The Education of Cable News

News editors often meddle with the essence of a thing until it is unrecognizable. They take something tangible - like a human interest story, or a policy debate - and then mess with it until the product they push out the door is barely recognizable from that which walked in.

This is not always a bad thing. A topic not shaped by skilled editors is unpalatable. The product we interact with is at very least accessible and recognizable. The problem is, in the push to take interviews and reports and analysis and blend them into a consumable sound bite, stories can be stripped of their context and background, and the public ends up with a simplified and misleading take on a story, one that perpetuates a narrative that gets it all wrong in the end.

Maybe I don't read enough, but I don't see reporters acknowledging the basic truths behind the tax reform debate. Differences in tax policy - often pitted as a contest between those who feel the wealthy already do enough for this society as it is, and those who think the poor already suffer enough as it is - are differences grounded in personal philosophy. Why can't more news professionals weigh in with this unassailable truth?

Watching the news media take what is, at their heart, philosophical and moral debate, and try to cram it into facts, figures, and policy opinions, is much like a monkey trying to screw a football: it's awkward, it's, and it never feels right. My mantra about facts and figures is: they are everywhere, you will never run out of them, and the right permutation of identical figures makes an argument for either side of any debate. In that sense, using sheer numbers as a sole weapon in pushing your narrative may make you sound 'objective,' but it's ignoring the underlying moral and ethical components to the topic.

When I started this blog, one of my primary ideas going in was the admission that many of our debates and differences come down to moral and philosophical opinion about society, about the origins of things like poverty. Some feel phenomenon like racism and poverty are surmountable with enough elbow grease, and some feel these are instead, institutional, class-related phenomenon. There are numerous academic papers devoted to the topic. However, the news media, in its obsession with maintaining some illusive 'objectivity,' seems convinced that charting a narrative with facts, charts, figures, tables, sound bites, and number contests is the only way to remain objective. This is wrong. All it does is narrow the scope of the issue being presented. It turns cogent social issues into a kind of myopic idea circus, and consumers of mass media suffer for it.

I think its possible to have a Lakoffian discussion without compromising journalistic integrity. I think its also possible to frame larger discussions about taxes, immigration, abortion, size of Government, foreign policy, energy reliance, you name it, without ignoring the very personal and emotional moral debates that make them hot button issues in the first place.

One very refreshing aspect of the Occupy Wall Street Movement is the way discussion of moral and ethical imperatives inherent in the demonstrations has consequently stowed away onto the media's coverage of them. The media, seizing the chance for a story about possible clashes with police, and people behaving stupidly (which is what they live for) has also, in trying to make sense of the message in the Occupy movement, stumbled almost haphazardly on this issue of 'is there a moral dimension to this debate about the wealthy paying more?'

Hearing the serious journalistic talking heads handle a discussion about ethics is like watching archaeologists handle a rare alien artifact for the first time. They wonder if they're out of their depth or undermining their own credibility by even handling it. What if it blows up in their face (or worse, sends out a distress beacon to the armed-to-the-teeth mother ship across the galaxy)?

Don't get me wrong. I'm a wonk about the substance of economics, which includes number crunching and real in-depth studies and projections. Much of economics is about projections and figures, but interpreting those figures is as important as merely presenting them, just as presenting polls simply isn't enough if you don't interpret its results based on the sample covered and the context in which the questions were asked.

I am really happy that Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan got devised and marketed so well, because it has opened up a larger debate - that let's face it, would not have otherwise existed - about the real world ramifications of income and payroll and corporate and sales tax reform. The 9-9-9 plan itself is unworkable and disastrous, but it has opened up a less wonkish discussion about what taxes mean for us in real world terms. I welcome more candidates like Cain who, however wrong-headed they may be about the origins of poverty and many other issues, at least have the sense to speak their mind and speak in terms that appeal to our personal stake in these issues.

In this sense, the news media does not exist to teach us about what's going on in the world. If anything, the news stations - particularly cable news like the left-leaning MSNBC and right-leaning Fox - are blurring the lines between partisan politics and actual on the ground reporting for sake of entertainment. It's a circus in these places, full of hyperbole and gut-checks and quick-fix narratives held hostage by the daily news cycle and unceremoniously dumped once they outlive their usefulness. Anyone getting their opinions from this cacophony of half-baked casserole is going to have a head full of anecdotes but very little foundation. And God forbid those who merely turn to pundits and radio personalities for their news.

No, the news media does not exist to educate us. It's there to entertain, and every once in a while a candidate or a movement or an idea seizes hold of the public consciousness that the media can't ignore. This idea, or candidate, often comes out from nowhere and expresses an old, familiar idea in a fresh new way, or takes injustices we've long gone numb on and frames them in a new light. These moments in history - and I believe OWS represents one - are an opportunity for us to educate the media about what really matters to the vast majority of us. It never lasts, but while it does, some of us get an education.


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