The problem with the current media environment—with its 24-hour news cycle and constant flow of breaking stories—may not be “too much information,” as we often hear, but rather “too much misinformation.”
Especially as the healthcare debate comes to a head, news organizations have attempted to come up with packages that make sense of the issues at stake. That’s the impetus behind this “primer” from the Associated Press, which makes a welcome addition to the discussion (and that’s despite the many flaws the Columbia Journalism Review was able to find in the AP’s overview).
But much more frequently, the easiest way for media outlets to seem balanced in their coverage and to appear as if they are providing readers and viewers with a complete picture of the discussion is to just reiterate the partisan talking points. Over at Media Nation, Dan Kennedy has posted an excellent, outraged response to the media’s “typically mindless ‘he said/she said’ horse-race coverage” of the healthcare debate, in which he shows that this approach has spread lies about how the bills handle one of the most inflammatory issues in American politics: abortion. Kennedy’s post exposes the way the debate has been hijacked by talking-point falsehoods, how politicians such as House Republican leader John Boehner can claim on national news outlets that the House bill would allow “taxpayer-funded abortions” without being challenged by the media. Kennedy cites sources as diverse as PolitiFact.com, “serious pro-life Democrat” Dale Kildee, and a coalition of 50,000 Catholic nuns, who all argue that no, the House bill does not allow federal funding for abortion and in fact maintains the abortion-funding status quo.
Instead of asking the tough questions, the media too often just takes politicians at their word in the pursuit of what Kennedy calls “fake even-handedness.” Perhaps Washington reporters, as In These Times‘ Candace Clement argues, could learn a thing or two from Hollywood paparazzi. As much as I had a knee-jerk aversion to the idea when I first read Clement’s piece, if journalists took the relentless tactics the paparazzi use to probe every aspect of celebrities’ private lives and re-purposed them to probe every aspect of politicians’ public statements, maybe we wouldn’t have the likes of Boehner and Stupak getting away with outright lies.