February 16th, 2010

Dem Donkey

Anger versus partisanship...

Bob Reich has some interesting comments on anger in the news.

I know a lot of people think that MSNBC's Keith Olbermann is little better than Fox News. I disagree, for many reasons -- he is frequently, openly critical of people on "our side", he apologizes for and corrects mistakes, he has a sense of humor about himself, and I believe he fundamentally sees his mission as providing a broad view of the facts. Yes, there's opinion layered in -- but no news can completely exclude bias, and I generally think it's better to understand the biases of your news sources than to pretend they don't exist. At the very least, editors are deciding which stories are relevant, and reporters are deciding who counts as a reliable source when investigating a story. Yes, Keith tends to spend more time covering stories that liberals care about, and he talks to sources who liberals trust. But he does not start with a desired narrative and then design his reporting to support that; he covers stories that are important and interesting (plus some fluff that the entire world is covering) and talks to people who have real and relevant expertise. (Fox, on the other hand, literally sends out a memo every morning desribing the day's narrative, and even specific phrases that should be repeated often in support of it. Their "reporters" serve the goal of controlling perceptions. They frequently lie, and more often insinuate. This is why it is hardly surprising that when you run large polls, you find that many people who get their news from Fox are completely unhinged from reality, believing crazy conspiracy theories -- "Obama is a Muslim non-citizen who wants to kill your grandma!")

Keith shifted from providing carefully neutral reporting at first, to more open partisanship, because his neutral reporting was already being called liberal. If you refuse to equivalate between views that are supported by facts, and views that are based in lies and distortions (e.g. treating global warming deniers as credible and deserving of equal time with scientists, or treating advocates of abstinence only education as credible when the studies say that their curriculum leads to higher rates of pregnancy and disease, and so on), then apparently you are a liberal, in today's America. Similarly, calling a lie a lie, rather than a difference of opinion, apparently makes you a liberal. During the Bush years, it frequently seemed like much of the media was cowed into treating administration lies as though they were just equally-acceptable interpretations -- this went all the way back to the campaign, when Bush was never called out, by most of the media, for his ludicrous claims that his tax cuts would not lead to budget deficits. You did not have to be a math genius to find that his claims didn't square even with his campaign's own publications. Apparently Paul Krugman was the only person with a major media platform who was willing to point this out. I think it's a good thing that we now have at least a few more people who are willing to do that sort of thing.

However, I have to agree that it seems like Keith has gotten more over-the-top over time -- shifting from partisanship to anger. This is probably related to the "yelling sells" factor that Reich is observing. I have been wishing, lately, that he'd dial it back a few notches. But, there are surely plenty of people on "my side" to whom anger sells well. I think Rachel Maddow still tends more towards being a policy-wonk, and more towards humor than anger, which I like; it's certainly attuned to my own temperament. (Also, Rachel definitely is capable of having a civil conversation with ideological opponents, as Jon Stewart recently observed.) One of the things I like about Obama, as well, is that he's a wonk at heart -- as John Hodgman put it, he's our first Nerd President. (He also gets in trouble because of this -- like when he tried to give an "on the one hand, on the other hand" answer about bank executives' pay, when much of the public is out for blood and the GOP is ready to launch hypocritical attacks on this topic even though they firmly oppose any regulations or pay limits.)

In any case, I think it is unlikely that Dems could accomplish anything truly bipartisan with the current batch of Republicans in Congress, who are committed to a just-say-no approach where they vote against even ideas they campaigned on, because they want to appeal to their base and deny the Dems any accomplishments. And I also think the Dems ought to wise up to this strategy and adjust their own strategy accordingly.

And I think it is completely reasonable for a news show to both report on the fact that Republicans are saying things that are not true, and doing things that are hypocritical, and to specifically call them liars and hypocrites. When you, to take an example, declare that the Obama budget has higher monthly deficits than Bush had annual deficits, you deserve to be called either an idiot who doesn't know the numbers, or a liar who is trying to misrepresent them. When you campaign in 2008 on a plan to allow people in the 55-65 age bracket to buy into Medicare, and then when the Dems propose doing that as part of health reform you specifically call it out as "socialized medicine" and declare yourself opposed, that is hypocrisy. This is not a matter of opinion.

But I think it's a terrible shame that things are working like that, and I hope that the few sparks of real bipartisanship -- e.g. from Congressman Anh Cao (R-LA-02) -- may eventually lead back to some kind of consensus governance.
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