Taibbi on False Balance
Matt Taibbi weighs in on the “false balance” controversy in Rolling Stone.
No doubt about it, the country is in a brutal spot right now. We are less than two months from the possibility of one of the dumbest people on the planet winning the White House. And it seems that all anyone’s talked about this week, whether around the water cooler or on TV news, Twitter or Facebook, is the lung capacity of Hillary Clinton.
That sucks. But it’s not all the media’s fault. This is classic horse-race stuff, and if you’re getting it, it’s at least in part because you spent decades asking for it.
The campaign has devolved over time into an entertainment program, a degrading and vicious show where the contestants win the nuclear launch codes instead of a date with a millionaire.
Under the rules of this reality series which media consumers turn into a gigantic hit every four years, collapsing in front of a cell-phone camera at a 9/11 memorial service is more important than a dozen position papers.
It just is. You proved it when you clicked on that video of the episode last weekend and didn’t read a compare-and-contrast piece on, for instance, the candidates’ banking policies.
Trump himself is feeling the business end of that dynamic right now, having just reversed himself on the birther question in spectacular fashion. His “Yes, Obama was born in America, but Hillary started the birther controversy and I ended it” routine is dumb enough and full of enough lies to keep reporters busy for a good news cycle or so, until the next fiasco.
An important news story or 10 will likely die on the vine while the country obsesses over Trump’s latest foot-in-mouth episode. That’s the paradox with this candidate. Even the people who wish he didn’t exist can’t take their eyes off him. No amount of “contextualizing” or pointing out his flaws and deceptions can walk back his gravitational pull on audiences.
This is true of a lot of dumb things that take up space in the news pages, from Joe Arpaio to the Kardashians. One could argue that the users of the public’s airwaves have a higher responsibility to properly inform the public that outweighs the need to chase ratings and give airtime to clown acts, but that ship sailed a long time ago.
Ask any reporter who’s tried to make the news less stupid at any time over the past 40 years. Most of those people end up beggingProPublica for lunch money, while the horse-racers and celebrity-humpers get panel shows.
Ask reporters like Juan Carlos Frey, who struggled to get anyone to pay attention when he reported on mass graves of undocumented immigrants discovered along the border of Texas.
In truth, the media landscape is massive and there’s room to cover everything. It’s worth noting that the exploration of Trump’s iniquities and unfitness for office in the last year has been truly awesome, both in terms of raw volume and vehemence of tone.
Anyone who tries to argue that there’s insufficiently vast documentation of Trump’s insanity is either being willfully obtuse or not paying real attention to the news. Just follow this latest birther faceplant. The outrage is all out there, in huge quantities. It’s just not having the predicted effect.
So media consumers are reduced to blaming the closeness of the race on a species they’ve practically made extinct with their choices over the years: investigative reporters.
The irony is, the Clinton Foundation thing is a rare example of an important story that is getting anything like the requisite attention. The nexus of elite connections that sits behind tales like Bill Clinton taking $1.5 million in speaking fees from a Swiss bank (and foundation donor) while that same bank is seeking relief from Hillary Clinton’s State Department is exactly the kind of thing that requires the scrutiny of reporters.
This is particularly true since the charity is a new kind of structure, with seemingly new opportunities for conflicts, and an innovation that is likely to be replicated in the future by other politicians – perhaps even a future President Trump himself.
Such investigative reports on the mechanics of political influence are also exactly the sort of thing that media audiences routinely ignore, unless by some lucky accident they happen to be caught up in the horse-race drama of a Campaign Reality Show.
So if your complaint about these reports is, “Why now, at this crucial moment?” there’s a very good answer. If these stories came out at any other time, you’d be blowing them off! And probably in favor of The Biggest Loser, or a show about people eating bugs for money. Which brings us back to the key point in all of this.
I’m as worried as anyone else about the possibility of Trump getting elected. But if it happens, it’s not going to be because The New York Times allowed a few reporters to investigate the Clinton Foundation. It’ll be because we’re a nation of idiots, who vote the same way we choose channels: without thinking.
Cross-posted from The Sensible Center
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