Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Reality Distortion Of So-Called Balanced News

Until a recent road trip, I didn’t realize that by the War of 1812, nearly 80% of the people living in what is now the southern part of the Canadian Province of Ontario, were American immigrants.
A few were quasi-loyalists who settled there after the Revolutionary War but predominantly with American ideas such as governing as a Republic. But most were settlers lured by cheap land from New York and Pennsylvania, including Quakers and Mennonites who were promised they would not be forced into military service.

In fact, during the war, many American officials expected this fifth column to secede bringing Upper Canada, including what is now Toronto, into the United States. Of course, not only did that not happen but it bred some resentment that festers even today.

So the irony wasn’t lost when I found myself sitting one night on the trip next to someone who is an American-Canadian by marriage and had come across the border for a gathering with friends and mutual friends of friends.

It's Even Worse Than It Looks
Obviously someone who keeps up with certain information sources, this new acquaintance failed to realize that some at the event were political Independents such as me and others were progressive Democrats.

The co-guest launched into the latest right-wing assaults on President Obama, inaccurately claiming, as 34% of Conservative Republicans believe, that the President is a Muslim (up 18% since he was elected.)

Before I could testify with evidence that he is definitely a Christian, the speaker went into stories she had been told firsthand that the children of Somali immigrants to this country are refusing to assimilate in this country and working as a fifth column to superimpose their culture on Americans.

Though separated by Americans were doing the same in Canada, maybe the paranoia of this person is what is called “inversed projection", a psychological phenomenon where individuals or groups subconsciously rationalize a contradiction by painting themselves as the victim instead, a subject of some research I conducted in college.

This example of the fears some sources perpetuate is pretty subtle compared to the outlandish accusations this month by the ever entertaining Representative Bachmann but it occurred at a more personal level.
I defused my co-guest by making the observation that she certainly keeps up with the news and that it is almost criminal today that so much unsubstantiated crap is perpetuated as fact and then and managed to segue to another topic.

Purveyors of the kind of crap this person perpetuated is not new in American.  In fact there have been other spans in our history where it was worse in content if not as pervasiveness.

There is a quote from an op-ed earlier this year by the authors of a new book co-written by two think-tank scholars, one more progressive and the other more conservative,  Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute:
“We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality.
Our advice to the press: Don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risks and to what ends?”
This isn’t just about journalists who are stretched or lazy or prone to recycle information even after it has been proven distorted.  Nor is it about those who won’t consider a comment by a source unless it fits a story that has been pre-written with blanks to fill in.

While extremist sources across the spectrum spew junk, the mainstream media blinds news consumers by making everything seem like it has two equally balanced and relevant sides.  Take for example a preliminary report last week by the Congressional independent, nonpartisan General Accountability Office documenting that the hostage taking by extreme Republicans last summer over raising the debt-ceiling, has already added $1.3 billion to the national debt.

It was given brief coverage (certainly nothing close to that given to the debt-ceiling maneuvers)  in the news media, mostly in blogs, as though the extra debt was because of a squabble attributable to both sides, not a deliberate tactic by one side, which is providing plenty of cover for the same group as it threatens to do it again.

It is a perfect example of what Mann and Ornstein meant when they wrote:
“…a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality.”
Studies reveal just how much distortion there was in the 2010 mid-term elections.  Reality for many Americans is obviously now even more distorted and it will become even more so in the next few months with the onslaught of anonymous advertising leading up to the presidential election.
We need the mainstream media more than ever to tell it like it is.

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