Sunday, March 27, 2005

'Balance' and the tipping point

A lot of people see the Schiavo case as a kind of tipping point in the Culture War, though exactly what kind depends on the perspective. My old friend Danny Westneat at the Seattle Times sees it as the demise of the conservative movement. Tristero goes even farther, declaring it the point at which we jumped the shark into full-fledged fascism.

Even the normally reserved editorial pages of the Los Angeles Times (which called it a "constitutional coup d'etat") and the New York Times were alarmed by the behavior of Republicans in this matter:
President Bush and his Congressional allies have begun to enunciate a new principle: the rules of government are worth respecting only if they produce the result we want. It may be a formula for short-term political success, but it is no way to preserve and protect a great republic.

Most of the well-earned opprobrium has been directed at the politicians in this fiasco. But just as worthy for its behavior has been the nation's supposedly "mainstream" media -- because its handling of the Schiavo case has revealed, irrevocably, the utter bankruptcy of what it nowadays calls "balance."

As much as right-wing politicians have leapt into the breach to exploit Terri Schiavo for their own purposes, it's the media who have driven the story incessantly.

Feeding frenzies are typically the product of two common traits of editors and producers: a pack mentality, and a craven impulse to provide the public with stories they think will drive up their respective shares of the audience. The former often leads them to misjudge the latter, as in the Schiavo case: It's clear that the public's disgust with the politicians' behavior is primarily over their grotesque invasion of an agonizing private family matter, and on that score, the media's behavior is even more reprehensible.

What is especially appalling about the media treatment of the Schiavo case is how ardently, and unmistakably, it has adopted the supposedly "pro life" side of the argument. This ranges from outrageous bomb-throwing like that from Fox's John Gibson, to fingerpointing from MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, and Rush Limbaugh, to subtler bias like the omnipresent "Fight For Terri" label that is being used by half the networks to accompany their coverage logos.

We're seeing reporters credulously refer to highly dubious medical claims waved by Schiavo's parents -- including the recent claim that she indicated to them she did not want her tube removed -- as though they had anything other than the thinnest veneer of truth to them. We're watching news anchors openly accuse Michael Schiavo of being a bad husband. If there's a propaganda line out there that isn't being parroted in the mainstream media as fact, it might only be Bo Gritz's buffoonery. And they're working on that.

They're wallowing in it. Cheering it on. Even if it is only the viewpoint of about 20 percent of the country, at best, that politicians and reporters have any business, as Knute Berger put it, poking their ugly noses inside the dying room.

This is the way "balance" manifests itself in journalism nowadays.

Now, there is such a thing as real balance. Real balance is a genuine striving for truth: a willingness to both recognize and honestly explore the multiplicity of viewpoints as well as facts that are part of the naturally complex nature of truth. It is complicated and hard work. Of course, real, hard truth is elusive and rare; but the striving is what brings us closer to it.

However, a genuine balance does not countenance obvious falsehoods where it encounters them. It does not treat misinformation as a legitimate "counter" to reasonably established facts, as though a falsehood were just another opinion. It does not put lies on an even footing with facts.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what we have gotten, in increasing doses, as standard practice from the nation's press for the past decade. As I argued previously regarding the growth of "intelligent design" as a right-wing religious stratagem:
The key piece of illogic is one that has especially lodged itself in the media in recent years: The notion that a demonstrably true fact can be properly countered by a demonstrably false one -- and that the two, placed side by side, represent a kind of "balance" in the national discourse. This is the Foxcist model of Newspeak, in which "fair and balanced" comes to mean its exact opposite.

This kind of "balance" is a direct product of the right-wing myth of the "liberal media". Having worked in the media for many years, I can attest that it may often exhibit a bias, but it is not a liberal one; it is a self-interested one. And having dealt with many ideologues of all stripes in my various media capacities over the years, one of the distinguishing characteristics of movement conservatives that I observed is their knee-jerk and oft-shouted belief that any position contrary to or critical of their official party line is, by definition, "liberal."

What "balance" has become, in essence, is a fig leaf for broadcasting falsehoods on behalf of right-wing propaganda efforts. In the process, it has become a major means for transmitting extremist beliefs into the mainstream. The Schiavo matter is only the most prominent recent example of this.

Perhaps less noticed, but even more illustrative, was the recent case of C-SPAN's decision to "balance" its coverage of Deborah Lipstadt's book on her ordeal with Holocaust denier David Irving by insisting that Irving be given equal airtime.

Richard Cohen of the Washington Post (who has, it must be noted, been known for succumbing to right-wing notions of "balance" himself) was the first to raise the issue, in a column that gets it right, for once:
You will not be seeing Deborah Lipstadt on C-SPAN. The Holocaust scholar at Emory University has a new book out ("History on Trial"), and an upcoming lecture of hers at Harvard was scheduled to be televised on the public affairs cable outlet. The book is about a libel case brought against her in Britain by David Irving, a Holocaust denier, trivializer and prevaricator who is, by solemn ruling of the very court that heard his lawsuit, "anti-Semitic and racist." No matter. C-SPAN wanted Irving to "balance" Lipstadt.

The word balance is not in quotes for emphasis. It was invoked repeatedly by C-SPAN producers who seemed convinced that they had chosen the most noble of all journalistic causes: fairness. "We want to balance it [Lipstadt's lecture] by covering him," said Amy Roach, a producer for C-SPAN's Book TV. Her boss, Connie Doebele, put it another way. "You know how important fairness and balance is at C-SPAN," she told me. "We work very, very hard at this. We ask ourselves, 'Is there an opposing view of this?' "

As the New York Times reported, this raised immediate concerns among historians:
More than 200 historians at colleges nationwide sent a petition to C-Span yesterday to protest its plan to accompany its coverage of a lecture by Deborah E. Lipstadt, a professor of Holocaust studies at Emory University, with a speech by David Irving, who has argued that Hitler was not fully responsible for the mass murder of Jews.

"Falsifiers of history cannot 'balance' histories," said the petition, delivered to Connie Doebele, the executive producer at C-Span who planned the coverage. "Falsehoods cannot 'balance' the truth."

Mr. Irving, a British writer, sued Professor Lipstadt for libel for calling him a Holocaust denier, but the British Royal High Court of Justice dismissed the lawsuit on April 11, 2000, concluding that Mr. Irving was anti-Semitic and racist and that he persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence.

Professor Lipstadt has been promoting her new book, an account of the case titled "History on Trial: My Day in Court With David Irving," which Ecco published last month.

C-Span wanted to feature the book on its weekend program "Book TV" and asked Professor Lipstadt if it could record a speech she was making on March 16 at Harvard Hillel, a Jewish organization at Harvard University.

But when Professor Lipstadt learned that the cable network planned to include a lecture by Mr. Irving along with her remarks, she refused to allow C-Span to tape the event.

"I called the producer at C-Span and told her that this was a man who was a Holocaust denier, and this idea of using both of us made no sense to me," Professor Lipstadt said.

She and many of her supporters believe that including such a figure in an account of her views would be as wrongheaded as accompanying a story on slavery in the United States with remarks from someone who said that slavery never happened.

"I told C-Span that I assumed that if they weren't going to tape my lecture, they also wouldn't use David Irving, but they said no, they were committed to having him on," Professor Lipstadt said yesterday. "This is a man who's said that Holocaust survivors are all liars, and that more people died in Senator Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than in the gas chambers."

C-Span did tape the speech Mr. Irving made last weekend at the Landmark Diner in Atlanta. But Peggy Keegan, a spokeswoman for the network, said in an interview yesterday that its plans were now up in the air.

Indeed, as the Los Angeles Times later reported, C-SPAN is in full "reconsideration" mode on this decision.

It must be noted that this isn't the first time that C-SPAN has pandered to right-wing extremists. In the past, it has broadcast conferences of Jared Taylor's American Renaissance organization, as well as Council of Conservative Citizens conferences. Both are white-supremacist organizations, designated hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. And no, C-SPAN didn't see fit to find "balancing" viewpoints to these conferences. I wonder if might have been hard to find someone who would go on-air and to argue that blacks, contra Taylor, aren't a "retrograde species of humanity."

What was most amusing about this, though, was the way right-wing bloggers used the matter to position themselves on the side of the angels. Even the hatemongers at Little Green Footballs and Free Republic got into the act.

Roger Simon hit the truly classic note in all this:
It seems that C-SPAN has lying confused with opinion. How pathetic and shameful.

Yes, that is precisely the problem with this model of "balance." But what seems to have eluded everyone on the right is that this is not an isolated problem with C-SPAN. It is, in fact, pervasive throughout the media -- and particularly from self-identified "conservative" media like the "fair and balanced" Fox. And it has been going on for a long time now.

It was not uncommon, in the 1990s, to see clearly outrageous liars like Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and L. Jean Lewis treated not only with kid gloves, but as the chief source of supposedly credible "investigations" into Bill Clinton's private life.

As impeachment fever reached its crescendo in 1999, this willingness to treat blatant falsehoods as "the other side of the story" became pervasive. It was not uncommon to see Barbara or Ted Olson, or Mark Levine, or Ann Coulter, or some other congenital frothing-at-the-mouth Clinton-hater fulminate all over the tube daily with some bizarre speculation or other based in nothing but groundless conspiracy theories and a heavy dose of bile. It continued through the 2000 election, when we were told constantly that "Al Gore says he invented the Internet" and, later, that machine recounts were more accurate than hand recounts.

And it has continued apace since. We've been continually bludgeoned with weapons of mass destruction, orange-code warnings, Swift Boat Veterans and the phony "Rathergate" brouhaha -- all of them exercises in overt mendacity, all designed to bolster conservative-movement propaganda, and all accorded respectful treatment by a "balanced" media.

Perhaps the defining moment was the treatment given to Michelle Malkin, whose book defending the Japanese-American internment was boosted by a fawning press (and right-wing blogosphere) onto the New York Times bestseller list, despite the fact that it represented, rather clearly, an extension of David Irving-style historical revisionism. If Irving is so reprehensible to the folks at Little Green Footballs, why isn't Malkin?

Such hypocrisies, though, are second nature to today's conservatives, which is how they can continue to complain about a "liberal media" (the entire purpose of the "Rathergate" fiasco) even as right-wing propaganda overwhelms mainstream reportage. A quick survey of the Schiavo coverage only makes abundantly clear how far gone are the bulk of our "mainstream" media.

It is one thing, of course, to point out that both our politicians and our media are being grossly irresponsible. What's equally important is to recognize the potentially horrific consequences of this.

Hateful propaganda is just the beginning, because it creates an army of True Believers -- who I previously described as "their oxyconned, Foxcized, Freeped-out, fanatic army of followers" -- who will not be as restrained, either in their words or their actions, as their leaders. The limits on awful behavior are already being pushed to extremes by people like Randall Terry and Bo Gritz.

The vultures are already coming to roost. Hal Turner has been calling for the use of force to "save" Terri Schiavo, and killing anyone who interferes. And sure enough, someone has already been caught putting out a bounty on Michael Schiavo, while another man was arrested for stealing a gun in hopes he could "take some action and rescue Terri Schiavo."

As John Cole has been pointing out, genuine conservatives should be as horrified by these events as liberals -- and at some point, must come to grips with the fresh monsters in our midst. All of us: citizens, politicians, the media.

It won't happen, though, until we recognize the current model of "balance" for what it is: an open invitation to the spread of lies and misinformation. And get back to the time-honored traditions of striving for the truth.

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