Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Just the facts? (Finding the truth in news)

"All we want are the facts." -Jack Webb as Joe Friday

Remember, the famous hard-boiled detective Joe Friday from Dragnet played by actor Jack Webb?
Joe Friday was interested in one thing and one thing only…the facts.  Modern news media could take a page or two out of Friday’s fictitious notebook.

Fox News Channel has been dominating the ratings for news shows for quite some time with CNN and MSNBC duking it out for the title of runner-up.

Fox has been raking in the ratings with shows like Glenn Beck, The O’Reilly Factor and On the Record with Greta VanSusteren.

Shows like these are primarily vessels for political commentary with a dash of topical news.   They contain little if no actual facts and yet people mindlessly tune into such shows and accept everything these pundits pitch without question.

Beck’s increasingly sensationalist conspiracy theories and rhetoric have been touted by many as the reason his show has rapidly sunk in the ratings during the past year and also as the reason why he’s getting the pink slip from Fox.  In 2009 Beck was even punked by an 80 year old Barbara Walters who called him out on The View with Beck admitting he doesn’t check facts.  Beck himself has also been quoted as saying that he is an “entertainer” and doesn’t give a “flying crap about the political process.”

Now, don’t get me wrong.  It’s not just Fox and their “Pundit Posse” that’s guilty of this but Fox does it so often and so outlandishly that they’ve earned themselves the tongue-in-cheek nickname “Faux News”.  They could be forgiven perhaps if the commentary was limited to shows like Beck, Greta and O’Reilly but the commentary constantly spills over from the talk shows and gets regurgitated by their actual reporters and news anchors.

I don’t watch the news because I want to hear about the reporter’s personal opinions and political leanings, regardless of which way they go.  As a reader or viewer, I want the option of making my own informed opinion but alas, they don’t make it easy these days.  The downward spiral of news devolving from hardline reporting into entertainment news and eventually just entertainment could be marked by the rise of the internet.

With news now a click away these days and anyone able to report it, traditional news media have turned to tabloid-esque tactics to keep people’s attention and advertiser’s dollars.  You can’t blame the news media entirely though.  If the ratings are any indicator they’re giving the people what they want.  However, this errant disregard for fact-checking is becoming all too common inside and outside the world of news media.

In April, Republican Senator Jon Kyl in a battle to reduce federal funding for Planned Parenthood, took the Senate floor and claimed that abortion services are “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.”

This fact was quickly disputed and according to Planned Parenthood abortion related services only accounted for 3% of their yearly total services provided with 90% of their services being preventative in nature.

Once this was pointed out a spokesperson for Sen. Kyl quickly released a statement that the Senator’s remarks were “not intended to be a factual statement” which was quickly ridiculed by news pundits like Stephen Colbert.

I want to reiterate that it’s not just Republicans or the so-called right wing media that are guilty of fudging the facts or in some cases making them up altogether.  It’s across the political spectrum.  Democrats are certainly guilty of it too.  However, it may be noted that websites like Politifact.org dedicated to objective, non-biased fact-checking have consistently seen higher numbers of falsehoods and outright lies coming from the Republican Party.

Regardless of the numbers though, the point is the lies are coming at us from every side, angle and direction.

Adolf Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels was famously quoted as saying,
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
It seems disturbing that a quote from a Nazi would ring so true even today.

At least in America we can count ourselves lucky that we still enjoy freedom of the press.  In many other countries people are cut-off from the non-filtered news that the rest of us enjoy.  In places like Iran, people risk imprisonment or worse just by attempting to bypass their government’s strictly enforced internet firewalls.

Back in the “good ole’ days” if the weatherman said the sun was shining you didn’t open the curtains to check if it was true.  Nowadays, filtering the truth out of news requires opening the curtains.  Not only do you have to open your curtains but if you want the whole story you have to open your neighbor’s curtains too.

Jumping from one news site to the next, one might yield stories on President Obama receiving accolades for a job well done and on the other you might find scathing claims calling for his impeachment.  Both stories might contain questionable facts, bias or even worse…be editorials pretending to be real news.

If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s reporters who editorialize or editorialists who think they’re reporters.

Now, all of this isn’t really anything new really but it’s growing worse and the line between fact and fiction is getting thinner.

If you’ve actually gotten this far in the article without disregarding it as “liberal” propaganda you’re probably fairly objective yourself.  It’s getting the “masses” to realize the need for more objectivity in not only news reporting but news viewing  as well that’s the problem.

You could easily write a thesis on the degeneration of American news media and journalistic ethics.  Heck, you could write a book.  I think this is a good start though.  My point is simple.  If you accept everything you hear on “the news” at face-value you’re stocking up on snake oil.

Check the facts…just the facts!  If you have to do a little personal research to get to the truth of an issue, it’s worth it.  Don’t rely on someone else to make up your mind for you.

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