A troubling logical fallacy grows more and more pervasive in our national media. When we speak of the balance myth, or of inaccurate reporting in the newspapers, or of lazy journalism, the fallacy of which I speak is present in almost every case.
The fallacy involves presenting empty facts in the place of real news. When I say empty facts, I refer to:
- the presentation of politicians’ statements or
- the presentation of tactical analysis of political actions
as newsworthy facts in and of themselves. We have all read newspaper article sections like this:
Mr. Egglesworth (D-US) said, ‘The Republican plan is dangerous and deceptive, and should be stopped.’
Mr. Foppershire (R-US) responded ‘Our plan is excellent and will surely enhance prosperity.’
Followed by the next section of the article. This is not news, or, to put it more clearly, this is not news that performs any meaningful function. The reader has no way of examinig the disparate claims in a meaningful context. Examples of the second type draw the problem into clearer relief. Sections like this:
The Democrats’ attempt to ban all widgets is a bold political move, given their minority status. Republicans, who have pledged to support the widget manufacturers in this dispute, have claimed that widgets are perfectly safe, and have accused Democrats of partisan politics. A victory, though, could lead to enhanced Democratic success in the upcoming elections.
In news of this nature, there is no meaningful analysis or research. Are widgets safe or not? The question lurks behind the reporting, never acknowledged or answered. Instead the reporter analyzes the possible electoral consequences.
While the above examples are fictional, these two types of fallacious journalism are happening all the time, and they represent a colossal failure of the news media. It is not news that Republicans and Democrats do not agree, nor is it news that passing popular legislation enhances electoral performance. It is the unacknowledged questions that represent the path to real, beneficial journalism.
To solve this problem, we must understand its causes. It seems to be conventional wisdom in circles on both the left and the right that the media is covertly committed to the opposite movement’s causes. To Liberals, the media’s behavior almost always appears to support the Republicans, while to the Republicans, apparently, the media seems to be unforgiveably liberal. I submit that neither of these is true. Rather, the media is a business in a competitive market. Newspapers must sell advertisements and copies, or they will not exist any more. Same for TV, internet, and radio.
From this point of view, the fallacy can be explained as an unwillingness to alienate readers, or an unwillingness to expend the resources necessary to investigate claims thoroughly, and to publish lengthy and, to many consumers, boring articles. This is the problem. Thus, while the unvarnished truth might benefit Americans in the long term, presenting it would injure media companies in the short one. So they do not.
A newspaper that fact-checked and reported on the unacknowledged questions over which they gloss every day would quickly be attacked as partisan and would lose circulation as a result. The media can only report things that are obviously true, or else things that reflect already received wisdom. Gone are the stories that once shook the foundations of tyrannical power. They have been replaced by pleasing and small stories that will sell copies and attract advertisements.
How do we convince these large companies that the truth still matters? That the unacknowledged questions represent the best hope for enlivened and accurate public debate? I do not know. I personally favor government financial support of the media. That’s why the BBC is often superior to the United States press. It would be important to make it very clear that this support did not in any way entail editorial control. Only by removing the profit motive can we change the behavior of these institutions.