|The Plutocrat and His Toy (the press)|
From the time John Hilmes established the County Capital newspaper in St. John in 1888, the paper took a progressive stance on political matters. The St. John News was the Republican paper. Isaac not only subscribed to the County Capital but also had his articles published in that paper regularly. Neither of these St. John newspapers made any pretense of objectivity with regard to political bias. That was typical of newspapers of that era.
The question today is whether media bias is any less so. Television and the internet have more influence than newspapers in today's media market, and with the speed of information now minute-by-minute rather than being published in a morning and an evening edition, policing the accuracy of what is published is nearly impossible. The ability to manipulate voter opinions is as great as it ever has been.
Freedom of speech is one of our most cherished freedoms, and each of us can exercise that right. However, the dissemination of each individual's speech is vastly unequal. Several hundred people will visit my blog each week, but several hundred thousand may see a single political advertisement on television. Facebook is a place where people can express their opinions to their friends, and many people use that opportunity to express political views. I assume it will not offend my facebook friends to share that some asked me on facebook to commit my vote to the Republican presidential candidate months before a candidate was ever nominated. My Democratic friends had more fun posting videos of every gaff Romney made, and they were especially fond of sharing Jon Steward and Stephen Colbert's clips. Frankly, none of those facebook postings was particularly informative in shaping my political views, although I preferred the ones that made me laugh versus the hateful ones.
The founding fathers knew that accurate and relevant information is critical to the democratic process, and citizens can exercise their right to vote wisely only if that information is available, a significant purpose for insuring freedom of speech and a free press. Unfortunately, the quality of what we hear and read is not always deserving of the precious protection it is given, yet consorship is worse.
The dilemma raised by the level of misinformation and outright lies during political campaigns led Time Magazine to feature "The Fact Wars" as their cover story of the October 3, 2012 issue. The sad conclusion of their article was that although fact checking is being increasingly done, it seems to be making little difference. As Neil Newhouse, Romney's pollster infamously said, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers." Researchers have found that voters tend to choose media that support opinions they already hold, and if, by chance, they learn of a misrepresentation by their candidate, they are likely to excuse it. The article quotes pollster Frank Luntz who said about Americans, "We don't collect news to inform us. We collect news to affirm us."
The Time article also reported on research that identified "belief echoes," information that sticks in our brains even after a falsehood is corrected. For that reason, I particularly dislike one political commentator who uses the excuse that he is an entertainer to disclaim any responsibility for the falsehoods he presents as factual during his rants. His lie, lodged in a listener's brain, may remain longer than the memory of the source, leaving an erroneous "belief echo" planted by a bigoted blowhard.
Michael Scherer's article in Time is a thought-provoking examination of an important issue, and I recommend it. Another interesting problem was examined at NPR's digital blog concerning whether TV stations should refuse to air political ads that contain verifiable lies. To protect against censorship, federal law requires candidate ads to be broadcast, so the TV stations have little choice. However, third-party and super PAC ads are not protected under that law. Yet, these ads containing verifiable falsehoods blanket viewers. The comments following this NPR blog are also interesting as people argue the importance of quality information for voters vs. the dangers of censorship.
One of my pet peeves is the pretense of balance by network programing when they put a pair of talking heads side-by-side on the television screen to discuss a topic. One of the talking heads is well-informed, experienced, and shares a point of view generally held by other individuals in that field of expertise. The other talking head is a crackpot, ill-informed, with no experience and spouting opinions based on nonsense. However, the program host is careful to give both talking heads equal time and proper respect, misleading viewers to think that the opinions of both deserve serious consideration. There are times when reasonable and intelligent people can hold opposing views, but there are also times when two talking heads are one too many!
I like to read all the opinions on the editorial page. I like to share discussions with people of differing views. But I also adhere to the old saying, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." Following that adage, there are networks I do not watch and commentators I will run the length of the house to turn off before they plant a false "belief echo" in my brain.
The 1890 political cartoon at the beginning of this post is one of my favorites. Most of us realize the bias of our favorite newspapers and television shows, and we know that journalistic ethics have changed since Walter Cronkite and Peter Jennings delivered the nightly news. Campaign strategists have now made a profession of fooling the public with statistics from "independent" studies that are no such thing. Polls and focus groups allow these strategists to know exactly what version of their "facts" will be most persuasive. And, to be honest, facts seem less and less capable of simple black and white truth or lie, colored into varying shades of grey by complications and contradicting evidence. Yet, we voters must not be tricked by the wink of the eye and the strategist manipulating the news like a toy monkey. Elections influenced by sound bites, ads paid for by wealthy special interest groups, and other such tainted information will elect exactly the kind of failed candidates we deserve if we fall for them. What was true in Isaac's time is true today. That will never change.