The Facts Machine

"And I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide"

Saturday, October 15, 2005

GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK AND THE MODERN AMERICAN MEDIA

First of all, the movie is great, and well worth seeing. That guy who played McCarthy really overdid it, with his alcohol-induced labored breathing and his perpetual stink-eye. Wait a minute... that was the REAL Joe McCarthy!

Anyway, while the movie covers the period in 1954 when CBS news pioneer Edward R Murrow went after Senator Joe McCarthy at the height of his HUAC ways, the movie is best understood, first and foremost, as a lesson for the present-day media, and second as a history/civics class. What are the lessons for today's media?

--Objective reporting doesn't mean erecting false balance. It doesn't mean sock-puppet journalism. It doesn't mean "let's hear the DNC and RNC chairs deliver their talking points without interruption and not bother with objective facts". Just because a journalist takes a side it does not mean he/she is endorsing how things should be; rather, the journalist is standing up for what is. Murrow's early segments on McCarthy relied heavily on direct quotes from the Senator himself. Any subsequent editorializing was grounded firmly in previously presented statements. This is the "news analysis" conducted in the present day by MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, and it's the stuff Bill O'Reilly pretends to do.

(The phenomenon of balance-before-objectivity always makes me think of Paul Krugman's "Shape of earth: views differ" anecdote.)

--Stand up for principles, but make sure said principles are worth a damn. Take Judith Miller. (Please!) Protecting sources? A good thing no doubt. But what's the point of anonymous sourcing if such sources use their veil, more often than not, to smear and to lie? And what good is it if reporters deny themselves the obvious recourse when lied to by super secret sources? (burn them!) Nobody gave a shit about poor old Judy "$1.2 million advance" Miller being in jail because the noble principle for which she was attempting to martyr herself was... access-whoredom!

And of course,

--The truth, and the reporting of it, makes a huge difference in the world. Knight Ridder was absolutely right about WMD in Iraq. Colin Powell got it absolutely wrong when he spoke to the UN Security Council. If the Washington Post and the New York Times (notably our dear friend Judy) employed KR's journalistic skepticism, if they acted with a Morrow-esque level of integrity, maybe people would have listened, and maybe we'd have 2000 fewer broken-hearted American mothers. What did we get? Ask NBC anchor Brian Williams (who, since his media-culpa, has shown some signs of life).

Whether or not a connection between Murrow's efforts and the downfall (and censure) of McCarthy is a logical fallacy (it's not), George Clooney's message in making Good Night, and Good Luck is clear: our media needs a good, swift kick in the pants. Taking an aggressive stance in favor of the pursuit of fact and truth is not something journalists should shy away from, for fear of "bias". When a referee sees a holding penalty, he throws a big yellow flag, and if the home crowd boos, well, shit, he deals with it.

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Consider The Facts Machine open for business.

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