Thursday, September 19, 2013

Should journalists point out blatant lies that politicians tell?

During a segment on "Morning Joe," former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) speculated that most opponents of the Affordable Care Act have been fed erroneous information about the law. (MSNBC reporter Chuck) Todd said that Republicans "have successfully messaged against it" but he disagrees with those who argue that the media should educate the public on the law. According to Todd, that's President Barack Obama's job.
"But more importantly, it would be stuff that Republicans have successfully messaged against it," Todd told Rendell. "They don't repeat the other stuff because they haven't even heard the Democratic message. What I always love is people say, 'Well, it's you folks' fault in the media.' No, it's the President of the United States' fault for not selling it."  - from TPM

What is the responsibility of an ethical journalist when it comes to reporting news on which there are two diametrically opposed viewpoints? Do they simply report "he said, he said" and let their audience decide who is telling the truth? Or, if they have incontrovertible information that one side or the other is lying and misstating facts, do they have an obligation to say so?  

What passes for journalism in today's environment demands that reporters take the first option. "He said, he said" is all we hear on most broadcast news shows. No analysis, no background, no additional information provided by the reporter to help his audience discover the truth - just one argument juxtaposed against its opposite. This is a grave disservice to the consumer of news and a grave disservice to society as a whole. 

Journalists are, we assume at least, in a better position to know all the facts of a story than the average Joe or Jill in the street. I certainly don't have the time or resources to research every important news story that comes along or to ferret out the truth on controversial subjects. I rely on trusted sources to provide me with information and guidance. 

But what if the sources we rely on are lazy or are taking their guidance from some central authority which gives them daily talking points that they must adhere to in their reporting of the news? What if our "journalists" are unworthy of the name and instead are complicit in pulling the wool over the eyes of their audience? 

Television news reporters today, and to a certain extent print reporters as well, seem to have given up any obligation they ever felt to be truth tellers. They appear to feel no obligation to do the work of finding out what the truth actually is and passing it along to their viewers or readers. Thus, they will report with a straight face a blatant lie about some subject - the Affordable Care Act is the big one of the moment - and will never by word or deed inform their audience that they KNOW it is a lie. And then, when the public is confused about the subject, they blame someone else, as Chuck Todd blamed the President for not "selling" the program. 

If reporters simply reported the truth about what the program does and will do, it seems highly unlikely that "selling" would be necessary, because poll after poll shows that when people are asked about the individual parts of the law, they overwhelmingly approve of it! As Jason Linkins writes in The Huffington Post, "But informing the public is the full-time job of journalists as well. The notion that a journalist can possess the means to mitigate public confusion on any topic and pass on doing so is just unfathomable to me. In many cases, the information you need to perform that task is hard-won."

Certainly the Administration has an obligation to help inform the public, but that doesn't relieve journalists of their obligation to report the truth and to point out obvious lies ("death panels!") to the public. Unfortunately, I don't see the Chuck Todds of the journalism world having the courage or the work ethic to shoulder that responsibility anytime soon.

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