Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Fact Checking the Liberal Media

Seventeen years ago I walked into the U.S. Information Agency newsroom a green kid just out of college with skewed delusions of following in the footsteps of Papa Hem, who got his start at the Toronto Star. I got dumped onto the LATAM desk where I thought I’d be forever writing short, three-hundred word-ers about the dismal state of the banana trade in Nicaragua, or the rogue bus filled with poor women and children tumbling into a ravine in La Paz. The hard-and-fast rule, then, even for small, regional pieces, was to always buttress up the story with two independent sources. Nothing ever went out on the wires without a two-source confirmation. I pulled stuff from AP, UPI, Reuters, various sleepy or inebriated stringers out in the field, even AFP, the French news service—in spite of my ignorance of the language. On AFP stories I would look for confirmation of names or places, anything to get the damned thing out to the language services, in order to be translated. We sometimes even used FBIS, the hush-hush (I guess not anymore) “news service” provided by CIA to some of us with medium clearance. Although we couldn’t name the source, we’d be able to use it as confirmation for our piece. Those were the days.

And then came the 24-hour (all in a row!) news cycle, with the explosion of MSNBC in ’95 and the subsequent outlets (CNBC, Fox, Bloomberg) competing on CNN’s already-established turf. Like a fool, I moved out of news writing and into TV production, working on several political talking heads shows—most of which are still around, using the same tired pundits. Reporting changed suddenly. Chunks of time had to be filled fast, and producers and news directors ran with un-confirmed stories, knowing full well if their network wouldn’t put it on the air, the competition would. Numbers, numbers! It was all about those teeny percentage points spit out by Nielsen. This whole dirty un-checked business culminated in early ‘05 when CBS anchor Dan Rather resigned over his rushed and admittedly flawed story on President Bush’s National Guard Service. And so the Ultimate Journalist took the bait and paid for it all with the abrupt and un-ceremonious end to his career. I remember shaking my head in disbelief at the asinine move, in spite of my disdain and disgust for W. Rather was a great journalist. But not this time. Emotions got in the way, and management pushed to get out a bogus "exclusive."

The Right continually harps on the media being liberal. I’ve heard this song for decades, only what it strategically fails to trumpet is the fact that “the media” is owned by corporations, and the big boys and girls at G.E., Disney, and Viacom don’t usually like leaning to the left, especially when it comes to pumping out the profits and pleasing their shareholders. However, nor do they want to ignore anything. In fact, by pushing a “liberal” media, they cover all the bases. If you sniff hard around parent companies of media outlets, you can smell the quintessential corporate culture---the analogous philosophy to the auto industry giants working to ameliorate both the neo-hippies who rattle the cage, screaming for environmental responsibility, as well as the gun-totin’, truck-drivin’ good ol’ gas-guzzlin’ boys and girls (re: real Americans!) from the heartland . Take Toyota for example--a company whose outrageously-popular Prius has been the best-selling hybrid for years. If you paid close attention, however, Toyota lobbied aggressively (and successfully) last year in fighting the tougher-mileage CAFE standard for its gas-guzzling truck and SUV division. This is how corporations operate. Nothing new.

And so, back to fact checking. Whether or not I believe the media is liberal, conservative, or independent, I have outlets and venues for cross-referencing what I read---much like back in those dark days when I had to sit on my story and watch the wires for confirmation. Yes, I read the New York Times, The Huffington Post, Slate, The Washington Post, but I also check out The Wall Street Journal, The Looney Rev. Moon’s Washington Times, Kristol's and Barnes’ Weekly Standard, and (gasp!) Fox News. In fact, Roger Ailes and I go way back to ’94 when he employed me for his now-defunct “America’s Talking” network (Chris Matthews got his TV start on that, as well).

The point is, we’re almost into 2009 and there are enough sources online and otherwise to dispel or support any kind of information. It’s up to us to be pro-active. Reading and frequenting sites or publications exclusively, based on party affiliation is, in my opinion, highly irresponsible if one aims to be well-informed. Slapping labels on The Media should not amount to ammunition for any particular political party. But we let it. We’re lazy (well…some of us at least) and we like being fed tidbits and soundbites because it’s easier that way. Fox News says jump and we jump. We’re more content being parrots than researchers. I know, some of us are more privileged with larger chunks of time, but nobody said gettin’ edumacated is easy. Do the work and stay well-rounded. The liberal or conservative or whicheverthehellwaytheylean media ought not to sway or affect the innate desire for the truth.

“The Truth is Out There.” (Damn, I miss that show).


Anonymous said...

without even discussing this, i was on the same mental path this morning recalling a post i wrote long ago on my old food safety blog about tips on researching and the importance of need to dig it up, you've spelled out perfectly here.

B.E. Earl said...

Similar mental path here as well. I just blogged last night about media bias and FOX's policy of denial about it.

I'm lucky enough to have the time to do my own fact-checking. Wishing it were so for everyone.