Prostitution to Falsehood

Jefferson commented on media bias two hundred years ago.  He admitted that media is going to behave unethically if profit was their primary goal.  He recommended what later became part of the journalistic code of ethics, but also worried that ethical media was going to struggle in the marketplace because readers prefer information that re-enforces their own individual bias.

Here’s what he wrote to John Norvell in 1807.

To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer, “by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.” Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nation of its benefits, than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.

That seems to be the state that we are in today.  Truth does appear to be hard to come by because there is so much suspicion regarding its source.

I’ve posted in the past about why we find ourselves in this state.  It is an outgrowth of the generational dynamics described in the book The Four Turnings.  The book predicts the current conflict in the phase the authors call The Unraveling.  It’s why we have the growth of narrow cast unethical media and the general distrust of any information source that may call you own personal beliefs into question.  It is much easier to simply discount news sources that you don’t agree with as biased rather than dig down into an issue to determine what the facts really are.

When we speak of media bias, I think there is a practical response and a philosophical one.

The Practical

There is a spectrum of news sources.  There are unbiased sources.  There are sources that have a point of view but also adhere to a set of journalistic principles that require them to determine what the facts are and report on them.  Then there are sources with no journalistic principles that appear to be driven only by the profit potential of appealing to a particular audience.

Unbiased Sources

The CS Monitor does not have a political point of view.  They are probably the only major US newspaper who has publically taken that position.

FactCheck.org and Politifact.org (and its spinoffs) are unbiased websites who also have taken a public politically neutral position.  Their funding is transparent so you can make sure that they aren’t being influenced financially.  They also have a transparent review process to make sure that they don’t suffer internal political “creep” based on the issues that they are addressing.  These are NOT news sites.  They are sites that hold politicians and the media accountable for factual accuracy.

Ethical Sources

Most of the major newspapers in this country can reasonably be considered ethical sources.  Exceptions include those owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.  The code that the ethical sources follow means that they are only going to report as fact those things that they can corroborate from multiple named sources.   They will do their best to give those with a point of view an opportunity to tell their side of the story.  The paper expresses its opinion on the editorial page and that is clearly a separate section of the newspaper.  Opinion columnists are clearly labeled as such so even casual readers don’t mistake a columnist’s opinion for a news story.  Media organizations who adhere to this ethical standard earn the right to have an opinion because that opinion does not bias the way they report the news.  I also suggest that NPR follows this ethical standard.

Unethical Sources

These are organizations where the lines between opinion and fact are deliberately blurred.  From their perspective, everything is opinion and everything is fact.  Murdoch is a pioneer in this form of yellow journalism and it has made him a wealthy man.  That’s because there is a hunger in the marketplace for media sources which champion conservative causes.  In my opinion, though, no matter how noble the end might be, it can’t justify the means of unethical reporting.

The whole “birther” movement is a perfect example of an Internet conspiracy theory that had no basis in fact, needlessly divided the country, and was the subject of supportive “news” stories in the Wall Street Journal (a Murdoch property), The Washington Examiner (owned by conservative billionaire  Philip Anschutz), and the Investor’s Business Daily (another news source that jumped on the anti-Obama bandwagon).

Philosophical

The claim that there are no unbiased news sources is a red herring that basically serves the interests of those who would prefer that condition.  Claiming that all news sources are biased frees unethical sources to continue to blur the line between fact and opinion without the fear of being held accountable.  Just one example of this tactic is described in great detail at factcheck.org regarding a claim of bias at snopes.com.

It also frees those who happen to share the opinions promoted by unethical media sources to discount the criticisms/corrections coming from unbiased fact checking organizations or ethical sources.  The “Obama is a Muslim” movement is a great example.  That particular conspiracy theory was widely debunked and discredited years ago by unbiased and ethical sources.  It still is a regular topic of conversation by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and even some Republican presidential candidates.  This whole conspiracy was able to protect itself from the unanimous distain it received from the unbiased and ethical media because those invested in this conspiracy believed that all opposing sources were politically biased.  The only shred of fact in this whole “big lie” is that President Obama has a Muslim-sounding name.

Truth and Democracy

Jefferson believed an informed electorate was key to an effective democracy.

Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.

I believe that the dysfunctional government that we have today is a direct result of our failure to hold unethical news sources accountable for their actions.

It is our responsibility as a society to demand media sources that meet Jefferson’s criteria of “true facts & sound principles”.  It is also our responsibility to hold accountable those who fail this measure because their actions DO weaken the fabric of our democracy.

11 Responses to “Prostitution to Falsehood”

  1. chuckster says:

    Its not so much prostitution as propaganda, I would say.
    But the essential points you make are undisputable.

    Focused targeted engineered language, truth is not the objective here.

    I do wonder what it is we ought to be doing about it. Seems like ‘demand accountability’ us a great idea, but how exactly does a society or an individual hold a world-wide megacorp accountable in any meaningful way?

    Until news of the phone-hacking scandal broke, were any laws broken?

  2. Jeff Beamsley says:

    hey Chug,

    Good to hear from you.

    The “Prostitution” word was Jefferson’s, but I thought quite prescient given his two hundred year perspective.

    The “what to do” question is a thorny one.

    I asked Bob King, President of the UAW, the same thing. He is a great guy and not at all what you would think of when you mention the head of a union. He is committed to returning the UAW to its roots of advocating social justice for all working people. Anyway, I thought that he would respond with a grand plan of how the UAW could mount some broad anti-propaganda campaign to add the voice of reason to the current cacophony.

    Instead he said that the only way this is going to work is through grass roots organizing. In his estimation people have become too polarized. The oppositions have become so demonized that it is impossible for their leaders to admit publicly that these characterizations are inaccurate. On the other hand, it is difficult to project the “demon” nature of a liberal or a conservative onto a person standing in front of you having a conversation about the issues.

    You should read a little about the Four Turnings to at least get a context – but the reality is that we baby boomers are likely all going to need to die before a new more collaborative order can emerge.

    In the meantime, we need to educate ourselves, our families, and our neighbors about how to be more discerning consumers of news.

    The truth is out there.

  3. Keith says:

    Jeff,
    You do reliase your bias is showing in this articlue. make a point and only site right leaning organizations as the offenders.
    You also need to differentiate between unethical journalisum and biased journalisum. (read the book biased) It is the unbiased nature of the media thats at the root of the problem….not the facts.

    YS)The claim that there are no unbiased news sources is a red herring that basically serves the interests of those who would prefer that condition. Claiming that all news sources are biased frees unethical sources to continue to blur the line between fact and opinion without the fear of being held accountable.

    MR) Again, its not the facts that are at issue. Example from the book biased. In the impoeachment trial of Bill CLinton many networks were bradcasting live. While the members of the senate were voting one by one, walking to the front, the anchor, Dan Rather I believe, was providing comentary as follows as their name would be read….Senator Dingle, the sentator from Michigan, Senator Dole, the conservitive from (?), Sentor Kennedy, the senior Sentor from Mass. Senator McConnel, the highly partisans Republican from KYT. Senator Graham, the devisive republican from SC..and on it went….the republicans were called out with adjitives and democrates were merely democrats. Was any of it factual?

    Another way this occurs it through the direction of the story. Once saw a stat that in 2008, leading up to the election 70% of all stories regarding McCain were negitive in the major media as opposed to 70% of all stories being positive to Obama. Were any of the stories unetically reported..I’ll say no. Factual, I’d say yes. (Even with out knowing.) The bias is in the way its presented. If most people get their opinions from the major media and 70% of whats presented is negitive and a negitive bias will be formed. If 70% of what is reported is possitive and the mood swings that way….

    I may not understand correctly your entire point above as I went quickly but seems to me you have confussed comments about bias with those of ethics, or being factual. You can be factually biased…..

    Mr. Bush today announced tax cuts, which disproportionately benifit the wealthy, in a press conference at the White House. He was flanked by Donald Rumsfeild, the arhitect of the unpopular invasion of Iraq which has stirred critisisum from some, and by Dick Channey, the highly controversial Vice President who once was COE of Halaburton who some say is being given unfair no bid contracts in Iraq and Afganistan. The rate for the wealtiest Americans will drop from 39% to 35.6 over three years.

    Today Bill Clinton announced a plan to reduce capital gains to 20%. This after reports of 3rd quarter GDP were revised up and revenue to the teasury increased greater then expected. He was flanked by a smiling Vice President Al Gore, who’s latest book earth in the balance, has done so much to bring awareness to the problems we face with the environment. Senator Bill bradley was there today also. The Senator from NJ has recently done so much for (cause fill in the blank) and his work with underpivliged children.

    Now do you get it?????????

    Hold your nose and get the book “biased” and read it….Doesn’t have to be factually untrue to be biased.

  4. Jeff Beamsley says:

    Keith,

    As I’ve said before, with the exception of NPR, I think that the broadcast media in general has sold their soul to the ratings god. That includes right, left, and middle. So I’m not going to attempt to defend them.

    If you think that the examples of bias that I provided were somehow inaccurate, please say so. I’m not suggesting that these are the only examples, or that all examples are from right-wing biased media.

    No I don’t think that there is a distinction between unethical media and biased media. In my definition, they are the same.

    Similarly, I do believe the ethical media CAN accurately report the facts and as a result earn the right to have a point of view.

    Here’s the operative definition of bias: a particular tendency or inclination, especially one that prevents unprejudiced consideration of a question; prejudice.

    So let’s take the NYT, generally recognized as one of the best newspapers in the world. They have a point of view which is liberal. They also have a commitment to the code of journalistic ethics. They don’t make stuff up. They do their best to tell both sides of the story. They don’t claim something is fact when it is simply rumor. In short they don’t PREJUDICE their reporting with their point of view.

    Bernie Goldberg, on the other hand, DOES prejudice his reporting with his point of view. As a result he is a regular on Fox. He may feel that he is only balancing what he feels is an existing liberal bias in the media, but he doesn’t get that choice if he wants to call himself an ethical journalist.

    His book at this point is largely irrelevant because it is almost 10 years old. The growth of conservative media over the last decade pretty much eliminated any claims he may have had.

    Your stat regarding Obama and McCain is mistaken.

    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/44/2008/10/study-coverage-of-mccain-much.html

    http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=3612

    The following quote from the Wash Post article pretty much sums up the Project for Excellence in Journalism study on election coverage.

    While some will seize on these findings as evidence that the media are pro-Obama, the study says they actually contain “a strong suggestion that winning in politics begets winning coverage, thanks in part to the relentless tendency of the press to frame its coverage of national elections as running narratives about the relative position of the candidates in the polls … Obama’s numbers are similar to what we saw for John Kerry four years ago, and McCain’s numbers are almost identical to what we saw eight years ago for Democrat Al Gore.”

    In other words, the bias in media coverage is toward winners, not parties. When the democrats win, they get more coverage. When the Republicans win, they get more coverage. No liberal bias.

    I agree that what you posted is a good example of unethical reporting. That’s because there were unnamed attributions and no attempt to tell the other side of the story.

    Go find me a story like that in the NYT and we’ll have something to talk about.

    To support my case, here’s a story in today’s paper about Obama’s campaign to extend the payroll tax cuts.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/06/us/politics/obama-challenges-gop-on-payroll-tax-stance.html?_r=1&hp

    The story lays out Obama’s view.

    It talks about a potential compromise quoting a Republican, Susan Collins who supports it. That is certainly news.

    It also provides ample coverage for the opposing view with quotes from John Kyl, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich.

    It then finished up with some facts about how the proposed tax would affect small business owners.

    This appears to me to be a good example of ethical journalism.

  5. Keith says:

    Jeff,
    I simply don’t remeber the context of the 70% and will look for it. It may have been one news organization. I also buy into the convering the “winner” thought. If a game is being played and a touchdown is scored that will be reported positively. However if one fumbles its a negiotive. A winning candidate has more positive going for him then the eventual loser. Thats valid…….

    I read the washington post most every sunday. It is biased in its news coverage much in the fashion of the examples I made up above. I can try the NYTimes but not sure of the axcess I have to it.

    Here’s the example from the Wash Post two sundays ago. In the business section the headline was a long the lines of we need to stop the hyperbolly over tax reform. The articule only sited the progressive point of veiw over taxes and then debunked every conservitive thought. It wasn’t an editorial. This is consistant.

  6. Jeff Beamsley says:

    If you can find the Wash Post article that you referenced, that would be helpful.

    Here’s what I was able to find on their site for 11/27 when I searched tax reform.

    An article by EJ Dionne Jr. on the opinion page and he is clearly identified as an opinion writer. He is a well known nationally syndicated liberal voice.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/divided-moderates-will-be-conquered/2011/11/25/gIQAhEsm2N_story.html

    I also found another opinion piece on a related subject on 11/25 by Charles Krauthammer. He is a well known nationally syndicated conservative voice.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-grover-norquist-tax-myth/2011/11/23/gIQAsuJhtN_story.html

    This is what ethical newspapers do.

    The Washington Post has earned the right to have a liberal opinion BECAUSE they report the news ethically and they give voice to opinions from both sides.

    Here’s an example of a clearly political story regarding Romney from yesterday’s paper.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/romney-staff-spent-nearly-100000-to-hide-records/2011/12/05/gIQAkpYGYO_story.html?hpid=z4

    The facts are reported. Those who felt that this was unusual had an opportunity to express their opinion. The reporter also mentioned several times that no laws were broken. It also accurately raised the issue of whether or not it was appropriate to spend an extra $100K in state funds to cover the cost of swapping computer hardware when the lease on the existing hardware was still in place. Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for the Romney campaign, had an opportunity to comment the $100K cost but referred all questions on the issue to Massachusetts state officials.

    This is a good example of the sort of ethical reporting I’m advocating.

    Here’s an example of the same story reported on a website that has a clear liberal bias.

    http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2011/11/21/373627/romney-admits-recordsdestruction/

    In this case, the article quotes “observers” who speculated that on the motives for the hard drive purchase. When you click on the link to learn about the “observers” it takes you to an opinion article hosted on the Boston Globe site. You have click on another link on that article to actually get to the Boston Globe article that broke the story and is constructed in an ethical manner similar to the Wash Post article.

    There is no mention of the fact that no laws were broken in the thinkprogress article. The only place you find that information is in the video clip and it is only said by Romney. The site uses the video clip to portray Romney as hypocritical because he is criticizing the Obama administration on transparency, while at the same time removing electronic information that was generated during the time he was a government employee.

    This is an example in my opinion of unethical reporting.

  7. Keith says:

    It is also what driver the media, or whomever to expose Herman Cain when right under there nose 4 years ago was John Edwards and his affair…….

  8. Jeff Beamsley says:

    Remember that the ethical media is going to need several named sources who have actually witnessed things that could only be explained as an extramarital affair. Usually the only people who can provide that sort of evidence are the ones directly involved. Staff aren’t going to talk because they want to be able to work for powerful people in the future. Hotel staff aren’t going to talk because hotel owners want guests to know that their privacy is secure at their establishment. Same with limo drivers. You are right that many people suspected, but those who actually knew for sure were generally unwilling to talk.

  9. Keith says:

    and those who suspected did nothing……thus media bias :-)

  10. Jeff Beamsley says:

    Geez – is media bias the only excuse you are willing to accept. It was liberal media bias that John Edwards was able to carry on a multi-year affair, but it was also liberal media bias that Herman Cain’s multi-year affair was recently revealed? Sorry buddy but you can’t have it both ways.

    There was no media bias or cover-up with John Edwards. Instead, as his marriage came apart and his political career cratered, those who could be reliable sources including Edwards’ wife were finally willing to talk to the press. There was also no media bias with regard to Herman Cain. The sexual harassment settlements where a matter of public record. He could have made the whole thing go away early on if he’d come clean and admitted that he made some mistakes and is now a wiser man. Instead he basically challenged the character of those who received settlements and he challenged the press to go find some more and they did. It was the fact that these women were willing to come forward which ultimately provided some cover for this last long-time mistress to go public.

  11. Keith says:

    I don’t know if Herman Cain did or didn’t do anything…this isn’t something we need to get into, however where are the charges,THE PROOF!! There was no n eed for the media to get into the matter with Cain until now……not the same as with Edwards. For your comment to be correct the media whouldn’t have jumped in until AFTER the race……… (totally different though as accusers came forward.)

    As to Edwards..the media, “mainstream,” did a terrible job of vetting the Dem candidates in 2008. So much so, Peter Jennings said on Charlie Rose a week or so before the election, “we know very little about Obama.” I’m here to say we still don’t….

    He’s been Pres now for almost three years and its less important, but in comparision, of which I only have my perception, Rommney, Newt and a few of the others have more dug up….How the media let C. Dodd take the stage without screaming headlines about his great mortgage deals is beyound me. The Edwards affair was right under their nose, they could have easily got that one. And what of Obamas years between Harvard law review and becoming the “present” senator in the state of IL? Just what did he do? Who did he teach? What did he teach? ETC…………. I’m NOT a consprisy guy as you know but wheres the media’s responsibily in all this??????

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