Monday, January 10, 2011

The media is not Fireball Mario

In the wake of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, there’s been considerable talk about the role of the media as an instigator.

On the surface, this seems like a superficial argument. After all, do rap lyrics cause drive-by shootings? No. Did Marilyn Manson tell Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to shoot up Columbine High School? Of course not. Did Genghis Khan play his records backwards to inspire his massacres? Unlikely. Did Ted Bundy need porn to be a serial rapist and killer? No, though he made a scapegoat out of it. It’s stupid to blame someone’s actions on some bit of pop culture they consumed. Or really, anything else other than their own decisions and actions.

That said, however, I think there is something to be said for the influence of the media. And I’m torn on this. Like I said, I don’t go much for allegedly bad influences, especially as a premise for censorship. But the media is not envelope-pushing rock music; it has a very real effect on how we see the world around us. Rap may be the “Black CNN,” but CNN isn’t supposed to be white noise for gangsta wannabes.

For all of the sky-is-falling forecasts about traditional media, and the often-dismissed reputaton of new media, people still rely heavily on both as sources of information. Whether anyone admits it or not, the media carries authoritative weight. Some will say that’s changed since the advent of 24-hour cable news and the Internet. But it hasn’t.

Back in the day, most people got their news from Walter Cronkite or one of the other major TV or radio networks, which operated their news divisions at a loss, and/or a local (and usually independent) newspaper. Liberals, conservatives, moderates, libertarians and the politically apathetic might have differed on interpretation, but generally agreed on the facts that they got from the meat-and-potatoes journalism that ruled the day.

In recent decades, meat and potatoes gave way to TV dinners and fast food. At some point, most likely when 24-hour news channels made it necessary, entertainment and profit concerns entered the picture. And the line began to blur between editorial and tabloid content, and hard news.

What didn’t change is public perception of trust in the media. Sure, there is and always was criticism, but it generally comes from the idea that the media should tell us the truth. That we can and should be able to rely on what we hear. The problem is that we don’t agree on the truth anymore. And that’s because many media outlets have shirked that responsibility.

It used to be that sensational coverage and editorial writing were particular provinces of a newspaper or broadcast. You had to buy a tabloid, or flip to a mainstream newspaper’s editorial page, or wade through Mike Wallace, Morley Safer and Ed Bradley to get to Andy Rooney.

These days, some of the most incenidary personalities are linchpins of news networks’ lineups. People will tell you with a straight face that they get their news from Glenn Beck, or Rush Limbaugh, or Keith Olbermann. But you don’t get your news from them; you get commentary. And chances are, anyone who listens to these and similar pundits does so to hear what they want to hear. Which is fine, but that doesn’t make anyone truly informed in the absence of other sources.

But what’s sad is that the punditry regularly ranks among the highest-rated broadcasts these days. I can only hope that those who get a kick out of these commentators’ shenanigans are also working doses of real news into their noggins. Because the exchange of information frankly isn’t working as it should.

For all their bluster, Americans aren’t skeptical enough of the media. And when they are, it’s because they think the media is too liberal, conservative or whatever ideology they happen not to be. They don’t consider the real concerns. The need for ratings. Corporate influence. The blurred line between news, opinion and entertainment necessitated by profits. The qualifications (or lack thereof) of the person in front of the camera. Despite everything, there’s still a cachet of legitimacy that comes with writing for a major newspaper/website or appearing on a TV network.

And that’s where many media sources are dropping the ball on their own end. Journalism requires a commitment to the truth, built on solid reporting and fact-checking, conducted by those versed in media law and ethics. Those trusted to offer commentary should at the very least be informed, enlightened and responsible with the power they wield.

A former screaming morning-zoo DJ spewing alarming rhetoric about our country’s immediate future, all the while encouraging his viewers to buy and hoard gold and joking about poisoning Nancy Pelosi, violates that trust. A former tabloid-show anchor known for his hot temper, incidences of alleged sexual harassment and love of frivolous lawsuits who makes up glib nicknames for abortion doctors, who inflames hatred against immigrants and abortion doctors, should not be anyone’s No. 1 fount of enlightenment.

And yes, I’m singling out conservative pundits. Not all of them, of course, because are there lots of responsible ones, but all the ones I have issues with are conservative. “But what about Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Rachel Maddow, The Onion, etc.?” Well, all of those shows and publications are honest about their place (or lack thereof) as legit media. And none of them, as far as I know, attract an audience brimming with hatred and stoke that hatred.

As media consumers, we must harbor a healthy sense of diversity and skepticism. Likewise, the media has a responsibility to deliver hard news in a way that favors accuracy above all else, and its opinion element must be equally responsible in its commentary. Maybe then we wouldn’t have to read and watch coverage on all these shootings.


Anonymous said...

And none of them, as far as I know, attract an audience brimming with hatred and stoke that hatred

The Left wing also has its fair share of pundits calling for outright violence and pundits using crosshairs in ads. Two examples are here and here.

I'm not saying either extreme is right, because obviously neither is. I'm saying it's wrong to not point it out when both sides are doing the same thing.

Thanks for the forum.

Ian McGibboney said...

Crosshairs are a bad idea, especially in this day and age.

I still don't think the equivalency is there, though. The campaign link doesn't use incendiary rhetoric. And Ted Rall is a cult cartoonist.

That's a far cry from the nation's leading conservative pundits and politicians calling on their armed-to-the-teeth supporters to "reload" and water the tree of liberty via "Second Amendment remedies."

Anonymous said...

The difference in the severity of the rhetoric is a good point, and I fully concede that to you... but that's only because I'm as sane and rational as you are. The next lunatic that comes along may not care if the campaign rhetoric is incendiary or not, nor what Ted Rall's profession is. He may take what he sees and hears and run with it.

Now it looks like the media may be wrong on their assumption that Loughner was right-wing. I'm reading rumors now that he's (among other things) actually an atheist, a 9-11 truther, and a user of marijuana. If that's true, then aren't those things more of the Left? It looks to me like he actually combined ideas from the Left and the Right. Maybe we should stop blaming each other for what he did?

There are even allegations now that Sheriff Dupnik may have had a good motive in blaming Sarah Palin.

(Oh, Lord, why do I waste my time with all this B.S....I must be sick.) Thanks for letting me express my disease.

Ian McGibboney said...

Jester, is that you?

I'm calling for people to be more discretionary in what they think and consume. And I'm calling on the media to separate its facts from its opinions, and to entrust its power in people who traffic in well-reasoned perspective.

The shooting prompted me to say that, though I've felt that way for a long time. I agree that the shooter wasn't cut and dry one way or the other, and that actually reinforces my argument, because some people have no concept of truth. That's why the professionals should tread carefully.

mtananda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ian McGibboney said...

Ah, gotcha. I thought you sounded smarter than Jester. Hope you're doing well.

Hathor said...

In some radio media markets there are no left wing talk shows. I'd also like to see the ratings of Beck, Hannity vs Maddow, Stewart.

mtananda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NOLA Progressive said...

Alright I'm calling Shenanigans on this one. That's most certainly Jester under a different name. Not that it really matters, especially considering the discussion thread is actually civil and relevant, but it is a little creepy though.

Ian McGibboney said...

I think he's posted as mtananda before, too.

Someone calling themselves "banned poster" made a very Alday-like comment the other day on another thread, and I deleted it. Imagination, people. Use it.

NOLA Progressive said...

I don't have any issue with them trying to circumvent the ban. I mean I kinda assumed they would just on principle. What's kinda creepy is the backstory and the complete adherence to form and function of his prvevious indentity. It sort of has the feel of identity disorder.