on the way forward for our nation. We are squandering the freedom that Poles and others in Eastern Europe and, more recently the Middle East and North Africa, took to the streets to secure.   

Dick Virden retired from the Senior Foreign Service in 2004. He now lives in Plymouth and serves as diplomat in residence at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/10/2012 - 09:27 am.

    Bias is a human trait. The best we can do is reduce it to a minimum, and consciously avoid it where we can. However, I am guilty of looking for views that support my own. The difference, though, with much of the American public strictly watching Fox News (a misnomer) and MSNBC is that I at least try to view every bit of information critically. I am not interested in coming to a conclusion, no matter how supportive it is to my own views, based on BS. I frequently call out information I perceive as failing to meet standards in truth and/or logic, no matter the slant on such information. Frequently, the information provided by a “news” source provides a conclusion that can’t be supported by facts, so only provides minimal facts and lots of opinion. In other cases, the “facts” are simply fabricated.

    One thing I can say about Fox, though, is that they’re not ashamed to get a single side to a story (regardless of ethics). The mistake many other “news” organizations make is being afraid to note that, sometimes, not all sides are equal. Rather, they “balance” the news by behaving as if they are. A good example is in reporting climate change news. Although it’s important to recognize that there are different views, there is a clear consensus supported by data, while most of the opinions outside that consensus are just that: opinions. I suppose, though, that it’s more sensationalist to pretend that there’s a real controversy.

    The irony of this community opinion piece, of course, is that it’s published by MinnPost. MinnPost is pretty unashamedly liberal, although the journalists here do make a pretty good effort at digging up the messy details. Not always, though. Of course, it’s up to the readers, then, to do their research and put their own brains in gear.

  2. Submitted by Eric Carrig on 10/10/2012 - 09:30 am.

    News needs to reinvent itself

    That the “news” needs to be told that people seek information that reinforces their beliefs simply tells me how out of touch the it is with what bothers Americans. It is frustration that no one is helping people feel secure or empowered — that no one has a clue about what to do to put the United States back on track.

    The mainstream media, at bottom, targets fear. People want peace of mind.

    The opportunity good news people are missing is that fear is bred by uncertainty and a good news organization can overcome it by being a champion for solutions — by challenging people and business and political leaders to solve problems.

    Instead, the best news has gone non-profit, where it writes investigative pieces that appeal to the intellectuals who read that stuff as a matter of course. This is another example of people gravitating to news that reinforces what they want to hear.

    The news abandoned the mainstream, leaving it to entertainers, as real journalists pursued the rarified air of their intellectual peers.

    There is an outfit called @10, which advocates solutions as a way to change the conversation from the gridlock created by the zero-sum game the media plays.

    People may gravitate to what is reinforcing, but that is only true today because they lack an alternative they can believe in.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/10/2012 - 10:15 am.

      News is not a solution

      The danger in believing that the news can possibly provide unbiased solutions any more than it can provide unbiased information is that you now have a source of action that is as frequently misguided as the current source of “information.”

      Further, I’m not sure that that’s even a solution to the news. People might WANT peace of mind, but what keeps them watching is anxiety. Denis Leary made an interesting point in one of the rare moments he wasn’t throwing the f-bomb all over the place. He said “I’m sick and tired of our generation being called the TV generation. What do you expect? We watched Lee Harvey Oswald get his brains blown out all over. How could we change the channel after that?” Although, in his way, he was probably being tasteful by not mentioning that many of those watching were probably doing so because they witnessed JFK’s assassination, and they couldn’t tear themselves away from the TV after THAT. He also made a less elegant (hard to imagine) observation about our obsession with the television when the first Gulf War was being played as a daily drama. I’m sure the same observation can be said about 9/11. The news was upsetting, but watching that TV didn’t actually put us on the front lines or falling from a giant building. That is, when we’re anxious, we seek out a reinforcement for that anxiety without actually physically endangering ourselves. I don’t know if it’s a holdover from when we had to watch our backs as we wandered through the tall grasses on the plains of our evolution, but we’re drawn to things that scare us and make us upset. The “news” is only amplifying the fear mongering the politicians are providing to keep us engaged in what they’re saying because it sells. Truth, lie, real, or otherwise, most of us are waiting for the next dose of adrenaline-inducing anxiety, not solutions.

  3. Submitted by Rus Schultz on 10/10/2012 - 02:35 pm.

    The problem truly stems out of the fact that news is now an entertainment industry, not a news industry. And as a form of entertainment, viewers watch what entertains them, and they don’t tune in for what doesn’t appeal to them at all. I have absolutely no desire to watch Teen Mom, so I don’t tune into MTV for it, same concept for the entertainment news outlets.

    Sadly, there are no news industries that are unbiased. Through this entire campaign, I have not seen one thoughtful counter-point examining each candidates tax plans in depth, it’s mostly been nationally released articles by pundits backing their side going through the usual talking points over and over again, until they become fact. Why? Because it works, and people have more attention span for that than they do talking about revenue levels, or Hauser’s law of economics, or the CBO’s blueprint for Medicare spending over the next 10 years. Hell, most don’t probably know what CBO stands for as well.

    But this is the society we’ve built, where there has been more reporting about Honey Boo Boo over the past week or two than there has been on the fiscal cliff, you know, something coming that actually will affect people’s lives.

    You get what you pay for, for American’s now, it’s not news, it’s entertainment.

  4. Submitted by myles spicer on 10/10/2012 - 03:07 pm.

    problem is…

    1. Most cable news shows are not run by journalists, the primary qualification seems to be young, blond and attractive. No Edward R. Murrows here!

    2. The news shows are so voracious for content, they will seek and broadcast virtually anything, then beat it to death…until another inane event crosses their desk

    3. There is no analysis in most news today — it is made up of 30 second sound bites — apparently assuming the public has little tolerance for something “intelligent” or deep

    4. Media competition is so fierce now, unless you get something edgy and/or slightly provacative, the fear is no one will be interested, or they will move on.

    Lots of studies show that people tend to communicate and or listen to what they already believe, thus reinforcing (not modifying) their point(s) of view. Thus the rise of Fox and MSNBC

  5. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 10/10/2012 - 04:10 pm.

    I don’t know who Denis Leary is, but his statement about why he and his cohort are a TV generation–because they watched Lee Harvey Oswald get his brains blown out, live, is absolutely just OPINION, not fact. I wonder where Leary was in November of 1963. I did watch that live murder, and Jack Ruby shot Oswald in the torso, not the head. Both Kennedys had their brains blown out by assasins, but not Oswald. It’s the opinionated, quick distortions like that that make thinking people disparage the “news” we get today from bloggers and blatherers.

    So much for brains in the news. The major problem I see today is that very, very few so-called news outlets actually devote any money to news gathering. What they do is recycle someone else’s “news,” which gets progressively watered down into pure opinion. Blogs, loud shouting matches, “balanced” discussions of someone else’s “news,” etc. It’s amazing what is NOT reported on TV news, in favor of lots of viewpoints of people with ideological agendas.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/11/2012 - 09:26 am.

      Denis Leary is a comedian. It was meant to be funny, in a crude way. And the inaccuracy was probably his way of not saying JFK because that would be crossing the line, right? Anyway, it’s actually a pretty astute observation. I know I wasn’t the only one glued to the news, expecting something else to blow up, after 9/11. Still, my point was to the concept of providing news as “solutions.” Besides being misguided (why would the solutions be any better than the raw information?), I doubt that Americans watch the news for peace of mind. Quite the opposite.

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