Who Watches the Watchers?
It's soap box time, boys and girls. Buckle up, strap it on, and grab some duct tape.
Yesterday showed us a pair of perfect examples of why the news media, particularly the alphabet broadcast and cable news networks have long since passed being reliable sources of unbiased--or even particularly well-researched--information.
A woman short-circuited in an airplane yesterday, causing a national terrorism scare. Or rather, she didn't cause a terrorism scare so much as the television news media did. Early reports were that she was carrying a screwdriver, a jar of petroleum jelly, and notes from al-Qaeda in English and Arabic. F-15s were scrambled to escort the plane off course to Boston's Logan Airport, and I'm sure they were prepared to blow it up if necessary. This is some pretty scary stuff, right? Hearing that right now, I would assume that the petroleum jelly was explosive and that the screwdriver was sharpened into a shiv of some kind. And that is, indeed, exactly what I assumed.
Unfortunately for the media, these reports turned out to be false. I say "unfortunately" because the actual details were far too mundane to make for good ratings, especially when News Story #2 broke later the same day (more on that travesty below). It was a 59-year-old woman from Vermont who had a serious attack of claustrophobia, was behaving erratically, carried a very suspicious handbag and can of soda to the bathroom, and had to be restrained. Oh, apparently she did have a screwdriver of some kind, so that part was true.
What I want to know is this: Where are these people getting their information, and what constitutes information trustworthy enough to be reported. Petroleum jelly and the al-Qaeda notes? That's not a mistake or a typo, those are extremely specific and completely unsubstantiated details that someone decided to report as news.
The here fault lies just as much with government and law enforcement officials, who reported the "details" bit by bit as they became available. I don't expect flawless reporting by officials or press, but I don't think it's unreasonable to believe that when major details of national stories are massively, massively incorrect, someone should have kept their mouth shut when they had information they knew to be unverified. Somebody somewhere along the line either lied or passed along unsubstantiated information, also known as rumors. I would like very much for my sources of information, both governmental and media, to care more about this than this morning's Associated Press seems to:
"There were different versions throughout the day from law enforcement and government officials on what Mayo was carrying on board the plane. But all quickly agreed that the woman and any items she was carrying were not connected to terrorism. " (link to AP story)
This was by far the less egregious of the day's two abuses.
After ten years, we appear to have a culprit in the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. From the Associated Press:
"John Mark Karr, 41, will be taken within the week to Colorado, where he will face charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping and child sexual assault, Ann Hurst of the Department of Homeland Security told a news conference in Bangkok.
'I was with JonBenet when she died,' Karr told reporters afterward, visibly nervous and stuttering. 'Her death was an accident.'
Asked if he was innocent of the crime, Karr said: 'No.' " (Hyperlink to AP story already invalid just five minutes after copying this.)
I was watching MSNBC last night as details of this break in the case trickled in one by one, as they are wont to do. On the phone was an officer from the Colorado police department that had been investigating the case since 1996. Asked to explain the connection between Karr's confession and the widely-reported "inside job" details, no footprints in the snow and the lack of evidence of a forced entry to the house, the officer made some corrections. What the media had never widely reported, he said, were that the sidewalks around the house were shoveled free of snow, and that there was indeed a broken basement window, evidence of possible forced entry. So an outsider could very easily have left no footprints on the shoveled sidewalk and broken into the basement.
Ten years into the case and I had never heard or read this detail, only vague reports strongly insinuating that members of the family were involved or at least complicit in JonBenet's murder. If Karr is convicted (far from a certainty; there appear to be some signs that he may be a compulsive confessor), I wonder how many news organizations will apologize to John and Patsy Ramsey, the girl's parents, for the international news stories implicating them and their son Burke for this heinous crime that someone else has now confessed to. I wonder what kind of reparations will be made to the family for completely ruining their reputations for a full decade. Whoops--mother Patsy died of cancer in June. Too late.
I have to admit that I had completely given up on this story. I just assumed we would never find out anything else. Frankly, I assumed, as many did, that the family had something to do with it and that there just wasn't enough evidence to indict anyone. Either that or that the muderer was off somewhere with the Simpson/Goldman killer, where they would watch CNN together and laugh. Then again, I also assumed that we would never see Elizabeth Smart alive again, so I'm probably not the best prognosticator in situations like this.
There's a part of me that wants to not care. Soap opera news stories like this, the most famous U.S. child murder since the Lindbergh baby, repulse me. I hate being dragged into this stuff. I hate that I'm being manipulated into following a news story with the same parts of my brain that wondered if Josh Lyman was going to die after being shot by white supremacists on The West Wing. Dramatizing reality like this makes reality less real; I'm absolutely convinced that it desensitizes us to real events in our own lives. I see stories like this on the news and my first reaction isn't "How awful for that family!" it's "Here we go again. Cue the carnival music."
Here's what I have learned is wrong with network news:
- The pressure to "break a story." It seems incredibly obvious to me that media outlets are diregarding previous generations' guidelines about verification before reporting information, all in the name of breaking a story. "It's a CNN exclusive!" "It's a Fox News exclusive!" "Breaking news, and we've got it first!" But honestly, who cares who reported it first, besides TV news moguls? In the Internet age, everyone has it within minutes of everyone else anyway. The only "exclusive" information that captures me at all is exclusive video, audio, or photography. So can we just take that extra couple of minutes to trace the information back and find out if it's more than a rumor?
- Abuse of semantics. The media seems to think that the umbrella of "sources say," or "officials are reporting that" is substantively different than "the facts are." It's the same argument that the entertainment industry makes in claiming that the glorification of violence in music, movies, and television don't affect audience attitudes and behavior. By that logic, the entire advertising industry is the biggest waste of money in human history. Domino's commercials make me want pizza, Samuel Adams commercials make me want a beer, NFL commercials make my heart rate increase with excitement about the Redskins' chances this year. Sad movies make me cry, happy movies make me smile, horror movies make me afraid. (Actually, horror movies make me turn the movie off.) We are designed to process images and respond to them, and repeating implications and possibilities cements them into the part of our mind that labels things as "facts." The semantics of news delivery do not absolve you of moral responsibility for the information's reception.
- Audience attention span. Along the lines of "Who cares who broke the story" comes this one, the favorite of politicians for centuries. Want to go completely crazy? Click here to see what war-opposing politicians said about Iraq and WMDs just a few years ago. Your heroes are not so courageous as they've led you to believe, folks. It doesn't matter how obvious the flip-flop is; they know you're only voting on what they said in the most recent television sound bites, and that you can't be bothered to research their actual voting records. Those in power know just how unlikely the American public is to call them on their inconsistencies. Incorrect, inaccurate, and irresponsible reporting vanishes from the public consciousness if you report your newer information as "exclusive breaking news!" loud enough and with enough repetitions.
- Massive and undeniable bias. Anyone who claims they are reporting without bias is a liar or an idiot. I suppose it's possible that they might be both. The big three and CNN are transparently liberal to varying degrees (I love how CBS replaced the so-biased-he-became-incompetent Dan Rather with Katie Couric, the only major voice more obviously left-wing than he was), and Fox is just as far to the right (fair and balanced my butt). Please note that I'm not actually judging anyone here. Bias is part of what makes us worthwhile as human beings, and it certainly informs us as investigators of the world around us. Denying it is just stupid; news networks should go ahead and label themselves. Then I might start trusting their coverage.
- No oversight. Who watches the watchers? Who is punished when false information is presented as fact, then revealed to be otherwise? The media is in the all-powerful position of having Constitutionally-protected rights but no balancing force to compel any sort of responsible use of those rights. What incentive do any of these organizations have to be careful, truthful, or selective? The answer is below:
- Advertising dollars. As if all of the above problems weren't enough, we have our sources of "information" beholden to multinational corporations who fund them through advertising revenue. I can't be the only person concerned about the trustworthiness of information sources who are trying simultaneously to make millions of dollars in profit. The profit will always come above public service, no matter what ethics anyone claims to espouse. History has shown us this time and time again; if saints and popes can be tainted by the love of money, why should we assume that mere reporters, editors, and executives are above reproach? It amazes me how many people don't trust their elected officials, many of who take massive pay cuts in the name of public service (as well as, granted, personal power), but they trust every word of Katie Couric, who makes more from a week of half-hour brodcasts than most of us will make in our lifetimes. Understand that I am not talking about intentional corruption, but just as advertising and art affect us in ways that defy logic, being beholden to paymasters also changes us in mysterious ways.
But this whole post is, frankly, entirely useless. I have no solutions, because I believe that there are none. It is in our nature to be flawed and selfish, and there is no reason to assume that change can come on an industry or societal level when change on a personal level takes a lifetime and can only be done with the help of the Creator of the universe.
It's just that the news really ticked me off yesterday.
My blargs are usually funny. I apologize for the seriousness of this one. Here's a small laugh for you: Today I learned that "al-Qaeda" translates into English as "the base." When they find Osama bin Laden, and they will, how much do you want to bet one of the soldiers tells him "All your base are belong to us?"