Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Prediction time

“Psych” on USA is a delightful piece of escapist entertainment. Young police consultant Shawn Spencer solves crimes with powers of observation so acute that the real detectives think he's psychic. There are plenty of hi jinx and foils that the hour usually zips by. Psychics, palm readers, tarot card readings are easily available in Los Angeles with shops on nearly every block. Miss Cleo may have given up her pay-per-call service in 2003, but there are plenty of others. Serious policy people tend to mock the seeming frivolity of the mystic world…yet then they turn on Cable TV news and settle in for hours and hours of fortune telling.

Media critics complain about the trivialization of serious issues. Critics usually determine it’s a content issue – where news outlets seem to prefer to cover stories that are “sexy” and “tabloid” versus more “serious” news. While there’s certainly merit to that criticism, each of the major news networks do put their fair share of time into reporting on politics and issues even though they are skewed.

The coverage is slanted --- that’s a given. Opinion hosts give their opinions, that’s part of the show and is to be expected. News reporters may aspire for objectivity, but the framing of any question or any fact inevitably shows the underbelly of some sort of slant. Taking a fact and presenting it in two ways doesn’t alter the fact, it frames the discussion. Consider the big news from last week: “Unemployment rate falls to 2 ½ year low” OR “26 million Americans still out of work...more than half over a year.” Both facts are correct, how they are presented shows some degree of bias.

Eliminating bias isn’t realistic, and isn’t possible. Individuals bring their own experiences to everything, including news. Accepting and distinguishing bias is a shared responsibility between writer and reader – but ultimately it is up to the reader to interpret the information.

A few weeks back GOP Candidate Rick Perry created an ad with a quote from President Obama about how Americans got lazy.  Nearly every media outlet condemned the ad because it took the President’s words totally out of context. Reading or listening to the entire sentence the President was noting American exceptionalism and that we needed to keep working to maintain that. To properly cover the story, however, most news outlets ran the ad and then wagged their proverbial fingers at the distortion. It’s like when Janet Jackson had a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ and the news media was up in arms over the outrage...and then ran pictures of her pixilated boob for months!  In this case the Perry campaign got millions of dollars of free airings of their skewed ad, reinforcing the candidate’s narrative and winding up the liberals and media elite. The actual news story is that the Perry campaign created an ad, didn’t pay for it to be aired and was deliberately using the President's words out of context to draw attention to his campaign.  Not juicy enough.  Much better for the story to have everybody expressing mutual outrage but actually saying nothing.

When not running outrageous conflict driven stories (where the conflict is mostly theoretical), when it comes to politics speculation seems to be the order of the day. Regardless of network, the guests for a daily discussion of politics tend to be fellow journalists and political consultants. The subject matter discussed is the issue of the day. The substantive time of analysis, however is spent on talking about what the issue “might mean” for the candidate, how the voters “might” respond to this statement or that action. Sometimes an action can portend the future – and that’s worth noting. The minutae of one moment ‘derailing’ a campaign puts a disproportionate magnifying glass on every moment.

The consequence is that candidates retract from the media, fearing any blooper. Voters don't see the humanity of the candidates and it all becomes a TV show and expectations for a TV solution (in one-hour please) is heightened.  Long term solutions to major issues can't be addressed.  What might happen becomes the news rather than an actual event and its context in people’s lives. The hypothetical becomes what’s important simply because so much attention is paid to it and the what happened is passé...literally.

Look at the time of year we’re in. For months Christmas is front and center – the anticipation builds and builds - hyperbole on high. By noon on Christmas Day decorations are taken down, and the focus is on the next holiday. Our lack of attention as a society is translated to our politics. No sooner are the votes counted for one election than candidates are lining up for the next one.

The viewer has the same responsibility as the reader…each are the consumer. The customer is always right! Let’s demand that actions and events that actually occur be covered. We can have a media environment where serious policy issues can be discussed in an entertaining, intelligent and lively manner and people are moved to stay engaged with their communities. It says so right here in my fortune cookie.

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