People have probably noticed that I don't talk about politics much, at least not directly. Mostly it's probably because I think, deep down in my heart and with unshakable conviction, that pretty much everyone who disagrees with me to any great extent is either misguided or a nitwit, and I don't really want to talk with them about it, because I'm usually annoyed by their misguidedness or nitwit nature.
But, well, these are extraordinary times, as anyone who's been paying much attention has probably noticed (not that having extraordinary times is a particularly uncommon occurance, but never mind that).
And, this not-quite-a-rant, but more an exploration of the imperfections of our world resulted.
It all started with a single headline...
Today I saw the top headline in a Denver newspaper (I wasn't actually paying enough attention to know which one) proclaiming that Bush led in the Colorado polls. Which, if you've actually been paying attention to the polls, is a pretty questionable statement: of the half-dozen or so polls that have come out in the week since the first debate, all but one have shown the race in Colorado as a virtual tie, possibly even giving Kerry a slight edge (albeit within the MoE). The one that shows Bush ahead is at best a statistical anomaly without more evidence (as the MoEs between it and the other polls don't even overlap), and at worst may be structurally flawed for some reason (or, depending on the time frame of the poll, out of date). There is, of course, the possibility that it's actually right, but the evidence for that isn't exactly compelling. It's not like the newspaper actually commissioned the poll itself, in which case the headline would make sense -- they seem to have merely picked a random "sensational" poll and ran with it.
This has led me to muse a bit on what I see as the state of news today, especially bias in the media. (For the record, I don't know what, if any, political bias or lack thereof the Denver newspapers may have. I don't read them much, and even when I do, I generally only read the sports section, which I can unequivocally state is biased. Biased in favor of Colorado sports teams, that is).
Anyway, getting back to the headline -- the polls that I'm aware of over the last week or so in Colorado even include an exact tie from the Gallup poll, which I discount almost out of hand these days, as it is (like many "media" polls) specifically designed to create headlines by fluctuating wildly (due to the dearth of polling in Colorado for whatever reason, there are no previous Gallup polls to compare it with, however, I will note that even before the debate which has almost universally shifted the numbers in Kerry's direction, the previous polls didn't show as big a gap as the poll most likely behind the headline in question). In fact, over the month or so between the Republican National Convention and the first debate, when Bush had a "huge" lead (often in the double digits) in many media polls, the more sober (and, in my opinion, far more credible) polls such as Zogby and Rasmussen had shown at best a slight shift in Bush's direction (perhaps two to four percentage points), followed by a stronger (but still fairly small) shift in Kerry's direction since the first debate (giving him a slight lead, but still within the MoE. As an aside, the likely electoral swing has been far more dramatic, but that's the nature of the beast).
Of course, all of this election brouhaha has had me watching the polls fairly closely (in my rather partisan way -- although, to be clear, despite being a partisan, I'm still obviously right). In the process, I've been watching the media itself that reports those polls.
Which leads me to another conclusion -- to paraphrase John Scalzi (a man whose opinions I've come to have a great deal of respect for), and to put it bluntly, I say that anyone who can say today that the media leans left is either stupid, ignorant, or a hypocrite. Perhaps that particular myth is actually dead, I don't know, I haven't heard much about the great "left wing conspiracy" lately (if only there was, I sometimes think, but then, I'm not big on conspiracies, except maybe if there happened to be one of the center -- but would that really be a conspiracy, hey?)
[To know why I like John Scalzi, here are a list of links I think everyone should read:
Why he hates your politics
All about hypocracy
Yes, hypocrite, this means you
Unfortunately, as I type this, none of these links work. Hopefully, by the time you read this, they do.]
Now, most of the time, I pretty much ignore the mainstream media. It's been a long, long time since I've considered it more than marginally informative. I tend to get my news through specialized news sources (Ars Technica springs to mind, and I've always gotten my sports, weather, or whatever from specialized news sources such as online webpages like the National Hurricane Center for hurricane news when someone I know is about to be hit, or, say, the Motley Fool for financial news). When I do pay attention, I've always put it (like most everything I see and read) through a fairly strong cynicism filter. Lately, of course, important things have been happening; we're about to cast our votes for the least worst of the people running to represent us. We've got a war on. Maybe two or three, depending on how you define a "war." We've got important legislation afoot on matters that affect us directly -- in other words, it's not business as usual.
So, in my hunger for information, I've been paying attention to every news source available, even the mainstream media. And, well, unsurprisingly, I've been unimpressed.
I don't see any particular institutional lean to most the television media (with the notable exception of Fox News, which clearly and unabashedly leans right. I've been taking to calling it "Faux News" of late, something I thought was particularly pithy when I first saw it. Unfortunately, it's the only really entertaining nickname I know... I'd be happy to be an equal opportunity offender if anyone knew any good ones for CNN or the other major networks). I think that most of the media would tend to lean left if not for two factors: one, the fact that the mainstream media is very corporate, and hence about ratings, and therefore primarily a form of entertainment, leaving an emphasis on accurate (or, for that matter, any) reporting a distant second. Second, and more importantly, while the "right" side of the news tends to unabashedly pander to its audience (often rather dishonestly, I think), no doubt to the delight of the corporate ownership that tends to strongly lean right, the parts that might turn left for institutional reasons or due to the personalities involved often seem to be paralyzed by a weird sort of "political correctness" of late that has them obsessively showing both sides' "viewpoint." And when you're talking television news, where each "side" essentially gets a soundbyte, well... You can't expect much from that sort of reporting on anything of real substance. I'm not really sure what's behind it... Maybe it's a mutant form of political correctness. More likely, I think, it's due to the dynamic between the news people (who probably mostly lean left) and the corporate ownership (who probably mostly lean right).
The situation with the print media (and by extention, the internet, where much of it has found a home) is a bit more complex. By and large the quality is better, although not necessarily good. The very fact that the format gives a subject the time it needs to be explored is going to give it a leg up on television, at least in theory.
Now, there's a lot more variety in the print (and mainstream internet media, such as it is). Some does quite unabashedly lean one way or the other, and that's understandable, because ultimately it's still about ratings, even if the audience is predominantly made up of people who can actually read. But even here I've seen a trend in the middle (when it's come to politics, anyway). The reporting has seem to have become very much a "he said, she said" sort of operation, and instead of calling (either) of the candidates on what they say, now tends to just report what their spinners say, giving them roughly equal time, no matter the merit of the spin. Maybe it's always been that way -- I've never really paid quite as much attention before. Like many other people, this election has energized me in a way I've never been energized by politics before, because I believe that in this case the candidates aren't essentially the same (like they've been in the past, on occasion), and the choices we make now particularly matter. And further, while I've always considered myself a bit left of center, I've found that the right (and Bush in particular) have driven me farther left than I've ever been before. There are parts of the republican party I respect (such as the typical midwestern or northeastern moderate republican), but it seems to me they've been so marginalized that they end up with jokes like Alan Keyes running in Illinois (the man who said that God would not vote for his opponent, the man who is on the record as being against carpet bagging -- well, until it was him, anyway -- a man who's over fifty points behind in the polls). I see that as evidence that the more radical (and mostly out of state) elements of the republican party can run roughshod over the moderate, "small business" republicans that are not only the life-blood of the Illinois republican party, but the vast majority of it there as well. I sincerely hope the democrats embarrass enough of the wackos the republican party has been running this year to loosen the stranglehold the right has had on the party. At least in my optimistic moments -- I doubt it will actually happen, at least not until (or if) we have to endure democrat excesses on the other side.
But getting back to the "he said, she said:" I tend to think that this has favored Bush far more Kerry. Partly, in my not so humble opinion, because I think Bush has often been wrong -- and I particularly detest the sort of attack campaigning that the right has pushed on us so vigorously the last decade or two, something I consider morally repugnant in and of itself -- dirt has always been a part of politics, and maybe I'm just a ridiculous idealist here, but once upon I time I think it was expected for the parties involved to be a little embarrased about the necessity. The other reason this has favored Bush is simply because, well, he's the incumbent, and even if most all of his decisions had been right, there's always going to be some that hadn't, and any opposition will call him on it. Rightly, I think, because an incumbent should be judged on their record, and it's incumbent on them -- no pun intended -- to justify their decisions, or apologize for them if they were mistakes, and beyond that (and more importantly) explain how they would handle fixing the mistakes they've made.
Now, to turn back from print media, there are two, well, institutions that I do have a lot of respect for, both of which (I think not entirely coincidentally) lean strongly liberal. The first is NPR. NPR I see as embodying what I consider the true strength of "liberalism," which is an intellectual thoughfulness and thoroughness (something it has in common with the parts of "conservatism" I respect, something sorely lacking in the populist sort of rhetoric that I see coming from Bush and the right. I think it's no accident that the vast majority of the people I consider friends fit one or the other of these descriptions -- meaning my description of liberalism and conservatism above -- and I also think it's somewhat telling that a lot of the once self-described "conservatives" have jumped to the other side of isle and are now Kerry supporters. I even hope the democratic party swallows the moderate republicans, and they, along with their pragmatic brethren on the other side of the isle, come to dominate the democratic party and the nation as a whole. But of course, we all know it will never happen, alas, because, well, the average American is pretty much an insular idiot at the core with an attention span that does CNN Headline News proud. So I'll take what I can get).
The other institution I respect, and this may or may not surprise people, is The Daily Show. It's not actually news, per se, but it probably covers the election about as well (or better) than the big networks. Part of the reason I respect it is that it doesn't even pretend to be news, and yet, between jokes, it actually often gives it to you anyway. I want to include here a passage from an article that I found rather insightful (It comes from an article by the Columbia Journalism Review on the specific issue of "balance" that you can find here. In fact, it's the very source of my use of "he said/she said" journalism):
The most telling comment on that front may well have come from the unlikely duo of Jon Stewart and Ted Koppel, who shared a telecast during the Democratic convention. Koppel, by way of introducing his own viewers to Stewart, complained that "a lot of television viewers -- more, quite frankly, than I'm comfortable with" -- get their news from Stewart's "Daily Show" on Comedy Central. Stewart, almost as if trying to reassure Koppel, responded that his fans were watching him not for news per se, but rather for a "comedic interpretation" of the news. Koppel was unmoved. People watch Stewart "to be informed," Koppel insisted gloomily. "They actually think they're coming closer to the truth with your show."
With that, Stewart pounced. "Now that's a different thing, that's credibility; that's a different animal."
Yes, it is.
And to bring the point home, you only have to look at the recent "Rather-gate" scandal. And, if you're a particularly astute observer, you'll note not only how this has affected the credibility of CBS, but how the very coverage perhaps should have affected the credibility of the other networks. To wit (and, in fact, I do steal this directly from The Daily Show), why does this merit a "gate?" Why not some of the other recent news? There are so many possible candidates, but the most appropriate is perhaps Abu Graib. And the name wouldn't have to be the awkward Abu-Graib-gate. Rumsfeld-gate would work perfectly well, and would perhaps be a fitting legacy for the second coming of MacNamara (I suspect there are a combination of things here, some pro the argument, some not, but I found it a rather telling question nonetheless. Also, as an aside and to be clear, my beef with Rumsfeld isn't that he's liberal or conservative -- it's not his job to make policy. If my reference to MacNamara didn't make it clear, my beef with Rumsfeld is that he's incompetent. I'm by no means a pacifist, and while I do think Iraq was a mistake, I think the operational mistakes before and after magnified it tremendously. The military is not a business, and should never be run as one. I do think an effective military is necessary to our security -- not necessarily a large one, I agree with Rumsfeld on that part -- even if it should rarely be used. But I think that Rumsfeld has done a huge amount of damage to our military on his watch, both operationally and organizationally, much as MacNamara did).
One final point: I do think we're on the edge of a major state change here. If fact, I think it's even started to take hold. The state change, of course, involves the internet. It gives me some hope for the future, because I believe it's starting to have an effect on how we live, how we think, and how we stay informed. Once upon a time, all a voter had to go on was a television debate or two, a few newspaper articles, and their own (mis)perceptions of what was really happening. Now, if you want to know exactly what Bush's record is (although you should probably know it if you've been paying any attention at all), you can look it up. If you want to see every vote that Kerry did or did not do, you can look it up. We have web pages like "factcheck.org" (no apologies to Cheney) where you can do your own investigating of everything that you see. Sure, most people don't, but you can. And if the mainstream media does call something completely wrong, there are plenty of people out there who will look it up and call them on it.
Best of all, people growing up with the internet know they can't trust everything they read, and I think the best thing that could possibly happen to the electorate is if they grow a cynicism filter and put it to work.
And that's all I have to say for now.
UPDATE: Whatever seems to be sorta kinda back up, so I've corrected two of the links to John Scalzi. Unfortunately, I haven't managed to find the one I really wanted to correct yet -- apparently the archives don't currently go that far back -- so it's still not fixed.