Posted by: eratigan | July 20, 2009

Midterm–Media Watchdogs: superheroes or culprits?

(Midterm Post–Question 4)

There was a reason Superman was a reporter when he wasn’t sporting tights and capes. Journalists, in theory, are meant to publicize and defend the truth without slant or agenda. Superman had his Kryptonite, journalists have their politics. Though media watchdogs like Media Matters and News Busters are there to defend truth when the reporters are weakened by personal bias, there seems to be no Kryptonite guard for them. As question four prompts—who watches the watchdogs?

What does it stand for now? Supporter? Siren? Socialist?

What does it stand for now? Supporter? Siren? Socialist?

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em

In comic books, as in politics, some failed super villains go on to become the hero’s allies. Others join up with larger evil forces to destroy the hero together. Just by browsing both websites’ search results for “health care,” it is clear that media analysts News Busters and Media Matters spend more time tallying points supporting their own arguments than investigating the government’s and media’s presentation of a very important, life-changing bill.

If the main criticism of the media’s liberal or conservative bias is perpetuating lies and misinformation, why not fulfill mission statements by combating with truth and accurate information? Why not, rather than basing an argument on ridicule of the media’s coverage or trying to advance party lines, the websites give all the facts left out of the mainstream coverage?

Media Matter’s Coverage

This left-wing website mainly targets health care reform coverage by CBS, FOX, and MSNBC, on Monday morning one of the lead stories was “The War Against Health Care Reform.” In framing the issue this way, the website immediately suggests that one of  two sides must be taken. Already they have painted the picture that one side is wrong (who wouldn’t want to reform health care?).

Another article dissects the claims made by hosts of two FOX news talk shows, Sean Hannity and David Asman, and splices sections from the actual health insurance bill with their statements that the proposed bill would outlaw private coverage. Media Matters employs some Edward R. Murrow’s tactics, pairing statements made by their subject to reveal the holes in his armor and (supposedly) expose the idiocy of the FOX hosts’ argument.

MM asserts that the bill does not outlaw private coverage and attempts to correct Investor’s Business Daily’s false claims—and FOX’s “echos of false claims”—by listing first transcripts from Hannity’s and Asman’s shows, then presenting their own proof of the misinformation with an “accurate” description of the bill, and finally the original IBD editorial that kicked off the discussion.

“In fact, as Media Matters for America has noted, the provision to which the editorial referred establishes the conditions under which existing private plans would be exempted from the requirement that they participate in the Health Insurance Exchange. Individual health insurance plans that do not meet the ‘grandfather’ conditions would still be available for purchase, but only through the Exchange and subject to those regulations.” Though the quote provides a link to the Congressional committee’s document, MM’s use of the citation does little to prove their point, and tries to present a possible negative as a completely neutral issue. They are as wrong on the topic as the conservatives with an opposing goal. In the end, both sides are wrong, both sides mislead the reader.

A third article focuses on conservative talk radio host Glen Beck, who has been leading an “unyielding, misleading war against health care reform,” according to Media Matters. Beck and a caller had a heated (to say the least) discussion about the merits of other countries’ health care plans, which ended with Beck demanding the caller “get off my phone!”

The tone of the article is sarcastic and mocking, either mimicking Beck or, again, using the enemy’s own tactics against him. Mahatma Ghandi’s warning that an “eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” may be useful in this situation. Media Matters may be trying to repair the damage done by talking heads, but ends up just toeing the other party. Would it not be a better service to end the cycle, correct the wrongs it claims are done by the media, and fulfill the journalistic promises current pundits, reporters, and broadcasters have failed to keep.

News Busters’ Coverage

Not to be outdone in petty, childish attacks, right-wing watchdog NewsBusters.com, an offshoot of the Media Research Center, opens one health care-related article like this:

“As the media walk hand-in-hand with the Left towards their fantasy-addled government medicine Utopia, they routinely forget that there is another perspective out there as to whether or not the government should commandeer the nation’s private health care system. A perspective on which they, had they not already chosen sides on the issue, would (and should) be reporting.”

The author immediately jumps into mocking the competition, ostracizing the other half, turning off the rest to a plan that may not be all bad. News Busters seems to be confused about its own focus—how does this other coverage act impartially? It does not seem so. Many of the headers under health care search results from News Busters has some negative connotation or makes a dig at the liberal media. In surveying both websites, it appears the biased media (liberal or conservative) is the great white whale and the watchdog groups stand as the haunted Captain Ahab.

News Busters and the Media Research Center also responded to a public poll regarding health care satisfaction, concluding that the media must stop portraying the health care issue as a “crisis.” However, News Busters’ summary of the study downplays the actual statistics; they claim the study “finds that 84 percent of Americans, including 46 percent of Americans without health insurance, are ‘very satisfied’ or ‘satisfied’ with the health care they currently receive.”

The actual wording of the study suggests more of a need to reform the current system, though it does not take sides on the issue. The paragraph most at odds with what News Busters tries to portray is as follows (emphasis added):

“Key survey findings included that 84 percent of those who are currently insured are satisfied with their health care. For those without insurance, only 46 percent had some level of satisfaction with their health care.”

The study goes on:

“Almost 80 percent agreed that rising healthcare costs are hurting American businesses. An expanded role for government in health care is opposed by 48 percent of Americans, while 44 percent support it. Forty-six percent of respondents agreed that a public plan is needed to ‘keep insurance companies honest.’”

Had News Busters decided to publicize the actual study, rather than issuing an editorial statement (since when are they a news agency?), they would have been able to create skepticism about the coverage by presenting alternative viewpoints. Instead, they end up joining the refrain of conservative news outlets.

Both websites would have more effectively served their readership (and their mission statements here and here) if they had followed the footsteps of another blogger and done some outside research.

Package Deal: The “About Us [and our contributors]” Tab

Neither of the websites analyzed claim to be unbiased—how could one when your masthead promises something like “Exposing & Combating Liberal Media Bias”? Like a scientist, both websites are seeking a variable, analyzing data and news coverage, seeking evidence of something heretofore intangible. Mark Watts, et al, asserts that these “these ‘theories’ or ‘media schema’—which include evaluations of media credibility, comprehensiveness, negativity, and power—are often incomplete and misinformed.”

It is important to point out that in the website’s banner the logo for another right wing media watchdog, the Media Research Center, sits alongside the bold News Busters title.  A reader may not immediately draw the connection, or even know of the other website’s existence, but the fact that a relationship is displayed so prominently suggests a feeling of teamwork. In News Busters’ About section, they identify themselves as a project of MRC. So why have a separate website? It seems that the watchdog falls into the general media structure—one umbrella organization, fractured for smaller niches and presenting what seems, though similar, somehow separate from other perspectives. In practice, the website just becomes a repackaging of the same information and views.

Rather than the lonely watchdog, aligned with no one and working independent of allies and group agendas, Media Matters and News Busters take outside funding and may select or twist facts to present a certain image—the very method they promise to expose in the biased medias (conservative or liberal, respectively) they investigate. Funnily (or ironically, perhaps even sadly), the two websites dedicated to presenting opposing views on news coverage employ the same tactics. Media Matters and News Busters structure their articles to point out errors in the other side’s arguments, attempt to discredit their sources, and often forget to report the truth in the attack.

Concerning  political issues, even the primary sources can carry partisan biases. The prompt asks if the fact checkers need to be fact checked. Perhaps the better question in reference to U.S. health care and proposed health care reform is: are even the “facts” true and accurate? Unfortunately, skepticism of government and media is more a necessity for survival than mere distrust or paranoia.

In “Pay No Attention to the Media Behind the Curtain,” author Paul Waldman describes journalists’ ongoing quest for the metanarrative, the overarching issue driving the story. These two supposed watchdogs would have done well to investigate the actual points of the health care bill and contrast that to what their biased subjects were reporting. Rather than expose and reduce (note, not combat) bias by framing their coverage in context of why politicians and talking heads criticize or promote the health bill, Media Matters and News Busters fail their promises by adding fuel to the partisan fires. It is petty, not trailblazing.

If we were to try to find a balanced message between these two extremes, the only one I can find is: you don’t want to join ‘em, just beat ‘em at their own game. As Julia said in class on Monday, if your job is the watchdog, you should be watching, not joining. In the end, is there a difference between being a lapdog and an attack dog?  The truth is not even a factor, and I still do not know anything about the health care bill or reform in general.

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