Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Truth about Mass Media Lies

Take it from this 33 year veteran of TV news:  Our mass media news system has not broken down completely, but it’s headed full tilt in that direction.  Here’s how you can defend yourself.  

I went page-turning through my morning newspaper today looking for its coverage of the Jonathan Gruber hearing, in which congressmen grilled the MIT professor and Obamacare architect about his stunning claims of deliberate deception in the process of writing the Affordable Care Act.  I found the story exactly where I expected to:  page A14, buried in the interior of the Nation & World section.  The newspaper devoted about 15 column inches the report—smallish for a newspaper account, but not quite miniscule.  The headline of the Gruber story read, “Obama health adviser Gruber apologizes for ‘glib’ remarks.”

A really nifty way to tell a lie is to report only part of the truth.  The point of the hearing was not to extract an apology from Gruber.  The point was to find out whether he’d been telling the truth about the Obamacare deceptions he’d previously outlined, and if so to discover how high the conspiracy went.  Why the Republicans who led this committee felt the need to do that is a good question, given that some of the key Obamacare falsehoods we already know about came right out of the mouth of the president himself (“The individual mandate is not a tax.”  “If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan.”   “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.”)  Nevertheless, that was what the congressmen were trying to do.  Did they succeed? 

The headline leaves you with the impression that Gruber backed down and the congressmen thereby got their answer.  This impression is false.  The body of the story mentions the word “retraction” only once, and does so in this context:  “Democrats tried to make the most of having an often-vilified witness retracting some of his most damaging remarks.”  Nowhere in article does the reporter say what remarks Gruber is alleged to have retracted.  This is key.   In those now-infamous videos, Gruber said the Obamacare authors deliberately wrote the law in a “torturous” fashion because “transparency is a huge political disadvantage.”  He said the authors represented the individual mandate as being something other than a tax (remember, the president told the same story) because if they had labeled it honestly as a tax, then the law would not have passed.  He said the provision in the law withholding tax credits from citizens whose state governments had not set up their own exchanges was deliberate (note:  not a “typo” as the Obama administration now claims) and was intended to apply pressure to the states to get with the program.  Were those past statements lies?  Did Gruber just make it all up?

The article gives you no clue.  No clue.   Mind you, the piece doesn’t say anything that’s not true.  But combined with that headline and with the implication in the sentence I just quoted, it leaves you with the impression that Gruber had repudiated the statements of fact contained in his prior words.  In this way, the news article lies to you.

The sole point I heard Gruber retract in his four hours of testimony was his prior statement that he had helped craft the specific language contained in the law.  That was it.  Left unchallenged was the well documented fact that Gruber indeed had been deeply involved in conceiving the law.  Congressmen—notably Michael Turner of Ohio—grilled him, trying to get him to give a plain “yes or no” answer to the question of whether Gruber now does, or does not, retract those statements.  Gruber refused to say.  Instead he retreated to his narrative that his comments had been inappropriate, that he was not a politician, and that he had been trying to make himself sound more knowledgeable than he’d really been. 

The reporter let his mask slip just once when he wrote this:  “Republican Committee Chairman Darrell Issa of California... sarcastically praised Gruber for ‘telling the truth’ in his earlier remarks....”  Sarcastic is a subjective label, one chosen by the reporter based on that reporter’s opinion.  Issa was not being sarcastic.  He was being sincere.   Issa sincerely does believe Gruber told the stone cold truth in those previous remarks.   In the hearing Gruber did absolutely nothing to undermine that belief, but you would not know that to read this reporter’s version of events. 

The reporter went on to note that Issa hammered Gruber on the issue of how money much state and federal governments had paid him.  He made no mention of congressmen pressing Gruber to specifically retract his statements, and no mention that Gruber repeatedly refused to do so.  Also left unreported was the fact that Gruber had refused to turn over documents requested by the panel, or that he repeatedly refused to explain that decision, instead deflecting (more than half a dozen times) those questions to his lawyer.

The most glaring omission of all, though, was the failure to report on comments from Wyoming Republican Cynthia Lummis.   She told a story that would be very familiar to people like me, but not to others who’ve been relying on the mass media to tell the truth about Obamacare.  She said that after receiving multiple conflicting statements about whether she and her husband were or were not covered under their Obamacare policy, her husband decided not to get a key test that their doctor had recommended.  One day, she said, “my husband went to sleep and never woke up."  And then she added, “[T]he so-called glibness that has been referenced today [has] direct consequences for real American people.  So get over your damn glibness."

When I heard her tell that story, my head swam.  Her experience mirrors my own, while also making what happened to me look small.  One year ago Obamacare forced me to change policies and doctors just two weeks after I learned I have cancer (to meet the deadlines, by coincidence I learned of my diagnosis on the very day I’d just begun the process of switching policies).  During the process I faced four months of conflicting, inaccurate and flatly false advice and statements from the government and from my new insurer.  At the time, I went looking in media reports to see whether anyone else might be facing the same problem.   Finding little, I started this blog.  (The details of my experience are here).  To learn yesterday that a congresswoman had experienced some of the same kinds of things as I had—and had been equally as powerless to do anything about it—shocked me to my core.  This was an important statement, and an important story.  My morning paper did not tell it.

Lots of morning papers did not tell it.  Many, many other media accounts I’ve scanned contain the same problems and omissions as the story I just analyzed.  In labeling things as important that really weren't, while leaving out facts that truly were, such coverage misleads the public.

I devoted most of my radio program to the Gruber hearing yesterday afternoon.  Prior to the broadcast, I went looking to see how other journalists were handling the story.  Most major websites I viewed had nothing at all about it on their front pages.   CNN did have the story—about 20 positions down on their list of important items.  Ranking 17 stories higher—#3 on CNN’s list at the time—was a piece about some random shopper in California who thought the tiny decorative filigree patterns within the stripes of some wrapping paper she’d bought looked a lot like tiny swastikas—because, you know, the issue of tiny patterns that resemble swastikas on wrapping paper is such a huge ongoing national outrage.  (As I write this, the Gruber story has disappeared from CNN’s home page, but the swastika story is still on its top stories list 24 hours later.)

I worked in TV news for 33 years.  The vast majority of journalists I’ve known would be mortally offended if you were to repeat the right wing’s oft heard rant and accuse them of liberal bias.  But what I’ve learned over the years is that there is such a thing—not (usually) because journalists consciously make a decision to favor liberal causes, but because mass media news employees in America are trained to show sympathy for the underdog.  The way this manifests itself in coverage of issues like Obamacare is through a tendency to go easy on social and political causes, and their supporters, perceived to be helping, or intended to help, the disadvantaged.

This same principle showed itself yesterday in coverage of the Gruber story.  It’s shown itself in previous coverage of this same issue.  In my view, and the view of many others, the so called mainstream media have dramatically underreported this story, despite the importance of what the issue says about politicians who are willing to do anything and say anything to get a pet cause passed.  And when the media have covered it, reporters and anchors have tended to treat Gruber with kid gloves—such as when a major network news website ran a headline in November proclaiming that Gruber had apologized for his remarks while providing a quote and a clip of video in which all Gruber had done was to say that he had come to “regret” ever having opened his mouth.   Well, of course he regretted it, the same way you'd regret pulling the pin on a grenade that winds up exploding in your hand.

The swastika story says even more about journalism today than does the mass media’s ho-hum reaction to the Gruber issue.  When I ran a search for the Lummis quote just now, Google returned this message at the top of a list of articles:  “About 3,720 results (0.44 seconds).”  That seems like a lot, doesn’t it?  But wait.  Next I did a search for the swastika wrapping paper story.  Says Google:  “About 1,410,000 results (0.38 seconds).”  A search for the Bill Cosby rape story returned a mind-blowing 52,900,000 results.

When a matador confronts a bull, typically he waves a red cape.  Why?  The matador is trying to divert the bull’s attention.  “This red cape is what’s important.  Look at this.”  The idea is that while focusing on this harmless distraction, the bull won’t pay attention to real danger, presented in the form of the matador, who will be the instrument of the bull’s demise.  It’s a deception, carried out for the benefit of the deceiver.

Folks, you’re being red-caped—every single day, day in and day out.  Why does the mass media do this to you?  Hint:  it’s not all part of an evil conspiracy to hide from you the evils of liberalism.   Some of it, as noted, is the product of unconscious bias.  But a great deal of it stems from the media’s outrage industry, the main goal of which is to serve stockholders by selling you stories.  Ratings and profit-minded media executives watch carefully to see what is trending on the internet, and they know you’re far more likely to click on a swastika gift wrap story than one about a congresswoman who believes Obamacare is a mess.   To borrow a phrase from Jonathan Gruber, they think that you, like the bull, are too stupid to know the difference between what is important and what is not.

Are they mistaken?


One thing you can count on the mass media not to do is this:  it will not tell you the story of how it’s pulling one over on you.  Take it from a former practitioner of the art.  If what you read here interests you and you think others could benefit from knowing these facts, then please share this story or cut and paste this link onto your friends’ Facebook timelines, into a tweet, or into an email:

Help get the word out.  To quote Mulder and Skully, “The truth is out there.”  Mass media aren’t so broken that you can’t find the facts.  But if you want to be an informed citizen, then you do have to dig for them.  And you cannot believe everything you’re told.

Find more political commentary, along with satire and who knows what else, here.

To learn more about how TV news really works, please check out my novel, Messages.

©2014 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.

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