I always make a practice of buying and reading the local newspaper(s) when traveling.
Today’s Los Angeles Times had an interesting, timely and probably controversial Op-Ed, titled “Just the ‘facts’ fails us all.”
Naturally, it deals with the current healthcare debate, but it also discusses a broader, more complex issue: The media, journalism and “the truth.”
I am not a journalist—I did take Journalism 101 and I do have a copy of the AP Style Manual.
But I do admire journalists and I have often aspired to become one—but all I got is this “lousy” blog. (Not really, Joe Gandelman: I think you have a great web site and I am proud and honored to be able to contribute to The Moderate Voice.)
The reason I go into this detail about my own feelings towards journalism and journalists is that, as you will see, the author of the LA Times Op-Ed really socks it to them and, you know what, I tend to somewhat agree with him, especially when it comes to the current healthcare debate.
A few days ago, I wrote a piece, “NBC News Poll: Health Care Reform Fear Mongering Seems to Be Working,” where I cited an NBC News poll reflecting that, for example, “a plurality” believes that the Democrats’ health plan would worsen the quality of health care. I said:
Fair enough. The president and the Democrats certainly need to do a better job of either selling their plan to the American people, or of modifying it to where it is acceptable to (a majority of) Americans.
But what is regrettable is how effective Republicans have been in shaping opinion on specific health care reform issues through misinformation and the use of fear tactics.
Neal Gabler, the author of the LA Times Op-ED, agrees. Referring to the claims at town hall meetings, where, “Over and over, we see angry citizens screaming about a Big Government takeover of the healthcare system, shouting that they will lose their insurance or be forced to give up their doctors and denouncing ‘death panels’ that will euthanize old people,” Gabler calls these claims:
Canards peddled by insurance companies terrified of losing their power and profits, by right-wing militants terrified of a victory for the president they hate and by the Republican Party, which has been commandeered by the insurance industry and the militants.
But he admits, as I did, that “the lies have obviously had their effect. Recent polls show that support for healthcare reform … is rapidly eroding.”
After devoting a few more paragraphs to how the healthcare debate coverage by the media, “has not been exactly edifying,” and after quoting Tom Rosenstiel, head of the Pew’s Center for Excellence in Journalism, saying that if the healthcare debate is a potential teaching moment, that “moment is passing us by,” Gabler broadens his discussion and puts the “truth and facts” issue into a larger context.
He examines whether it is the journalist’s job merely to report “facts,” or to “ferret out” the truth.
Gabler’s views on what the media, “…the respectable media, not the carnival barkers on cable” in fact do:
They marshal facts, but they don’t seek truth. They behave as if every argument must be heard and has equal merit, when some are simply specious. That is how global warming, WMD and ‘end of life’ counseling have become part of silly reportorial ping-pong at best and badly misleading information at worst.
Gabler singles out Walter Cronkite as the notable exception, as being a “truth teller, upsetting our complacency,” and cites Vietnam and Watergate.
He also cites several examples where, in his opinion, the media didn’t follow Cronkite’s example, with tragic consequences:
• Our country’s “happy march” into Iraq.
• Our country’s “plunge off the economic cliff with so little warning.”
• “…It may very well be because we don’t have a committed, truth-telling media that we will fail to get the healthcare reform we so desperately need.”
Gabler asks, “Why don’t we get the truth?” and provides three possible reasons:
• Lack of experience.
• “Sheer” laziness.
Please read Gabler’s Op-Ed for a lucid elaboration.
As I mentioned, I respect journalism and journalists, but I have seen instances where journalists could, and should, do more than just report, report, report.
As Gabler concludes:
What it comes down to is that sometimes the media have to tell the truth not because anyone really wants them to but because it is the right thing to do — the essential thing to do — for the sake of our democracy.
Others will argue that as soon as a journalist starts reporting more than just facts, “seeking the truth,” he or she risks inserting his or her opinions into the story.
We have several journalists and ex-journalists who contribute to TMV. I look forward to their opinions on this subject, and—as always—to the opinions of our readers.
Neal Gabler is the author, most recently, of “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.”
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a writer.