What I Want From the News Media

Rachel Maddow in Seattle
Rachel Maddow in Seattle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some good discussion about the role of the mainstream news media has been taking place around my recent post about whether the news media should be covering Donald Trump's Twitter account to the extent that they have. My personal view is that the role of the news media should be to engage in investigative journalism and to report facts in a reasonably unbiased manner with the goal of informing the public. I'd like to see the news media, especially the cable TV news media, keep their editorializing function (i.e., presenting opinions about various stories) clearly separated from the fact-based reporting. It is not that they should never offer opinions; it is that when they do so, the content should be identified as distinct from everything else.

We have a model for this in the form of reputable newspapers, some of which are still around. They typically have an editorial page where one can expect to encounter various opinions. These pages often feature the work of syndicated columnists who operated from various ideological backgrounds (e.g., David Brooks). Not only is there nothing wrong with this, but the columns are often thought-provoking and informative. The key, however, is that these sorts of opinion pieces, op-eds if you prefer, are separate from the rest of the newspaper. One finds them in a designated section of the paper, and they are clearly identified as being opinion pieces.

Contrast this with cable news. Regardless of which channel you pick, one show runs into the next, and most seem to be a blend of fact-based reporting and ideologically-driven opinion that is rarely identified as such. Sure, I suppose one could argue that the viewers just need to know which is which, but I am not convinced that many do. Moreover, that seems to be a bit of a cop-out on the part of the cable networks. If their mission is still one of informing the public, they could do a much better job of this.

Perhaps each of the many opinion-based cable news shows should begin with a disclaimer that what one is about to see is opinion rather than news. People would still tune in to watch, but such disclaimers might help them realize what they were watching. Of course, this would be even more effective if all the opinion stuff were removed from the rest of the news and happened only in these clearly designated opinion shows. This would certainly bring more credibility to the serious news programming.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that cable news should eliminate any trace of opinion. I am suggesting that they separate opinion from news and label opinion as opinion. If I want to hear Rachel Maddow's opinion about various political stories, I know where to find it. I'm not going to make the mistake of thinking that anything I see on her show is unbiased or objective. Perhaps some of it is, but so much of it clearly filtered through an ideological agenda that anything objective seems to be the exception rather than the norm. If I watch her show, I'd do so because I am interested in hearing her opinion. And yet, some viewers of her show and others do not seem to make any such distinction.

When I want actual news - when I want to be informed about what is taking place and not what some ideologue thinks about what has taken place - I'm going to need to look elsewhere. And when I do look elsewhere, I'd like to be able to find real news without all the opinion - or at least the opinion clearly identified and segmented from everything else.

No More Propaganda

Just so you know, this portion of the post was almost a rant titled, "Rachael Maddow is awful." Perhaps I'll write that post one of these days, but this isn't it. I decided that it made more sense to simply use Ms. Maddow as an example of the problem I'll address here. You see, the other thing I really want from our news media is an end to the propaganda and willful distortion of facts. We are being manipulated, and I think we deserve better. And while it pains me to say so as someone who has long considered myself a fan of hers, I am beginning to believe that Rachael Maddow might be awful in some ways.

I have seen at least three specific things on The Rachael Maddow Show alone that lead me to mention this. Given that hers is just one of many shows specializing in opinion journalism, I suspect that the problem is far more pervasive than her show or the cable network on which her show airs. Thus, I am using her as an example because hers is the show with which I am most familiar and not because I think she's the only culprit of what I'll describe.

First, there was her split-screen work prior to the 2016 U.S. presidential election where Trump speaking at a rally was displayed on one side and Hitler speaking at a rally was on the other. It did not matter at all that there was no overlap between what Trump was saying and what Hitler was saying. That was not the point. She had the images up side-by-side to push the not-so-subtle "this guy is Hitler" narrative. This was not about news or informing the public; it was about promoting this particular narrative. And then a few weeks later, she actually reported on the rising public fear of Trump without acknowledging her role in amplifying it. I'm not sure I know another word to describe this except propaganda.

Second, there have been a few occasions on her show after Trump's inauguration in which she played a clip of Trump making a public statement and then claimed seconds later that he said something in the statement that he did not say. The most recent example I saw happened a few days ago when she repeatedly insisted that he was setting new U.S. foreign policy about our military taking the oil of countries we occupy in the future. This was not what Trump said in the statement she played. In the statement, he was talking about how he thinks we should have taken the oil when we went into Iraq (past tense). This was ludicrous enough without Maddow's distortion of its meaning.

Third, while reporting on a recent poll, Maddow put results on the screen in the form of a graph and then grossly misrepresented what the graph showed. In fact, I saw her do this at least twice. In one instance, she showed poll results indicating that Trump supporters were evenly split on a question and then claimed that all Trump voters believed what the poll indicated only half of them believed. She did this while the graph was still visible on the screen. In another instance, she put up two numbers and claimed that one was considerably higher than the other while ignoring the fact that the margin of error around both numbers meant that even if there was a statistically significant difference, it was much too small to be of any practical importance. I could attribute this second instance to ignorance about statistics if it was an isolated example; however, it should now be sufficiently clear that it wasn't.

What is all of this? Is it propaganda, "fake news," the desire to advance a narrative without regard for the facts, all of the above, or something else entirely? Many of us on the left look at Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway, or Sean Spicer and express our puzzlement over how they can repeatedly lie to the American people about things that are demonstrably false and easy to check. I think we tend to assume that they do this for a purpose, right? I mean, when Conway or Spicer lies to us, we don't usually chalk it up to a simple mistake, right? We assume that they are doing it because they've decided that it helps to advance their agenda in some way. So why the hell does Maddow do it? And why the hell do so many on the left seem inclined to look the other way when she and others in the progressive media do it?

I don't really mean to pick on Maddow as much as it sounds like I am. I find her likable for the most part, and I probably share many of her social and political values. I watch her show from time-to-time when I am curious about the sort of narrative the progressive left is pushing. Many I see on social media seem to swallow anything Maddow says uncritically, and I sometimes find it interesting to see for myself what she is saying. I also tune-in sometimes because she conducts fairly good interviews with lots of interesting people. Still, I could really do without the propaganda and distortion. I find that it undermines her credibility as a journalist.

This post initially appeared on Atheist Revolution as two separate posts. It was later consolidated into this one.