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Larry Womack Headshot

The Real Problem With Media Today? The Audience

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Arnold Dornfeld once famously told his reporters, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." (The source of that quote is, fittingly enough, disputed.) Last Thursday, the New York Times asked readers whether or not "reporters should challenge 'facts' that are asserted by newsmakers they write about."

Those, we like to imagine, were the days.

It is currently accepted practice for news outlets to simply state claims by political figures without question. A simple, "but others claim," will do. On those rare occasions when one does muster the courage to challenge a statement, the truth is usually lost in a sea of false equivalencies in an attempt to appear non-partisan. Yet the Times question still strikes me as a rather appalling admission that the paper, like all news media, would rather be perceived as fair than actually seek to tell truth.

There are a number of reasons for this state of affairs, of course. The average editor or producer now lacks the manpower to check every statement. Competition with thousands of other outlets with instant access to the same audience leaves little time to verify or refute anything. And, of course, there is the very real fear of losing access to your source, who would rather talk to a friendly outlet. Today, most non-partisan news outlets choose to report whatever someone says (it's too expensive to find out what they do,) and let the blogs sort it out.

But none of this would matter if delivering hard news actually made financial sense. If people made money reporting real news, believe me, they'd report it. The real problem is there's no money in truth. And the fault for that lies with the you and me, the audience.

The disease plaguing media today, the one that nobody ever talks about, is human nature.

A huge chunk of the audience -- the people who call CNN either the Conservative or Communist News Network, depending on personal bias -- is simply averse to fact. (That's why CNN reports so few.) Facts anger many people, turning them off and ultimately, ironically, costing the bearer that person's trust. In fact, just stating that fact has probably angered a lot of people out there. That's why nobody ever talks about it.

If you find yourself suddenly blinded by anger because I just implied that Fox News or MSNBC shouldn't be your primary source of news, please consider the following (once your sight returns):

You're reading something on the Internet right now, so you've probably noticed that a great many people on it respond to correction or presentation of fact with anger and even more deeply entrenched -- if demonstrably incorrect -- views. Just take a look at the comments on any given web site; the angrier or more dismissive one is, the less likely it is to be based in reality.

I would attribute those comments to the unsettling reality that many people (if not most) don't hold opinions based in fact so much as irrational beliefs eager to eject any semblance of fact from their psyche. Rather than view politics as a system in which people might come to different conclusions, most partisans have constructed fantasy worldviews in which their political identity is a key component of the larger fiction wherein they are the good guys and those they "disagree with" are the bad guys. With fantasy so entwined with one's idea of self, one actually comes to find facts downright threatening. Instead of really considering information to identify problems and create solutions, they find a reason to reject what does not fit their personal good guy/bad guy narrative. It's a little bit exactly like what happens when people feel science threatens their religious beliefs.

Rather than be bothered those pesky, fury-inducing facts, too many of us seek out only that information (be it true or untrue) that reinforces our prejudices, reassuring our fantasy selves that we are, indeed, champions of all that is right and just. That is what the most profitable news sources too often provide: a steady stream of reinforcement without fear of making the audience ever genuinely feel like they might be wrong about some political opinion. No menacing truths to rationalize away or compose angry tweets about. Forget Warcraft: Partisan media is now the ultimate fantasy environment, complete with fictional wars to fight in.

Partisan media has its place, of course, and I would be the world's biggest hypocrite to say that it does not. It entertains and (more importantly) often covers stories that more general audiences wouldn't be interested in. The problem is that too many people have come to view non-partisan media as the enemy: That hated "mainstream media," code for "anyone who does not exist solely to reinforce my prejudices."

So partisan sources thrive while traditional news outlets like PBS, CNN and NPR often struggle to find an audience -- while constantly under attack by both sides for alleged bias. Public broadcasting is always facing new and more idiotic charges from the right, of course. But recall a few years back, when the left began to complain that Newshour featured too many administration officials to talk about the wars they were running, and not enough... People to yell at them. Or something. That's right: Newshour was being called a conservative mouthpiece for featuring too many policy makers and not enough accompanying opinion.

Do traditional news outlets falter? Of course they do, all the time. And opinion does color the facts from time to time, no matter who is presenting them. But that is certainly no excuse to choose to expose yourself only to the work of journalists who you know share your political inclinations. I daresay that there might even be men and women of integrity on both sides of the aisle, fully capable of telling you the latest poll numbers without secretly trying to change your mind.

If our egos continue to insist upon being this sheltered from reality, I see little hope for democracy's future.

Here's a disturbing fact: The less you knew about Barack Obama, the more likely you were to vote for him in 2008. Prior to that, Bush voters could be counted on to know the least about their candidate of choice. Supporter ignorance has become the mark of a winner.

And that is nothing compared to the utter trainwreck we've created in congress. The major political parties (particularly Republicans, who fear Tea Party primary challenges) are so entrenched in party narratives that reinforcing them has become more important to their survival than the nation's best interests. If things get any worse, nothing will ever leave the Senate floor but Post Office re-namings and the occasional Peanut Day declaration.

We choose our media armed with that same, uhm, "thirst for knowledge." It is no coincidence that the highest-rated cable news channel is also the most absurdly partisan--and the only one that manages to misinform viewers so much that they would actually have been more informed about some issues having consumed no news at all. Do take a moment to consider how masterfully one must distort a day's events to accomplish that feat. It takes jet packs, apparently.

In the opposing echo chamber, Michael Moore can go on Keith Olbermann to repeat heinous myths about alleged rape victims created by a deranged holocast denier (and employee of the accused). To his credit, Moore clearly later sorta recanted. But shouldn't he have, I don't know, picked up one of the many reports that had already revealed it to be a sick joke before repeating it on national TV and posting the guy's bail? Or does he live inside the echo chamber as well?

But never fear, conservatives! Fox News, never a slouch, is always hard at work on their own intricate, alternate reality. There, two solitary Democrats can be blamed for the housing market crash, because they once took the side of Congress in a power struggle with the White House -- at a time when Republicans controlled both chambers and the presidency! And their bubble isn't so easily burst by tweet. In theirs, people like Michele Bachmann can tell any outrageous lie they like and still become serious contenders for the U.S. Presidency. In their bubble, even Big Bird and Spongebob are out to getcha.

Inside the echo chamber, the most appalling lie is usually greeted as the bravest truth. It's a sad, sorry state of affairs. And it gets worse.

Even Fox News isn't a safe enough haven for some lunatics on the right side of the aisle. One "Christian" felt so threatened by Wikipedia's arrangement of fact that he had to develop his own Conservapedia. When he eventually realized that the Bible didn't agree with him any more than science, history or the arts, he decided to re-write that, too. I imagine this man does a lot of angry crying. I also imagine that somewhere a teacher is reading a paper that cites a Conservapedia article, sighing and thinking it's just not worth the fight with the parents.

It would be easy, of course, to simply rail against the partisan hacks on both sides, or the timid journalists in the middle trying desperately not to offend anyone with outrageous behavior like talking only to qualified sources and fact-checking their statements. But that wouldn't solve anything. Of course the New York Times should fact-check every statement. Reporting true information is kind of its job. But it isn't so easy to take a stand for truth when you have a building full of people with kids back home counting on you to feed
them and an audience totally uninterested in hearing it

So, instead of blaming the media, we need to start blaming ourselves. And, more importantly, we need to do something about it. All it takes to make democracy work is a commitment by voters to be more concerned about making informed decisions than about feeling right. Right now, we don't have that.

I propose a personal challenge, for myself and for you.

Let's start with a reality check. One good way to consider the quality of the news you're getting is to take the Christian Science Monitor's weekly news quiz. Go ahead, open it in another window. I'll still be here when you get back. (Hint: If you're wondering why I've chosen some sort of religious publication, you're probably not going to do well.) If your score could use improvement, watch a little Newshour, some C-Span and BBC World and check back next week . You don't have to give up your Maddows and O'Reilly's, of course. Just learn to rely on those for commentary on news you've already encountered from a primary source. If that doesn't work, however, a complete partisan media detox might be in order.

I'm sure other readers will have even better ideas about how to tell if you're really getting the most out of your news, as well.

We have to, as responsible citizens, seek out those facts that might make us angry. We have to consider the quality and quantity of information we are getting, rather than taking facts as evidence that the person presenting them is working for the boogeyman.

After all, if you're convinced the facts are working for the "other team," the other team is reality.