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The media never lies (it just ignores the real story)

Jay Rosen comments about how a NYT profile of the Tea Party loonies avoid acknowledging the obvious fact that their ideology is bananas:

Why is this phrase, impending tyranny, just sitting there, as if Barstow had no way of knowing whether it was crazed and manipulated or verifiable and reasonable? If we credit the observation that a great many Americans drawn to the Tea Party live in fear that the United States is about to turn into a tyranny, with rigged elections, loss of civil liberties, no more free press, a police state… can we also credit the professional attitude that refuses to say whether this fear is reality-based? I don’t see how we can.

Now we can predict, with a reasonable degree of confidence, what the reply would be from the reporter, his editors (who are equally involved here, as the Times is a very editor-driven newspaper) and his peers in the press. The reply is the reply that is given by the common sense of pro journalism as it is practiced in the United States. “This was a news story, an attempt to report what’s happening out there, as accurately and fairly as possible. Which is not the place for the author’s opinion.” Or: “I was trying to describe the Tea Party movement, and to understand it, which is hard enough; I’ll let others judge what to make of it.”

Sounds good, right? But this distinction, between fact and opinion, description and assessment, is not what my question is about. It may appear to be responsive, but it really isn’t. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, but… as a matter of reported fact, is the United States actually on the verge of tyranny? That is my question. Would an honest depiction of the American political scene by the Washington bureau and investigative staff of the New York Times lend support to the “impending tyranny” narrative that Barstow observed as a unifying theme in the Tea Party movement?

It’s a key point, so let me state it again: Based not on a subjective assessment of the Tea Party’s viability or his opinion of its desirability but only on facts he knows about the state of politics and government since Obama’s election, is there any substantial likelihood of a tyranny replacing the American republic in the near future?

In an earlier article, Rosen explores how major media label alternate viewpoints as the “sphere of deviance” and thus doesn’t need to be covered.

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Rosen explains the justification:

Now we can see why blogging and the Net matter so greatly in political journalism. In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized— meaning they were connected “up” to Big Media but not across to each other. But today one of the biggest factors changing our world is the falling cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, trade impressions and realize their number. Among the first things they may do is establish that the “sphere of legitimate debate” as defined by journalists doesn’t match up with their own definition.

In the past there was nowhere for this kind of sentiment to go. Now it collects, solidifies and expresses itself online. Bloggers tap into it to gain a following and serve demand. Journalists call this the “echo chamber,” which is their way of downgrading it as a reliable source. But what’s really happening is that the authority of the press to assume consensus, define deviance and set the terms for legitimate debate is weaker when people can connect horizontally around and about the news.

Which is how I got to my three word formula for understanding the Internet’s effects in politics and media: “audience atomization overcome.”

Ironically I saw a similar graph which makes the same point on a Texas ecoblog.. Reprinted from Austin-based environmental blogger Michael Tobis. (Wow, these Texas climate change people are coming out of the woodworks!)

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(Read more about media’s mis-coverage of climate change).

Here is a good example of what I mean.

The Houston Chronicle has a very competent business reporter named Tom Fowler who covers the energy sector in Houston (and that is a big responsibility in a  Houston paper).  Here is an article about a report from a pro-business lobbying group about the cost of climate change legislation.  (more here and here). This is a typical example of the kind of articles which show bias-by-omission.

In the article and blog post Fowler  never identifies the funding source for this report (or for that matter the organization cited). Merely because something is bankrolled by O&G doesn’t invalidate the findings; I suspect the report authors are capable economists (though subject to the usual tendency of industry analysts to exaggerate the hypothetical market-disruptive effects of future regulation). But it is not merely an academic question if (as I suspect) O&G money funded this report. It points to the fact that the amount of money available to fund pro-industry reports far exceeds the amount of money available to those proposing alternatives or studying environmental effects. It is relevant for readers to know why similar reports that might contradict this finding are unlikely to be funded.

A reporter’s responsibility extends beyond publicizing partisan reports but trying to help consumers evaluate its importance and credibility.

The internet version of this article is titled, "Study says climate law could cost Texas lots of jobs."

Here are some alternate suggestions for what the headline could be for the same basic story:

  • "Group claims that over-dependence on fossil fuels will bring economic hardship to Texas."
  • "Industry Report implies that losing industry jobs in Texas is more important than preventing climate change catastrophe."
  • "Industry-funded report warns that lawmakers consider the economic future of fossil fuel industries before taking positive steps to reduce greenhouse emissions."
  • "Known pro-business political group argues for relaxing environmental rules despite a scientific consensus that doing so would harm the planet."
  • "Texas leads the US in greenhouse gas emissions; industry report implies that Texans should be more concerned about the viability of industries responsible for the problem."

Each of these headlines is a little biased but basically accurate. You see how easy it is to shape opinions by only reporting one news source.

This was  a newsworthy story and worthy of coverage. But Fowler chose to make this a separate article rather than try to address  the question about the importance/relevance of this claim.  Sure, Fowler included a tepid  quote from  an environmental expert,  but this was basically pro-industry coverage.

In fact, these projections of future harm from climate change is a highly contentious  issue (see this as an example).   But in my opinion it is irrelevant.  Why does Texas continues to be  so dependent on fossil fuels?  How does a policymaker do a cost-benefit analysis?  What are the long term effects on the economic and social system  when a region is dependent on an industry whose business model depends on harming the ecosystem? Why should Texas address the concerns of an incumbent industry when it appears that another generation of businesses will likely overtake it in size and growth? 

As a Texan, I worry about a lot of things. Climate change is a big worry. But I also worry about the long term effects of tying  the Texas and Houston economy to industries which are unlikely to be around in the next 10 or  20 years.  How can lawmakers justify that? How can lawmakers justify timid mass transit plans when it appears that the cost of gas-powered car ownership will continue to increase over time (not to mention highways!) If you decide to live in Houston, there is the very real risk that instead of learning future-based skills, you will instead be learning  specialized job skills only relevant to the Oil & Gas sector.  In the short term, that is good; in the long term, that can make you virtually unemployable.  (That is another reason why the Texas Public Policy Foundation report is so irrelevant; they talk about jobs – but only jobs that their industry can provide. It says nothing about whether work in this industries will provide long-term marketable skills for Houston workers).

Now let’s turn to another blogpost  (also by Tom Fowler) about the fact that natural gas prices will increse a Houstonian’s electric bills. Now I realize that natural gas is a baseline fuel for companies like Centerpoint, so it is semi-important for consumers overall. But the blogpost mentions nothing about renewable fuels (which in Houston are as cheap  as nonrenewable plans)  Because I use 100% renewable energy to power my home,  this news isn’t exactly relevant to me, but this option never even is mentioned.

As I said, Fowler is only doing his job, (and by the way, he runs a very good albeit fossil-fuel obsessed blog and wrote some good coverage about the fracking controversy). There are two problems here. First, a newspaper reporter rarely has  time to write in-depth stories about a topic. Instead they write piecemeal articles that appear in a daily and give the impression that they convey the whole story. That means that press releases usually drive the coverage.

Second Fowler et al make certain assumptions about the reader which may or may not be true.  Fowler is writing for those in the Houston energy sector and not necessarily the typical consumer. (After all, he writes for the business section). Therefore, he assumes that the typical reader is less interested in climate change science and more interested in new exploration and the impact of regulation on an industry.

Compare this to grist.org or the more business-oriented Triple-pundit.  What assumptions do they make about their readers?

  • they are very concerned about climate change and sustainability issues and try to stay informed about it.
  • They are not interested in the fossil-fuel industry (except for egregious examples of behavior and the need for regulation).
  • They are interested in energy production, but only as it affects them as consumers and as people who must breathe air and drink water.
  • They are very interested in how to run businesses in an environmentally proactive way.
  • They are very interested in having information to make pro-environmental lifestyle choices
  • They are very interested in long term thinking, total cost of ownership and ecological metrics by which to make sound business decisions.
  • They are very interested in green entrepreneurial opportunities.
  • They are very interested in how new green tools and services could save them money

These radically different assumptions drive the news coverage.  Sure, a business reporter like Fowler covers a lot of  these topics, but with different assumptions about the reader (and thus with a different perspective). This raises the question: does the reporter’s choice of what to cover  and how to cover it derive from his own biases or from the biases of readers or advertisers?

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