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Michael Moore lashes out at the media (again!)

I’m a little late to the party, but Moore’s CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer was incredible! (See Part 1 and Part 2). (These are lengthy interviews: 15 minutes and 9 minutes respectively). Part One contains Sanjay Gupta’s “fact-checking” of Sicko, and I agree with Moore; it was extremely slanted.

Moore mentioned that he would post a fact-checking of the fact-checking on his website later than night, and sure enough, he did do that. Here are some additional comments from viewers (and generally people sympathetic to Sanjay Gupta). Very persuasive. Moore was incredibly abrasive in Part 1, more restrained in Part 2.

The problem comes when CNN’s reporters let themselves be led by press releases. I’m sure Gupta has a stack of one page corporate press releases saying, “Michael Moore’s Sicko Misrepresents X” and Gupta had only to choose the top one on the stack. Gupta’s assertions actually had merit, but he never gave the charges enough detail to make them meaningful. One example: Gupta says, sure Europe has single payer medicine, but their taxes are higher. But he did not quantify. How much higher? How does the inflation rate of national taxes compare with the inflation rate of health insurance in the US? How do the satisfaction rates compare? These are basic and important questions, but Gupta just shrugs them off for the sake of a rhetorical point.

These sorts of exchanges really made me gloomy about mass media’s attempt to examine an issue in any detail. Maybe the problem goes even deeper; many of the issues come down to economic analyses and footnotes of articles about methodologies.

You need depth of coverage more than breadth. Moore’s Sicko may not report the issues fairly, but at least 90 minutes is enough time to offer a systemic analysis. Suppose that CNN did a one hour report on the problems with the U.S. system. I’m sure CNN could do a decent job (they generally do). But would it enlighten a decision maker? Would it give any insight about political will (something which torpedoed the Clinton health reform bill?) Moore’s complaint that mass media is underwritten by companies, and that distorts coverage. All undeniably true. But commercial underwriting doesn’t disprove reporting; it just guarantees that certain issues will receive greater exposure.

The question becomes: how could media be realigned so it would not make the mistakes that Moore accuses it of (and still remain relatively profitable)? I don’t think you can realign media. But you can realign people. You can increase the critical thinking skills of viewers which will lead to better reporting. When you lash out at the media, all you are really lashing out at human ignorance and apathy.

Instead of media literacy, we need a new kind of “raw literacy.” In other words, an ability to process facts and opinions without helpful TV commentators.

Update: Apparerently Moore let himself debate Gupta again on Larry King. This followup was unnecessary, and frankly Moore doesn’t look his best. If anything, the debate forced Gupta to go into more detail about facts –without really shedding new light (I’m afraid). That’s good overall. But the debate would be better served by having health economists duke it out–not polarizing personalities like Moore. He is good at identifying flashpoint issues and dramatizing them, less competent at proposing solutions or arguing economics. Figures like Moore see things in black and white terms. Gupta must have lied because he didn’t get his facts exactly right. If Gupta doesn’t provide evidence or presents contradictory evidence, then he is “lying.” I never realized that it was so easy for some people to spot the truth amidst complex and hairy issues. Gupta’s sin is in trying to cover too many issues in too short a time frame. Let’s not crucify him for that.

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