11 April 2011

Some thoughts on Media and Ethics

*Updated 11 April 1900EST

Like it or not, one has to admit Roger Ailes the architect of FOX news, Rupert Murdoch its owner, and Republican strategist Karl Rove are all exceptional and brilliant men.

They understand how to sell news and win elections. They understand how to reach the American audience, how to press their buttons, stir them, upset them. They seem to have an uncanny grasp on what makes the American public think.

Rove masterminded much of the Bush administration and played a huge part in the 2010 Republican victories. FOX has been a critical component of the Conservative political realm for over a decade now.

I hear Conservatives argue that since they know how to speak to the American public, they must be accurately reflecting the desires of the American people. In America-speak, that means it must be right.

This reflects a little bit of the duplicity I talked about in a post called Saul's Politics, wherein the Right and probably all who are involved in politics, in the end are unprincipled pragmatists, just as unprincipled and opportunistic as they accuse their opponents of being.

When the people want something the power-seeking political activists don't want….they cry moral and idealistic superiority and preach on the dangers of public or mob rule. When the public supports what they want, they laud democratic values and the vox populi.

Do these Conservative architects reflect the values of the American people, or do they merely understand them? And in understanding them, know how to steer them?

It's interesting when you research people like Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld, Ailes, Rove, Murdoch, O'Reilly, Beck, Hannity, and the rest. For the most part their experiences really don't resonate with the American public. Few have been part of the war-machine they like to cheerlead. Few come from working class backgrounds. There are certainly not very many minorities among them, and many are millionaires, but somehow they represent the values of the American people?

It can't be proved of course, but I would say rather than represent the people they have some people backing them, the brilliant minds I mentioned before…men like Ailes, Rove, and Murdoch who know how to market a product. They study their audience and then shape the marketing to work effectively.

Like any used-car salesman the ethics get a little hazy. Half-truths aren't quite lies, omissions aren't deceptive, things like that. The goal of the salesman is to close the deal, not get all the details right. He wants you to picture yourself in that car, and not worry about whether the taillights work or if the differential is leaking oil.

Media ethics are kind of interesting. It gets real interesting when you add profit and political power into the equation. Of course if journalism is tasked with fairly and accurately reporting the news and providing analysis so the audience can understand it….one might question the ethics of bringing profit into the equation.

It's kind of like practicing medicine….fairly assessing and reporting someone's health, analyzing it and treating it for profit? Isn't that manipulating people in their pain and suffering to line your pockets? I hear some argue that a plumber does the same thing, but I sure hope they're not so cold and crass as to equate a hot water heater with the organs of a human being? Though I will readily admit that many a plumber is just as guilty in painting the big picture…you need a new hot water heater, rather than focus on the details, you actually just need to replace a bad valve.

The plumber is out to make money…but he should have an ethic backing his work. A Christian plumber will operate very differently than many regular ones do. However, the Christian will not have great financial success if he's sticking to his ethics. He may do alright, but the big plumbing outfits will always make more money because they're out to make a significant profit. Some might argue this point with me, but I stand my ground. I've seen it firsthand and often and what I often find is that many a Christian businessman has utterly failed to work out the ethical math, the moral equations of what he's doing. Of course most Christian Worldview teaching will actually help him in this. Rather than turn to Scripture he'll turn to American Idealism and various schools of Economic theory. We might get some verses out of the Proverbs, some twisted passages from the Pentateuch, but the Sermon on the Mount probably won't enter the equation. It doesn't fit very well with either American values or the quest for profit.

Conservatives would argue that health care and news media are exactly the same as plumbing…they're marketed products.

I can see lost people, mercenary self-focused people thinking that way about these issues. I cannot understand those who profess Christ and think this way. I grow upset when hear Christians expressing these views and labeling them Biblical and in accord with a Christian Worldview. When we're dealing with truth and human life, shouldn't a different kind of ethic be at work? There's a Christian ethic that affects any business, but is that all life and truth are…business commodities? Or do these issues demand a completely different ethical paradigm, one that doesn't include thinking about the bottom line?

The medical discussion is for another time. Just for the record I'm not in principle advocating some kind of socialist medical scheme.

But with regard to news media…

If the task is to provide factual information and honest and reasonably objective analysis so the audience can seek out the truth and hopefully form an opinion on the issues of the day, then are these goals compatible with a motive for profit?

If media outlets are dependent on sponsorship isn't it obvious the interests of their sponsors will affect the coverage?

What about the current trend where we find political operatives moving seamlessly between partisan duties and media analysis? It's one thing if they're being called upon as a representative of a particular school or camp, but these people are functioning as journalists…supposedly objective news reporters.

At that point…it's hard to call it news. FOX is certainly the worst example of this, but it's common enough throughout most American media outlets.

So are Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes interested in providing accurate news, yea, even fair and balanced news?

Let's not kid ourselves. They like the other media outlets are about making money, but FOX even more than CNN, NBC, or the others is about Power.

It may be a cliché, but information is power. That doesn't mean the information has to be accurate.

This is a real problem for many media outlets. Our modern media was born in an era where people felt the need to speak truth to Power.

Power manipulates. It embellishes, it minimizes, it promotes true or false optimism, or fear. It will do what it has to do to maintain its position.

During the Sixties, with Civil Rights, Assassinations, Vietnam, the need to speak truth to power gained momentum and finally reached its breaking point with the Watergate scandal of the early 1970's.

The New Media had a mandate, a moral duty to tell it like it is, because Walter Cronkite for the most part wasn't. The most trusted man in America was for the most part a dupe.

With the advent of modern technology we speak of the world growing smaller. We all know what this means and in a sense it's true. But in another sense it's misleading.

The world is shrinking in terms of travel and communication, but because of these ties it has grown infinitely more complex. Now little things in other countries that wouldn't have mattered forty years ago can make the evening news and change everything. Business and Politics are affected by a YouTube clip, commodity prices can change because of a speech someone gave.

The media has played a part in all of this and unwittingly has become one of the tools of power. In the past, the government controlled the flow of information, one of several means of wielding power. Before the 1960's, the public was largely pretty trusting and malleable. Rather than Christians leading the charge for truth, it was a bunch of lost people radically breaking with Constantinianism and in their minds rejecting Christianity. They were called Activists, Radicals, Hippies and so forth.

As some historians have pointed out, though the Sixties changed society, politically they did not organize very well. They changed the conversation, brought about changes in legislation, but did not set up structures. Johnson was hardly their favourite leader. The people of the Sixties were hardly big fans of Nixon or Ford. Carter was probably better to their minds, but in many ways he did not fulfill their vision either. It was not until Bill Clinton that finally one of their own came to power and they for the first time found themselves in a position of leadership.

Whatever you think of Bill Clinton he was a politician par excellence, in other words a pragmatist in the end. I'm not complimenting him, but he was an outstanding politician. He pulled off some pretty amazing things. In this regard even though he was a child of the Sixties, he was in the end a traitor to their causes. Once in power, he had little interest in truth. Of course doesn't history teach us that man's fallen nature corrupts every noble thought, every noble or good movement? You would think Christians would know this better than anyone. Looking at today's landscape the argument could be made that they are the least aware of the practical implications of the Fall. There are a lot of lost people that seem to have a better grasp of human nature. Am I cynic? When it comes to human nature...absolutely. There is none that doeth good, no not one.

Obama is actually the first president we've had in more than a century that seems to truly lack political instinct. That could be a compliment. It might mean he actually possesses some integrity.

We saw something of this with Carter, but Obama is actually trying to be forthright and honest in how he's going about these budget battles and some of these other issues. And he's largely been slaughtered for it. He starts by giving up something to get the negotiations going! They must be laughing at him and shaking their heads behind closed doors. He doesn't seem to understand the game, how to play on with your political capital. He doesn't know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em as one 80's singer might have said.

*update on 11 April. It was reported today on NPR that Obama in fact waited this time for the Republican proposal before he outlined his plan. That way he could tweak appropriately. Apparently he's learning from his earlier mistakes in dealing with the Republicans....mistakes---in other words open and honest communication. Washington doesn't work that way. You have scheme and plot to get your way. Everyone thinks Obama is some kind of ultra-leftist. Everyday and every way from his politicking to his economic policies, to Afghanistan and now Libya he's showing himself to be what the hard Left has always accused him of being...Center-Right.

The dilemma for these folk on the Left is that from the beginning they've been in opposition. They've made it a point to stand against those wielding power and manipulating the public with misinformation and demagoguery. When they hold the political reins they're in a quandary, because they're being attacked by those like Murdoch and Rove who have proved they have no qualms about lying and twisting information…or in the case of Valerie Plame, destroying lives.

So now what should Obama and others on the Left react? They can stick to their principles and take a beating as indeed they have in the public eye. The Right ran circles around them in the propaganda war and whipped the public into a frenzy. Or…they can employ the same tools, spin the truth, sensationalize, turn to stagecraft and market driven information…in which case everything they stood for in the Sixties was for nothing. In the end, they've become the same kind of political monsters they were protesting.

Obama has proven more principled than Clinton ever was or could be, but he's already caved on several points. Before long he will probably settle into the Centrist/Pragmatist role that Clinton took after his drubbing in 1994.

Speak the truth to Power, but guess what? Power isn't interested. In fact Power will run circles around your truth with their lies. In the end, government and politics are kind of like what we find in the Church. People like to have their ears tickled more than they like to dig in and find the answers.

Some on the left have grown impatient. So you see outlets like MSNBC and others that are trying to play the game…sensationalize, shout and scream to make their point. But they just don't do as well. FOX is still #1 in the ratings.

FOX would say, see the public likes our message so our news is best. Well, if anything it just tells us something about the American public and the state of our society. Just because people like something, that hardly makes it right. If that were the litmus test, whether or not it sells…then the crew at FOX would have little to say against Goebbels and the Nazis.

Consciously or unconsciously many on the Left realize MSNBC and that type of tactics and reporting are not what they're about. Rather than speaking truth to power, they're turning to the same kind of media witchcraft you find with FOX. That's what it is you know…witchcraft. Magic is about manipulation, manipulated nature and how things are to serve your purposes. It's about harnessing the available material and using it for your own power. That's what our media is doing.

But wait, isn't FOX just an alternative to our already liberal media? This whole concept of our media being liberal is a completely false argument. It's brilliant, I too spouted this for many years, but it's simply not true. The whole labeling framework of 'the liberal media,' is part of the Right's propaganda campaign. Just because Dan Rather and Peter Jennings weren't Bill O'Reilly hardly means they were champions of the left. They are labeled such because they didn't sit on television and spout off Right-wing soundbites.

In the end these men were just puppets and the end of a string. The framework for their reporting was through and through Americanist in its structure and origin. It was all told from an American bias and assumed American arguments and prerogatives. Even supposedly liberal NPR does that same thing today. The only advantage there is you get an organization without Corporate control. Some think they're controlled by the government, but in reality no one will touch it. It would become a political liability and consequently NPR is largely left alone. But even there, they have their limits and many of their reporters are still pretty establishment minded. That's why I keep insisting the best news source for an American audience is an international outlet. Preferably several. To trust in one news source is blind naivety.

It will be interesting to see how the Left deals with this ethical tangle in the years to come. They either sell out and turn to propaganda like the Right….and thus lose their raison d'être. Or, they continue to stand for their principles (whether right or wrong) and run the risk of losing the debate…not because the other side had better arguments, but because they talked louder and had flashy packaging.

I urge Christians to re-think everything about American history, current events and the nature of media. It's funny how all those who are so afraid of power-seekers manipulating them have embraced a view of information that sets them up to be manipulated. They'll be the first to fall for it. All those people who gathered on the Washington Mall to support Beck and Palin thought they were standing up to power. Instead they were pawns, recruits in a new tactic. When the fad passes, they'll be tossed aside. Astonishingly these same people will be the first to sign onto the next thing that comes down the pike.


Anonymous said...

Obama wasn't open and honest during the healthcare debate.

Protoprotestant said...

He tried to be at first, but no sooner had he started when talk of 'death panels' and 'rationing' started circulating.

This is exactly my point. He tried to keep it honest and was slaughtered so in the end...yes, he and the other Democratic leaders turned to slimy politics in order to pass the thing.

They could have played propaganda war, emphasized class struggle, the fact that under our current system we have rationing...1 out of 6 people are excluded from health care/declared not worhty to receive it, they could have focused on the insurance companies etc...

Instead they tried to deal with it fairly and explain the whole issue as it really is....complex.

The American public doesn't do complex.

So there's the dilemma... be reasonable and fair and let your opponent run circles around you with their deceitful tactics or be like them.

In the end, they capitulate and behave in the same manner.

I'm sure many a politician goes to Washington full of ideals and optimism. They think they're going to change things and instead they find they're swimming in a sewer.

It's no different for Christians, but as they stand before the Church covered in sewage (so to speak) we laud and praise them for their supposed integrity and their stand for Christ.