How the media’s addiction to false equivalence distort our politics

Paul Krugman

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman today returns to the theme that the media allows GOP politicians to wage a campaign of lies with impunity. In this case, he notes that GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is painting President Obama as a an anti-business extremist who wants to level incomes for everyone. Krugman also notes that the press will refuse to call that a lie.

Krugman explains that that GOP candidates have learned to rely on the press’ addiction to the notion of false equivalence since it distorts reality by painting both sides as equally black:

“Oh, Mr. Romney will probably be called on some falsehoods. But, if past experience is any guide, most of the news media will feel as though their reporting must be ‘balanced,’ which means that every time they point out that a Republican lied they have to match it with a comparable accusation against a Democrat — even if what the Democrat said was actually true or, at worst, a minor misstatement.”

He goes on to challenge Politifact for naming “The End of Medicare” as the biggest political lie of 2011, when in fact, the Ryan plan would have ended Medicare as we know it, by turning it into a voucher plan without today’s guarantees.

The media’s unwillingness to distinguish clearly between true and false plays into the hands of those who will lie to win. What that means for today’s politics is that it hands over enormous power to the bullying right, and nowhere is this clearer than in the media’s reluctance to distinguish between Tea Party versus the Occupy approach.

I have been to the Tea Party rallies at the Capitol in Lansing, as well as the union rallies and the Occupy protests this past year, and the differences could not be more stark.

At the Tea Party rallies, the undercurrent of paranoia is palpable, as is a heightened sense of righteous indignation often expressed as smugness. Tea Party rallies are designed to heighten the differences between “us” and “them.”

We are the best, the salt of the earth, the faithful. We tell ourselves apocryphal stories about our righteousness to draw a sharp line that divides us, the elect, from you, the damned, the welfare queens, the socialists, the interlopers, the gays and lesbians, the Muslims and other folks who do not accept Jesus as their savior.

At its core, the Tea Party comes across as a movement dominated by bullies and the folks they have terrified who are manipulated by the sharks who know better. These folks know their ideas are not the majority, but they have pollsters like Frank Luntz who know which words to use to hit hot buttons designed to obscure rather than illumniate. They seduce people by claiming the Founding Fathers’ mantle of democracy while trying to force people to bend to their will.

The Occupy events in contrast embrace inclusion. You are one of us. Come join us as we grope our way toward a better world. We don’t have all the answers but we are searching for the truth.

Here are the facts as we know them. Rising inequality threatens us all. The planet is in peril. But we have faith that we can find a better way together if we join forces. Please come and help us and share your ideas. Our general assemblies let everyone who cares a voice.

Some of the Occupy folks may be naive about what it will take to effect the changes they want to see. But where the Tea Party wears guns on their hips demanding their rights, the Occupy protesters embrace non-violence even as they are being assaulted by police.

Imagine the challenge this poses for traditional reporters inured to the “on the one hand/on the other hand” duality. There are no statistics from anointed experts they can cite to explain the differences. If they quote someone like me, they must immediately dash out to find someone to refute what I am saying. The ethos of false equivalence requires praising and bashing both sides in equal measure, and it serves us ill in an era when the bullies are ascendant.

Look and see the difference:


Seth Godin targets “lazy journalism”

In a recent blog posting, Ideavirus author Seth Godin argues that publishing national news in a local news site is lazy journalism. It may get you a few eyeballs, but it makes no sense in building a long-term audience in a global world.

He cites repeated copies of a story about Louis CK as an example of wasted pixels. He also notes re-tweeting what every reader will learn elsewhere merely slices the news pie thinner and thinner. Leave those re-tweets to the unpaid, he argues, so that journalists can spend their time instead digging out something that others don’t already know.

The challenge for the mainstream media, however, is that it is all about revenue. It’s not just easy but cheap to post items from AP and other sources, and the bottom line is all about the clicks. That’s why Huffington Post and other click-hungry sites can’t resist misleading headlines and teasers – made you look!

The issue is finding a sustainable model to provide quality journalism at the local level. I see non-profit national sites such as Truthout and AlterNet have survived without using these tricks. They rely on advertising as well as on asking visitors for donations or using book or DVD giveaways. The challenge is finding similar models for local news whose reach does not extend as far.

Your thoughts?

Occupy Chicago Tribune raising funds on Kickstarter

Occupy Chicago Tribune on Kickstarter has raised more than $4,000 of the $6,000 they are seeking to publish 20,000 copies of a four-page broadside.

Glad to see the movement is recognizing the importance of creating its own media, but why not an online publication? Cheaper, more environmentally sound and sustainable.

End of meme

Consumerism cool co-opts everything in the long run

I knew the Sixties were over the day in 1970 when I walked into a K-Mart and saw a rack of fringed suede vests with beads. Say no more, say no more.

Salon’s Hack List highlights what’s wrong with today’s political press

Mark Halperin cashes a paycheck for squandering his powerful platform at Time magazine

Salon magazine’s prolific Alex Pareene has finally rolled out
2011’s 20 awfulest political journalists, giving this year’s top honors to Time magazine’s Mark Halperin, calling him “both fixated solely on the horse race and also uniquely bad at analyzing the horse race.”

Halperin is the prototype of the “objective” journalist who prides himself on refusing to comment on anything he sees. Race baiting? Distortions? Outright falsehoods? Let’s instead look at those recent poll numbers that show Ron Paul rising in Iowa.

By treating politics as a sporting event rather than as a contest of ideas with consequences, Halperin squanders the opportunity to use his powerful platform at Time magazine and on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to promote the kind of informed discussion that could make voting more than a tribal exercise in doing what it takes so our team wins. The only time Halperin displayed something resembling passion was the time on Morning Joe that he called Obama a “dick.”

I was actually hoping that the top-of-the-bottom slot would be awarded to Erin Burnett, the latest anchor to fill the ever-changing musical chair in CNN’s unstable 7 p.m. time slot. Pareene awarded her fourth place, acknowledging her spectacularly trivial and patronizing coverage of Occupy Wall Street as her hackiest moment.

Is this relentlessly perky free-market Barbie manufactured by CNBC by way of Goldman Sachs the future face of broadcast news? Heaven help us.

While I was bemoaning the current state of political punditry in the United States, I happened to pick up the year-end double issue of Rolling Stone. In addition to the stellar reporting of Matt Taibbi and Tim Dickinson, the issue featured excerpted quotes from an interview with former NASA scientist Jim Hansen, who has been relentless in trying to persuade the mainstream media to cover climate change as something other than a manufactured controversy. Here’s a few sentences on Obama’s record:

He allowed the usual cast of characters to carry the ball, and they came up with the cockamamie scheme called cap and trade with offsets, in which big banks would be the biggest winners and Big Coal and Big Oil and Big Utilities all were given their share. And the public would get screwed. Energy prices would go up, and there would be almost no impact on solving the climate problem. By staying disengaged, Obama completely blew the chance to really be a great president. He could have changed history.”

The problem isn’t just the voices we hear but those we don’t hear or don’t hear enough of – Jim Hansen, Naomi Klein, Cornel West, Barbara Ehrenreich. Chomsky is frequently featured in the European press, but he says that he often finds himself disinvited on those rare occasions he is offered a platform, even by supposedly progressive news outlets such as PBS. Media moguls often allow incendiary critiques fromthe right, but not the left. (So long, Keith Olbermann.)

The opportunity that the Internet provides us in circumventing commercial media could allow the Occupy movement to create a new online citizen journalism based on providing the 99% the news it wants and needs. Email me at lansingonline AT with your ideas and input into how this new media should function.

Eclectablog’s Chris Savage charts a new course

In this two-parter, Michigan’s Chris Savage discusses how his Eclectablog has evolved from a personal journal into a widely respected progressive blog that has often been featured on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show. A supporter of the Occupy movement, Savage explains why he thinks the mainstream media are making a mistake by ignoring the importance of providing analysis and context in their reporting. In these videos, Savage also explores various economic models that offer the promise of sustaining bloggers who want to report news that matters from a progressive point of view.

Both videos were recorded by Bonnie Bucqueroux at the Gone Wired Cafe in Lansing, Michigan, on Sunday, November 27, 2011.

WWTPD? Are police and Homeland Security colluding to silence reporters covering Occupy?

Is Homeland Security coordinating crackdowns on journalists?

Images that police prefer to prevent

Wonkette reports that the U.S. Department of Justice let slip that Homeland Security coordinated the infamous conference call where mayors of cities with Occupy encampments coordinated their heavy-handed eviction efforts.

In The Guardian, Naomi Wolf says that the National Union of Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists are issuing FOIA requests to find out whether Homeland Security and local police also colluded on tactics aimed at preventing journalists from covering those police actions.

Wolf’s article notes that in New York City, police officers outside Zuccotti Park asked journalists to identify themselves. Those who did were then ushered away under threat of arrest.

The police, of course, always argue that their goal was to protect the reporters, while the real reason was to avoid anymore images of police brutality that have continued to stun the public. In numerous cities where police were emptying the Occupy encampments, “protecting” journalists often meant they were punched, kicked and otherwise abused. How about protection from the police?

Is this what press freedom has come to?

How can this happen?

Wolf extends blame beyond local officials to the federal government, beginning with Republican Rep. Peter King of New York who sits atop the Homeland Security subcommittee in Congress. King has been quoted in Huffington Post calling the Occupy Wall Street protesters a “ragtag mob” of “anarchists.” Wolf also wonders whether the Obama administration is giving tacit approval to press crackdowns, since Homeland Security is ultimately answerable to the president.

On the few occasions when President Obama has talked about #OWS, he has been somewhat supportive, but tentative. Progressives already disappointed with Obamas refusal to fight on civil rights issues are concerned that he will not speak up for journalists who appear to be targeted for retaliation.

It’s easy to see why many politicians are reluctant to tie themselves too closely to the Occupy movement, for fear of being tainted if a violent incident occurs and also because the protesters are critical of Republicans and Democrats alike. But if both Democrats and Republicans are colluding to keep reporters from covering the Occupy movement, the role of the citizen journalist becomes even more important. Protesters and observes armed with video cameras and cellphones are filling the gap when the mainstream press either fails to send reporters or those who try to cover events are denied their right to do so.

It is also worth noting that Wolf published her allegations The Guardian, which has been regularly outdoing the U.S. prestige press with its Occupy analysis.

Fighting for our rights

This YouTube labeled AMAZING video of a journalist not taking crap from NYPD raises as many questions as it purportedly answers about the relationship between the police and the press at Occupy events.

The title card “How To Successfully Resist Police Intimidation and Defend Your Rights” argues that the young man is a hero for persuading police to acknowledge his First Amendment right to video on a public sidewalk. Viewed from the police perspective, however, the video could be viewed as an example of a police officer flicking at a pesky mosquito. And, based on the experience of journalists at other Occupy events, the young man with the video camera was lucky that the confrontation ended peacefully.

But what are reporters’ rights in these situations? In our post-9/11 world, the National Press Photographers Association has been complaining that police are restricting photographers and videographers’ access more than ever. The article outlines the legal history that should guarantee journalists the right to video from sidewalks and other public thoroughfares.

The bottom line is that if a police officer asks you to move, the law says you must do so or risk arrest like anyone else. Journalists can always fight for their rights later in a courtroom, but that doesn’t get you the images you wanted to take at the site.

A huge question is whether the young man in the video is considered a journalist or a blogger. The Electronic Frontier Foundation explains that the law is still murky and confusing on this point, with journalists traditionally enjoying far more First Amendment protections than bloggers.

An example of an official press pass

The United States government does not license journalists as a number of other countries do. However, you hear the officer in the video asking to see the videographer’s press pass.

Police agencies often issue press passes that allow journalists to cross police lines when they are reporting on crimes and accidents. It isn’t a license per se, but official identification. Acquiring a press pass is again more of a privilege than a right, since the agencies set their own guidelines. In most cases, citizen journalists need not bother to apply.

Even with a press pass, police officers routinely deny reporters access for various reasons. But, as paid journalists disappear, we must pressure authorities to extend the pitifully few press protections afforded corporate media to citizen journalists as well.


The MSM mostly ignored news of the more than 100,000 people who marched to protest WI Gov. Scott Walker's efforts to dismantle collective bargaining

As a Sixties leftover, I can attest that mainstream media back then was actually more likely to give protesters a voice than the corporate-controlled news organizations of today.

When Abby Hoffman and his Yippies rained dollar bills down on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, to highlight the greed as traders scrambled to pick up the money, reporters from major networks were there to capture the manufactured action.

In contrast today, mainstream broadcast news organizations studiously ignored the protest in Madison, Wisconsin, last March when more than 100,000 people showed up at the Capitol to protest Governor Scott Walker’s attempts to dismantle collective bargaining.

Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is WWTPD? – Wat Would Thomas Paine Do? His incendiary brand of pamphleteering has more in common with today’s bloggers than “objective” journalists who risk being fired if they express any particular political point of view.

Thomas Paine did not need a press pass to write “Common Sense,” and the First Amendment was not written to guarantee media companies a steady stream of images of Ashton Kutcher caught cheating on his soon-to-be-ex-wife. The Tea Party’s reverence for “our founding fathers” borders on the cultish, but I would hope we can find common ground in fighting to ensure our right to a truly free press, whether or not the journalism in question is practiced for a profit or not.

In an interconnected world where we are facing complex issues ranging from imminent economic collapse to climate change, we need all the information we can get, from as many sources as possible. The mainstream media still has resources that citizen journalists can only dream about. Citizen journalists often have the time, the commitment and the access that professionals may not. As Paine would say, these are times that try men’s souls, and “If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately.”