Taughannock Falls

Taughannock Falls
from: althouse.blogspot.com

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Alll the news that's fit to print

Slacktivist provides some thought-provoking words on the failure of much contemporary journalism to stand up for truth and goodness:

One cannot side with the good or the true when one's primary preoccupation is avoiding any "controversy."

The goodness of good news is every bit as verifiable and supportable as any other attempt at accuracy in journalism. But whether we are discussing the good or the true, journalists seem all too willing and eager to surrender their purported commitment to accuracy whenever that commitment would require a vigorous defense -- whenever there is even a hint of "controversy." If a significant number of powerful and/or vocal people want to pick a fight, claiming that falsehoods are true or that goodness is bad, then far too many journalists will simply surrender and retreat rather than defend either one.

You've seen this happen. No matter how true something can be proven to be, once it is disputed journalists will cease to treat it as something that has already been verified as true and verified. They will begin treating it, instead, as something "controversial." And that which is deemed controversial is no longer reported as true -- regardless of the facts and the evidence proving it to be so or the utter lack of facts or evidence suggesting otherwise.

All it takes to move any established fact out of the category of fact and into the quagmire of "controversy" is a sufficiently strident assertion. Those making the assertion declare themselves to be a faction and denounce the journalists for supposed bias against their faction. Even the hint of such a denunciation tends to produce equivocation, retreat and surrender...

Fifteen years ago the crime of torture was not a matter of controversy. When torture occurred it was unfailingly reported as bad news. Anyone admitting to ordering or executing torture was understood to be confessing to a crime. But the subject was politicized, factionalized and rendered into a "controversy." Now the word itself is rarely used, replaced by obfuscatory euphemisms that sidestep the unambiguous legal definitions, and incidents of torture are reported as neither good nor bad. They aren't really reported at all, only hinted at between the lines of competing contradictory statements from those ever-present, never evaluated "advocates" and "opponents."

A similar transformation is under way regarding waste and pollution. The waste of energy and resources was once clearly understood and reported on as bad news. The elimination of waste was reported on as good news. Journalists invariably took sides on the matter -- siding with those who understood the meaning of the word "waste" and against those who did not.

But the wastefulness of waste is now increasingly regarded as a matter of controversy, and thus efforts to reduce waste are no longer reported on as good news. Increasingly, they are not reported on at all -- if by "reported on" we mean truth-telling as opposed to more feckless equivocation in which something like "Advocates say energy-efficient light bulbs can save a family $30 per bulb, while opponents say that 'squiggly pig-tailed' bulbs are un-American and note that Al Gore is fat" is substituted for any responsibility to verify, investigate or otherwise do one's damn job as a reporter.

The inability to report waste as wasteful falls into the same category as the inability to report that a killer on the loose is bad news or the inability to report that the atomic number of beryllium is 4. Don't laugh at that last one. If a sufficiently vocal or powerful lunatic began condemning the use of atomic numbers then journalists would quickly adapt to the manufactured controversy: "Advocates of traditional chemistry say that the atomic number of beryllium is 4, while opponents of the old system say atomic numbers are a socialist device and instead assign each element a corresponding Bible verse. The atomic verse for beryllium is 2 Kings 6:29."

It's disturbing to watch this untethering from reality unfolding before us -- to watch this timid appeasement of the vicious, the mendacious and the confused all in the name of avoiding controversy as though "accurate" and "uncontroversial" were synonyms, as though "undisputed" and "true" were the same thing.

While this untethering from reality is indeed quite frustrating, some journalists manage to promote truth and goodness on the sly. For example, I've seen more than one mainstream article that, on the surface, presents the nonsensical "birther" questioning of President Obama's citizenship as an actual "controversy." Words like "nonsense" and "deranged" aren't used to characterize the birther "position." Yet the article is carefully constructed to expose the ridiculous nature of their assertions, matching directly some crazy birther's false statements with easily verifiable evidence that demonstrate their falsity. In fact, the careful avoidance of explicit judgement in such a piece makes the evidence all the more powerful (except of course to those who are already batshit insane).

1 comment:

tbelwin68 said...

That front page is awesome! I think I'll call in to work on Monday because I got sick from reading political blogs. LOL