Saturday, October 17, 2009

When faux news obscures the real thing

This post appeared first at, where I am keeping an active blog. See other recent writing there.


Democrats are "increasingly confident" they'll have the votes to pass health care legislation, my morning Boston Globe reports. That's why, as a proponent of reform, I'm nervous. As health care heads down the stretch, I'm bracing for the next big diversion, watching for how the media respond.

The health insurance industry tried to light a rocket last week when, at the 11th hour before the Senate Finance Committee vote on Sen. Max Baucus' proposal, it released a report warning the plan would send family premiums through the roof. That diversion fizzled, perhaps because its timing was so evidently cynical.

But perhaps it fizzled for another reason: It wasn't whacko enough. If there's one thing yet another summer of silly stories reminded us it's that American conspiracy theorists like their faux news diversions to be really faux -- and that cable news knows it well. That's part of why death panels were such a hit for awhile, along with the birther movement that preceded it. Those charges were loony enough charges to really get some traction on TV.

Meanwhile, anyone trying to get a firm grip on the health care debate has struggled to break through the 24-7 noise. As recently as late last month a New York Times/CBS News poll found a majority of those polled remained confused about health care. I'll bet that hasn't changed much.

Granted. Health care reform is complicated. And the multiple bills flying around make it more so. But the news media can't take a free pass here.

Hours of over-the-top coverage of the off-the-wall inevitably divert attention from real issues. And that, I'm quite sure, is precisely what opponents on the right still want. By raising false charges, they often succeed in coaxing a media fearful of seeming biased, eager to boost ratings, or both, to obscure the real debate.

This isn't an issue of ideology. If Democrats were better at tossing around mean-spirited, specious attacks they, too, might seize the day. Obama, for his part, could counter this trend by rapidly counter-attacking each attack and hammering the message he began to sharpen in his speech to Congress.

But even if Democratic tentativeness has made matters worse, the media's job is to cover more than just what's lobbed at them. News coverage involves choice every day. And in a profit-driven 24-7 news environment, news executives often choose with the knowledge that scaring people sells almost as well as sex. (Just witness this week's saga of the missing boy and the drifting helium balloon.)

Though sexy and scary stories sell, however, they also distract from a core mission of news – to inform, to expose the public to an intelligent range of views, to put a variety of rational options before it.

"Fair and balanced” news meant something different before Fox News co-opted the slogan. To be fair, I was taught 35 years ago, a reporter should check his own biases and gather enough facts to glean what truth (with a small t) they appear to point toward. The weight of evidence would dictate the relative balance of viewpoints, not some formulaic "he said, she said" equation. What gets covered and how it gets covered in other words, should be proportionate to the evidence, not to who shouts the loudest.

Perhaps "no drama" Obama is right. Perhaps the shouters, lacking substance, eventually run out of steam. I hope so.

Because when the news becomes merely noise it makes the already difficult task of governing almost impossible.

That is why I'm bracing for the next big diversion, the next effort to stop health care reform by peddling nonsense. Stories of lost kids and balloons can only last so long. And the mavens of 24-7 news are always on the lookout for raw meat.

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