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The Death of Truth in the Media

The Death of Truth in the Media – December 10, 2007 9:32 PM (edited 12/10/07 4:32 PM)
Talraen (2373 posts) Doesn't Play with Others
Rating: Not Rated
I really don't pay much attention to mainstream news anymore, for a wide variety of reasons. Chief among them is a common thread: media sensationalism. Sound bytes have become more important than actual stories in this day and age, and it's not limited to the mainstream media, either. But I could go on about my problems with media coverage for days. Right now I want to address one very specific trend I've noticed several times of late.

It is no surprise that, when presenting an argument, one might gloss over the counter-arguments that contradict one's own beliefs. We've come to accept that one may even bend the truth a bit, or imply complete falsehoods, in the pursuit of a proven point. I think we call this "politics." It's sad, but it's a part of our world. Sometimes it goes too far, though. Sometimes the truth is pushed aside entirely, and a new argument is created from thin air. This argument isn't necessarily a lie, but it openly and actively ignores, and in some cases contradicts, the truth. This is not something anyone should accept, least of all from the media.

I have two examples of the sort of thing I'm talking about, approached from slightly different angles. The first comes from an interview with Tom Brokaw following the Virginia Tech shootings, where he insisted on following the media-standard "blame all violence on video games" mantra (throwing in blogs for good measure), while actively denying the influence media coverage has on these very public mass shootings. The second is an article written by Howard Bryant reminding people of the role Mark McGwire has had in the MLB steroid issue that is now squarely focused on Barry Bonds, insisting that a racial double standard is at play while ignoring the simple facts of the case (i.e., that Bonds is on trial for perjury, not steroid use).

The Tom Brokaw issue is important not for the specifics or the people involved - I only used Tom Brokaw because it was the first article I could find a link to showing what I'm looking for. For some time now, since the shootings at Columbine, video games have been a scapegoat for youth violence, and this despite the fact that youth violence has declined since 1994. Most gamers seemed to pass this off as latest version of heavy metal, rock & roll, and everything else that has been blamed for society's problems by older generations throughout the years. However, I've begun to believe that it goes deeper than that, and this interview shows what I mean.

The link provided itself links to the full interview, but the relevant portion is on that page. The interviewer, Hugh Hewitt, asks Brokaw if it was a good decision to show the Virginia Tech killer tape on TV, given the risk of copycat crimes. In response, Brokaw says (in part), "You know, Virginia Tech went away. We didn’t have any ongoing dialogue in our communities or on the air about the corrosive effect of violence. It was not what he, what people saw of him on the air that will drive them, it’s what they read in blog sites, and what they see in video games. It’s that kind of stuff that I think is cancerous." The interview goes on and gets a bit testy, as Brokaw refuses to acknowledge the possibility of copycat crimes without "proof."

In this context, it makes one wonder if perhaps the media wants to find a scapegoat for school shootings because, in fact, the media shares a good deal of the blame. Columbine came out of nowhere and was a huge story, and since then there has been a rash of school (and other) shootings, often coming in groups. It doesn't take a huge leap of logic to suggest that perhaps the media's coverage of these sorts of events, plastering the killer's names on front pages and opening segments for weeks on end, has something to do with why they keep happening. The media needs to create a scapegoat because they are the obvious scapegoat.

Case in point, the Omaha shooter's suicide note, which contains the rather straightforward sentence, "Just think tho I'm gonna be fuckin famous." It will be interesting to see how coverage of this develops, if it does - as I said, I don't pay attention to a lot of mainstream news, but a few Google searches showed mention of this part of the suicide note on major news websites, but I didn't notice much in the way of (self-)analysis.

While one could argue that the media has some ulterior motive for blaming video games (and in Tom Brokaw's case, blogs) for violence, I'm willing to believe it's mostly a self-defense mechanism. Truth be told, I'm sure video games do have some influence on violence, at least for people who weren't all that stable to begin with. Maybe we should pay more attention to people who see video games as more real than real life.

The circumstances are quite a bit different for the Howard Bryant article, however. The article starts off simply enough, a reminder that before Barry Bonds was the poster boy for steroid use in Major League Baseball, there was Mark McGwire (though in fairness to both of them, neither has ever actually failed a drug test). The problems with the article are twofold. First, while bringing up McGwire makes sense in the context of talking about the soon-to-be-released Mitchell Report on performance-enhancing drugs in the MLB, the article groups these together with Bonds's arraignment on perjury charges. While the perjury charges presumable revolve around Bonds's denial of steroid use before a grand jury, the fact is that he is not on trial because of steroid use. The second problem is that this article becomes a rant about race about halfway through, with no particular basis or obvious purpose, other than to rile people up.

To discuss this issue, you have to be familiar with the facts, so I will recap the relevant portions for anyone who hasn't followed them. Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris's single-season home run record, one of the most hallowed in baseball, in 1998. Bonds later broke McGwire's mark and currently holds the record, and last year he also broke Hank Aaron's career home run record, arguably the most important in all of baseball. McGwire retired in 2001, and three years later was one of several players called before Congress to testify about steroid use in baseball. (Bonds was exempted, reportedly for circumstances revolving around the very grand jury case he has been accused of perjuring himself during.) McGwire refused to answer any questions about his past, effectively pleading the fifth, and his popularity dwindled to nothing virtually overnight. Once considered a lock for the Hall of Fame, few people think he has any chance to make it in now.

What I'm looking at with this article is the author's effort to mislead the reader to fit his own agenda. The first instance is mentioning Bonds's arraignment alongside the Mitchell Report. When Bonds testified before the grand jury, he had immunity. Theoretically the testimony was secret, so there was no danger to him for telling the truth. (Indeed, Jason Giambi did exactly that during this very case, and naturally the testimony leaked and he suffered for it, though he has recovered somewhat.) Bonds said that he never knowingly used steroids, and that is (apparently) what has led to the perjury case.

This is where things get dicey. Bryant states that "McGwire did not exactly lie under oath," but this statement is misleading at best and borders on an outright falsehood. McGwire refused to answer any questions under oath. He certainly did not lie, and when the entire sports world concluded that he had taken steroids, he offered no defense (as Bryant makes abundantly clear in this article). You could cry semantics, but Bryant is no novice author, he is well aware of what he is saying.

He goes on to bring race into the equation, carefully not saying that he thinks race is a reason behind Bonds's arraignment. He does, however, say "The difference is in how McGwire has been treated because he happens to be white, and it started with the decided lack of bloodlust to pursue him after he folded before Congress." To which I ask, pursue him for what? McGwire had been retired for years at that point, held no records at that point to be stripped away, and was not yet eligible for the Hall of Fame. The damage to his reputation has been immense, as well as the aforementioned damage to his Hall of Fame chances. What else could they possibly do to him?

Continuing on the race issue, Bryant adds, "Too many fans and members of the press, especially, willfully deluded themselves with the McGwire myth, built by them because of their shared whiteness, their belief in his false purity." Now, here I think he does have a bit of a point. I watched that Congressional hearing live, and my heart sank when McGwire refused to ask any questions. Here was a guy everyone loved, whose home run pursuit did a lot to save baseball after the '94 strike, and he was folding like an accordion. You could see his career crumbling, retroactively, before your eyes. But I'm not sure I would have been such a fan of McGwire if he had been black, simply because I couldn't identify with him as much. Does that make me a racist? That's a question for a different essay. I can say for certain that had Bonds been there in 1998, I would have been on the edge of cheering his fall from grace. Not because he's black, certainly, but because I think he's a big jerk. Sure, that may be an unfair media portrayal, but what else do I have to go by? If I misjudged Bonds, I'd apologize, but his race has nothing to do with how I feel about him.

Every now and then the internet throws you a little surprise, and an excellent counterexample to Bryant's point was brought up in the comments on the article. Two of the three best teams in the NFL are the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, who earlier this season met when both were still undefeated, in a matchup some termed "good vs. evil." The Patriots were the "evil" team, for a combination of reasons that largely revolve around their (white) head coach, Bill Belichick. The Patriots were caught taping the Jets' defensive signs in the first game of this season, an act that has labeled them cheaters with most of the blame placed on Belichick. He has been known to be grumpy and standoffish with media, kind of like Bonds. At this point, most non-Patriot fans pretty much hate the guy.

His counterpart in Indianapolis is (black) head coach Tony Dungy. I don't know of anyone, even Colts haters, who don't like Dungy. He just seems like a good guy - he's modest, keeps things in perspective, is religious without being preachy, and has even had his share of family tragedies that have garnered him a lot of sympathy from fans. He's the guy you want coaching your kids. If he had been caught cheating, a whole lot of people would have been disappointed - just like we were with McGwire. How could it be about race when people gleefully cheer Belichick's fall from grace, just like Bonds, and worship Dungy?

In both of these cases, I feel media members have tried to construct a case out of thin air, though in the case of Howard Bryant I couldn't even speculate as to why. Why do we accept this? Perhaps it is telling that Brokaw called out blogs as a problem - blogs are just about the only place you will see these sorts of statements taken to task. Still, you never know if you can trust a blogger, but you should be able to trust a major news channel, right? Clearly they've lost that trust. It's up to us to demand they go back and find it.

Re: The Death of Truth in the Media – December 10, 2007 10:02 PM (edited 12/10/07 5:02 PM)
Balerion (1224 posts) Elite Powergamer
Rating: Not Rated
I have a lot to say on this and not enough time to do it justice, so for now I'm going to link something that is relevant, although in no way is it a direct answer to the problem you're addressing.

Also, Brokaw comes off as an obstinate, retarded jackass in that interview.
I really think the three “!”s really captures the exuberance that Clair must have been feeling when he almost said it. -Cuzzo

Re: The Death of Truth in the Media – December 12, 2007 4:25 PM (edited 12/12/07 11:25 AM)
Draethor (651 posts) Captain Hook
Rating: Not Rated
Outside of the Daily Show/Colbert Report, I can't remember the last time I watched any news on TV. The reason is basically what you're describing. News needs to be entertainment, first and foremost. Networks want to make money, which they get by selling advertisements. The more popular a show is, the more the network can change for ad slots. News has to attract viewers as much as any other show, but there is a problem. All news programs have access to the same stories, for the most part. So either a news program needs to grab "exclusive" content or present the same story in a more interesting way and the things that seem to sell best are controversy and fear. People see a teaser like "Is a deadly flu pandemic on the way? Tune in at 11" and that causes them to tune in.

it gets even worse when you think about what stories the programs pick. A lot of shit happens in the world, or even just in sports. A lot of it is really important in a general sense but people either don't care, or the people who select stories to be aired believe that people don't care. I'm guessing that Mushareef declaring a state of emegency and locking up all his political opponents shortly before he gave his military rank received little to no coverage. By contrast, think about coverge of OJ or Jon-Bennett Ramsey or anything other completely unimportant story that consumes media attention for weeks or months.

Another consequence of media's attempt to grab eyeballs is the fact that TV news programs have no memory. When was the last time you heard anything about bird flu or SARS? Nothing has changed with them. They are just as much, or little, of a threat as they were 2-3 years ago when people cared. But they are no longer scary to people because they were overhyped and nothing catastrophic occured before people stopped caring.

The only exception I know of to what I've described is the Daily Show, and maybe Jim Lerher News Hour but honestly, does anyone watch PBS. I'd argue the Daily Show is as valid a news program as anything on, even though it's not really supposed to be. The reason is, it has a different model for attracting viewers: comedy. Instead of manipulating a story to make it seem scarier or more interesting, it just needs to be worked into a joke. Sometimes the joke is as simple as showing the ridiculous shit the mainstream news shows are doing, Other times, a clip is shown from a speech or interview (usually Bush, but I'm sure that it'll be done with whoever is next) and completely contradictory quotes made previously be the same person are shown.

The whole problem really just comes down to the fact that news needs to be entertaining in order to get people watching and sell ads. That either means you manipulate the stories, the viewpoint they are presented from, or what surrounds the stories. Mainstream anchor programs play up anything controversial or scary (creating the controversy if necessary). Talking head shows play up a partisan viewpoint and/or the personna of the host to make it very appealing to certain audiences. Finally, the Daily Show adds comedy padding to the news, and there were a few non-US shows that used nudity.

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