Good point: the lack of insurance problem can be linked to unemployment.
Bad point: deliberately taking the cost of universal insurance out of the cost-offset context provided by the rest of the PPACA.
I’m no Politifact.com, and I’m not so interested in adding to the endless array of editorials concerned with the factual nature of Niall Ferguson’s article on last week’s cover of Newsweek. But there’s a slew of issues lurking just beyond the fringes—beginning and ending with the question: who should we trust?
The debate isn’t one sided. It encompasses the “liberal media”, the “conservative echo chamber”, and, recently, popular fiction1. Sloan Sabbith’s sexy history of how the banks and Congress betrayed America—ultimately ending the halcyon days of economic boom—explains neatly, to a wide audience, how complicated legal and monetary policy lead seamlessly from cause to effect. It doesn’t pick up the complexities of fiscal theory or the footnotes of political pressure that figured into the decision2. Some proponents of the Glass-Steagall repeal have the right to be pot-stickers-are-done steamed that this issue was presented to the public in such a way.
Except that they don’t.
The Newsroom is a fictional show with a liberal creator well-known for politicizing his characters’ discourses. They don’t have to be impartial because HBO isn’t marketing the show as a milieu in which to inform the public. If so, then Sloan Sabbith’s opinion about what choice was right and what choice was wrong would, in a perfect world, be taken out of the discourse until she explained, impartially, what had happened to the economy as a result of the repeal. As is, we viewers are a little bit more informed about the economic turnover of the 20th century—which we obtained from a work of fiction (and hence, is probably unadvisable to use [without first verifying it] as an educated guess on Final Jeopardy).
The Ever-Noble News Outlet
The use of news outlets to the general public is the same as both a translator and detective3. They (in theory) explain complex topics in an understandable way and track down facts that normal people don’t have the time or resources to find themselves. A lack of credibility causes a fatal flaw in the model; normal people then have to find and vet these “facts” for themselves. Inefficiency, thy name is lying. Basic news theory (and snobby tone) aside, the juicy factor of sensationalist stories tend to attract more readers—thus, these stories make more money—thus, these stories are much more sought after (and hence, more apt to be fabricated). Solely from a business perspective, the factual nature this Newsweek article was sort of a moot point. Either the article was true and unbiased (in which case it was a very poignant critique of the Obama administration) and would generate a lot of buzz, or it was false or biased but would still generate a lot of page views and purchases due to the media firestorm surrounding it4.
The outrage did not disappoint. I don’t have numbers, but I’m willing to bet that the page holding Niall Ferguson’s article spiked to the top of Newsweek’s most viewed of the day5. The Atlantic published scathing reviews of the article. Newsweek responded by allowing Niall Ferguson to publish a retort on their website. In a sense, there was a mud-flinging, I-can’t-believe-you’d-write-this-about-me debate going on between the various “online salons”—much to the boon of their advertisers. And herein lies the problem. It took thirty-six hours total for the Atlantic to post a full-fledged op-ed on Ferguson’s article. The tongue-in-cheek6 “As A Harvard Alum, I Apologize” appeared an hour beforehand. Paul Krugman posted a rebuttal on his blog a day earlier, scarcely fifteen hours Ferguson’s article was uploaded. The speed of these turnarounds is astounding–and, to the news consumer, debilitating.
The [Since Broken] Rules of Engagement
Imagine if you had read an opinion about the year 2000 presidential election. It explained, with authority, the confusing nature of Florida ballots and how people could haveinadvertently voted for a candidate they did not support. Then, because of some time warp, living-inside-a-cave scenario, you heard about the razor thin margin on which Bush won that state and thus, the election. Most likely, you’d have some opinion about the factual nature of the election itself, along with an opinion about whether or not Bush actually won (based on your interpretation of the hanging chad article)—before you had even heard about why people were paying so much attention to these ballots in the first place.
The Newsweek tit-for-tat fistfight mimics this paradigm. Not only does Ferguson’s article rest firmly in the sector of op-ed (not a good place to start if you don’t know well the material on which the opinion opines ), but the Twitter explosion that followed served to inform people about why Ferguson’s article was trash—before they had even read it. The degrees of separation having been doubled, it’s no wonder why what could have been an intelligent back and forth, even based on bogus source material, about the shortcomings of Obama’s administration (as evidenced by Ezra Klein’s response about how Ferguson misrepresented some facts and obfuscated some details—all the while also informing readers about Obama’s administration, promises and missed targets) turned instead into a crusade why you can’t trust reporters to do their jobs7.
Don’t get me wrong, Ferguson’s article makes my blood pressure rise and my skin turn green8, but I can’t believe that the media machine of backlash serves the general public much better. Although, perhaps this is because we’ve confused the idea of journalism with writing. Any of the aforementioned articles are not journalism—they’re opinions and attacks and belong in the clearly delineated editorials page of the NYTimes (as one of them actually does), or on an online discussion forum, or definitely in the air over a DC bar during happy hour, but never masquerading as cold, hard facts. I’m not detracting from the value of competing voices, but perhaps screaming into the void about the character of the other author, penning quick response “save-face” pieces, and trying to have a conversation by theatrically showing the ill-defined audience how much cleverer you are than the other guy9 isn’t the best place or the most effective way to reap the benefits of disagreement.
Slick website design often makes it hard to figure out whether you’re reading a piece that is supposed to be an impartial report or a sensationalistic story. Verve-tastic writing makes it equally difficult. However, the most impossible aspect of recognizing bias comes from the fact that so many news outlets are really hybrid “salons”, showcasing a host of pundits who write opinions on a menagerie of subjects—because this sort of writing sells. And because this sort of writing sells, other types of journalism—stuff that requires more than a brain, a computer and four hours of free time—tends to be usurped from the throne of “King Top Priority”.
The Audacity of Blogging?
Let’s take a detour to the blogosphere. Because anyone on the internet can make their opinion known (although usually just to their family members and close, geeky friends—hi, Mom!) and because this service is provided without compensation (just because people like to hear themselves type about how they’re not experts in a field but dammit, they’re going to make an entire blog about it), they truly are the new free press. They can rip apart any article they find, breaking down the facts and compiling them into a new, compelling argument that sheds light on things they haven’t seen before10. However, there’s no telling how much you can really trust about any of these facts. Where did they come from? Who does this blogger answer to? Can you really trust what he or she has to say—or is it just another misinformed person with a website? Moreover, is the blog post I’m reading supposed to be impartial or an opinion or somewhere in the middle?
You expect the mud flinging on blogs—you expect to be well informed by respected media. You don’t expect to be fed misinformation or directed away from important issues—or perhaps now you do, because that’s currently commonplace in the internet media pandemic. I don’t have satisfying answers. I have a feeling that I should inform you that this is an opinion piece but that I checked all the facts I could. Regardless, the question of “what voice to listen to” in this age of white media noise is starkly important—so important, in fact, that I hope you have a conversation about it—about all issues you care about–with yourself and with your fellow (wo)man, perhaps over beers at happy hour, or while on a Sunday drive, or while waiting in line for freshly baked everything bagels. I hope that these posts provide you with insight and contrary, while still giving you the hard facts you need to decide for yourself what is insight, and what is contrary. I hope that the small, very insignificant echo chamber that we’re running spits back not just your voice, but perhaps an EPA report, some statistics about trains you’ve never seen before, and a different, perhaps shriller voice that says, “But what about…..this?” Then you’ll have a great topic if you want to get nerdy at happy hour—and I have no doubt that, wherever you chose to have that conversation11, it will have a bigger impact on your own life than 99% of what any pundit (yours truly included) writes on the internet12.
Currently listening to: Schwick (feat. Jump Into the Gospel) by Cobra Starship.
1I’m pretty sure The Newsroom is going to come up in every post. Sorry ‘bout it.
2Not that it should, because then everyone would be an economist. And a political scientist. And you’ve gotta admit that everyone becoming everything is just a little bit intractable.
3This all may seem incredibly basic to you (and I’d agree with you). I’d then invite you to join my club of outrage on how the popular media seemed to have missed this memo.
4The only problem with this logic is the loss of credibility Newsweek would reap as a consequence.
5I know that I’m talking about the need for factual reporting—so full disclosure that I don’t have anything to back up that claim other than a Twitter account and common sense.
7And obviously that’s why you should only trust “insert pundit name here”.
8I’ve ripped a few pairs of jeans and shirts this way as well.
9As in, not actually trying to have a conversation and really just performing for the Internet.
10Something that, incidentally, requires only a brain, a computer, and four hours of free time.
11Which, in case I’m not being clear enough, ideally would be with a real person. Taking real risks to talk frankly about your opinions. With real respect.
12I love the internet, but I have learned that I need to push my comfort zone in order to understand certain things—like opposing points of view—and anonymous on the internet just doesn’t do it for me.