Phony balance, manufactured conflict: The media just confuses the truth

By feasting on controversy and focusing on the trivial, the media misinforms us about policy and misserves us all

Published October 5, 2013 2:30PM (EDT)

Sean Hannity, David Gregory, Wolf Blitzer
Sean Hannity, David Gregory, Wolf Blitzer

Excerpted from "Informing the News"

Reporters are drawn to conflict, as is the news audience. “Everyone loves a fight” is how one scholar put it. With “he said, she said” journalism, reporters don’t have to wait for conflict to erupt. Fights can be arranged by soliciting opposing views and playing them against each other. Fights can also be orchestrated through the old-fashioned process of selection, as political scientists Tim Groeling and Matthew Baum discovered in their study of newsmakers’ appearances on "Meet the Press," "Face the Nation," and other Sunday morning interview programs. Although these newsmakers talk mostly about their policy goals and only occasionally attack their opponents, their attacks are what get reported on the Sunday night newscasts and in the Monday morning papers.

To be sure, newsmakers are the ones doing the attacking. But journalists are the ones who decide which statements will make it into the news. A study of candidates’ stump speeches found that journalists largely ignore the candidates’ policy statements, which account for most of what they say, choosing instead to report the moments when they go on the attack. Another study found that more than 80 percent of congressional sound bites in the area of foreign policy are attacks on the president’s initiatives. A third study found that the minority party in Congress is largely ignored by the press except when the other party controls the presidency. Then, as a prime source of attacks on the president, the minority party gets as much coverage as the majority party.

At times, conflict seems nearly to be the point of the coverage. During the 2009–2010 health care reform debate, flash points like the “death panel” controversy so thoroughly dominated the coverage that key provisions of the bill, such as cost containment, escaped the public’s attention. High-profile issues are not the only ones to get such treatment. In a study of news coverage of the teaching of evolution in public schools, for example, Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet found that reporters “deemphasize the strong scientific case in favor of evolution and instead lend credence to the notion that a growing ‘controversy’ exists over [the validity of] evolutionary science.”

The greater the level of conflict, the bigger the story. The tendency is not absolute—there are plenty of times when cooperative efforts make news. Nevertheless, such developments typically take a backseat to conflict. Stem cell research, for example, seldom made headlines before 2001, even though breakthroughs in gene and bone marrow therapy were saving thousands of lives and promising to save millions more. Then, in 2001, politicians faced off over the issue of extracting stem cells from human embryos. In that year alone, the New York Times and the Washington Post carried 486 articles on stem cell research—more than they had published on the subject in the previous twenty-five years combined.

For its part, cable television feasts on controversy. When an issue lacks conflict, cable shows invite guests who will fight over it anyway. Sometimes, the host starts the fight. In late 2006, Chris Wallace, the host of "Fox News Sunday," invited former president Bill Clinton to be his guest with the assurance that Clinton’s global philanthropy would be a featured part of the interview. Wallace’s fourth question revealed that he had something more provocative in mind. Said Wallace: “Why didn’t you do more to put bin Laden and al-Qaeda out of business when you were president?” Clinton responded sharply, telling Wallace that his interview was a “conservative hit job.” “I want to know,” said Clinton, “how many people in the Bush administration you asked, ‘Why didn’t you do anything about the Cole [the navy ship attacked by terrorists in 2001]? Why did you fire Dick Clarke [the counterterrorism adviser who warned Bush of the likelihood of a pending attack on the scale of 9/11]?’” Within a month of the Fox interview, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer gave nearly the same treatment to Lynne Cheney, wife of former vice president Dick Cheney. Although the interview was ostensibly about a children’s book she had written, Blitzer grilled her on her husband’s role in authorizing the waterboarding of terrorism suspects.

Few developments more clearly illustrate the press’s zeal for conflict than the 2004 presidential campaign, when journalists spent weeks wading through distortions of John Kerry’s war record of three decades earlier. The claims of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth had been aired in locally televised ads and might have died there had reporters not turned them into front-page news. As the controversy grew, allegations about George W. Bush’s National Guard service, which had been heavily aired in the previous election, got folded into the dispute. The controversy petered out only when CBS News overplayed its hand, unwittingly airing a charge based on a forged document. By then, the controversy had received enough news coverage to rank it among the most heavily reported issues of the 2004 campaign—this at a time when Americans were worried about weakness in the economy and the deteriorating war in Iraq.

* * *

As political scientist Lance Bennett notes, “power” rather than truthfulness is the operative standard of “he said, she said” reporting. When a member of Congress tells a bald-faced lie and the journalist passes it along to the audience as a “he said, she said” controversy, what except deference to those in “power” explains the reporter’s decision? By conveying it, the reporter is complicit in the deception—the claim gets publicized and gains credibility as a result of being in the news.

The New York Times’ Jill Abramson says, “When you can name sources, you have a much more authoritative first draft of history than you do with one larded with anonymous sources.” True enough, if the named sources are playing it straight. In his weekly radio address of August 6, 2006, President Bush said that his tax cuts had “stimulated economic vitality and growth and it has helped increase revenues to the Treasury. The increased revenues and our spending restraint have led to good progress in reducing the federal deficit.” Bush’s claim was duly reported even though experienced reporters must have known it was false. Bush’s own Council of Economic Advisers had earlier announced that the tax cuts were not paying their way.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel argue that there is no excuse for reporters to transmit false claims without identifying them as such. Yet it happens regularly, sometimes because the reporter doesn’t have the time or knowledge to sort out the truth and sometimes because the reporter wants to avoid the appearance of taking sides. Either way, the objective reporting model absolves journalists of their part in the deception. As Stanford’s Ted Glasser put it, objective reporting is “biased against the very idea of [journalistic] responsibility ... Objectivity requires only that reporters be accountable for how they report, not what they report.”

The objective reporting model, writer Gaye Tuchman says, is “a strategic ritual” that protects journalists “from the risks of their trade.” It’s far less risky for the journalist to report “Senator Smith said ...” than to pounce on Senator Smith for what was said. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank got frozen out of the White House press corps after writing a front-page article that carried the headline “For Bush, Facts Are Malleable.” Although some reporters are willing to jeopardize their access to high-ranking sources by challenging them openly, they are the exception. Says UCLA’s John Zaller: “It would be more accurate to say that journalists are never afraid to say what other people [say] is true.”

No recent example illustrates the point more clearly than the news coverage of the lead-up to the Iraq War. So much has been written on the subject that little needs to be said here except to note how skillfully the Bush White House steered the message. On the evening newscasts, administration officials were the most heavily quoted sources. The president alone accounted for roughly one in every six quotes. Democratic officeholders accounted for only 4 percent of the total number—and this figure includes those who backed the president’s position. Antiwar protesters accounted for a mere 1 percent of the quoted statements—fewer even than those voiced by retired military officers. The most heavily quoted opponents of a U.S. invasion were Iraqi officials—the source least likely to sway an American audience. Newspaper coverage was similarly one-sided. Fourteen months after the invasion—by which time the Iraq War had turned sour—the New York Times publicly apologized for the unsubstantiated claims that had driven much of its prewar coverage. The Washington Post’s executive editor, Len Downie, also apologized for his paper’s one-sided coverage, saying it “was a mistake on my part.”

* * *

When attack journalism surfaced in the late 1970s, politicians were caught off guard. Why had the transgressions of the Johnson and Nixon administrations made all of them targets? “I feel like bait rather than a senior member of Congress,” said Democratic congressman Jack Brooks.GOP senator Alan Simpson’s response was equally defensive: “You come out of a legislative conference and there’s ten reporters standing around with their ears twitching. They don’t want to know whether anything was resolved for the betterment of the United States. They want to know who got hammered, who tricked whom ... They’re not interested in clarity. They’re interested in confusion and controversy.”

Faced with an increasingly hostile press, politicians then did what they’ve always done. They adapted. If journalists had changed the rules, they would learn to play by the new rules. They had done so in the 1960s, when pictures began to drive television journalism. If pictures were what the networks wanted, pictures were what the networks would get. Image making—“it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”—became the operative rule. However, the new game—the “he said, she said” game—was not about imagery. It was about words. And with the rise of party polarization, it was closer to word combat than to wordplay. “Warfare among elites, waged . . . in the name of causes, not compromises” is how Harvard’s Richard Neustadt described the temper of the new brand of politics.

Most politicians are not themselves experts in communication strategy, but their media advisers are. They have taught politicians the importance of staying on message, no matter how simplistic it sounds or how misleading it may be. “The cure for propaganda is more propaganda” is how Edward Bernays, the founder of modern public relations, described the tactic. Politicians have also been instructed in their choice of words. Opposition to taxes on large inheritances, for instance, rises sharply when politicians describe them pejoratively as “death taxes” rather than by their traditional label, “estate taxes.” Politicians have also been trained to find and exploit their opponents’ weak spots. “Find the wart; make the wart stand for the whole” is how one analyst put it. Politicians have also been taught that every issue is part of the larger competition for power. “The line between campaigning and governing has all but disappeared,” Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein write. Politicians have also been schooled in how to use talk shows, cable, and the Internet to amplify their messages. Republican lawmakers, for example, didn’t have to go far to obtain extra fuel for their attacks on the 2010 health care reform bill. Fox News was twenty times more likely than other networks to use the terms “socialism” and “Obamacare” in referring to the bill.

As politicians were folding these lessons into their communication strategies, a final question remained. Would journalists give voice to the clever labeling and mind-numbing repetition? Or would they expose them as gimmicks? As it turned out, journalists were inclined to do both of these things, which was good enough for the politicians. It meant they could achieve their main goal—getting their message into the flow of news.

Few examples illustrate more clearly the success of such efforts than the Bush administration’s skill at managing how its use of waterboarding was characterized by the press. A study of three leading newspapers—the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal—found that each of them had described waterboarding as torture during the period preceding the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They had called it torture when applied by the Japanese during World War II, by the Chinese communists during the Korean War, and by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. It was described this way in well over 80 percent of their newspaper stories prior to September 11, 2001. However, when it was discovered in 2005 that the U.S. government had used waterboarding to interrogate Islamic militants, these very same newspapers applied the label devised by the Bush administration: “enhanced interrogation technique.” Fewer than 5 percent of the waterboarding references in these newspapers described the practice as a form of torture.

Political leaders are not the only ones who’ve figured out how to manipulate the communication process. Early in the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, a blogger claimed that “researchers connected to Senator [Hillary] Clinton” had discovered that Barack Obama had attended a Muslim madrassa in Indonesia as a boy. The allegation quickly spread to talk shows and then to the news media. The attack on Obama was debunked within a few days, but the rumor that Clinton had orchestrated the dirty trick continued to circulate. More than a week after the story broke, ABC News ran an article on the front page of its Web site titled “Madrassa Madness: Was Hillary Behind Obama Smear?” As it happened, the allegation had been concocted by the conservative blogger who first posted it. Commenting on the incident in the Columbia Journalism Review, Paul McLeary said: “It doesn’t take a respected news organization to run a big-time smear campaign—all it takes is for the rest of the media to repeat the story, while neglecting to follow it up with their own reporting.”

* * *

The proportion of saints to sinners among politicians is probably not much different from the proportion in the general population, or among journalists for that matter. What’s different about politicians is their role. They are in the business of having to sell their ideas, which means that they’ll mold the facts to fit their goals. Any leader who stands idly by while others define what’s at stake in an issue is inviting defeat. The power to define an issue at the outset can be half the battle. Every leader, as Lippmann noted, “is in some degree a censor” and “is in some degree a propagandist.”

Some politicians are better than others at crafting persuasive arguments but spin has been a political tactic since ancient Greece. “The political orator,” Aristotle wrote, “aims at establishing the expediency or the harmfulness of a proposed course of action; if he urges its acceptance, he does so on the ground that it will do good; if he urges its rejection, he does so on the ground that it will do harm.” In his 2012 book, "The Righteous Mind," psychologist Jonathan Haidt illustrates the point by describing the role of a hypothetical White House press secretary: “No matter how bad the policy, the secretary will find some way to praise or defend it. Sometimes you’ll hear an awkward pause as the secretary searches for the right words, but what you’ll never hear is: ‘Hey, that’s a great point! Maybe we should rethink this policy.’ ”

Journalists criticize politicians for spinning their messages and dodging the tough issues. Citizens also find fault with these tactics. Yet journalists and citizens alike punish politicians who speak candidly or play the game poorly. In the 1984 presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Walter Mondale stuck his neck out by saying that he would raise taxes in an effort to bring the spiraling federal deficit under control. “Let’s tell the truth,” said Mondale in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.” Rather than plaudits, Mondale’s stance garnered him a slew of unfavorable headlines. “Reagan Ridicules Mondale ‘Realism’ ” and “Presidential Aide Scoffs at Mondale Tax Pledge” were among the “he said, she said” stories in the New York Times.

If politicians have no choice but to watch what they say, they are not expected to engage in outright deception. Yet that’s exactly what many of them have done in recent years, using misleading messaging to mask their intentions. The deceptions extend to the manufacture of issues. In Beyond Ideology, political scientist Frances Lee shows that congressional leaders have frequently introduced phony bills that are designed to create the kind of conflict that will catch journalists’ attention and mobilize core constituents. “Fight club politics” is how veteran Capitol Hill reporter Juliet Eilperin describes the tactic.

The fog of war that has descended on America’s politics includes efforts to confound the facts, a development that Jay Rosen calls “verification in reverse”—the taking of known facts and challenging them in order to create confusion and uncertainty. In his 2008 book, "What Happened," Scott McClellan, a real-life White House press secretary, tells of how he was instructed to mislead the press in the effort to win the public’s support for the Iraq invasion. “He [Bush] and his advisers confused the propaganda campaign with the high level of candor and honesty so fundamentally needed to build and then sustain public support during a time of war,” McClellan wrote. “In this regard, [Bush] was terribly ill-served by his top advisers, especially those involved directly in national security.”

* * *

By airing deceptive claims and pairing them with opposing claims, the journalist leaves open the question of where the truth lies. During the 2000 presidential election, a Newsweek writer dumped the question squarely in the audience’s lap: “Who gains [from Bush’s proposed tax cut]? Gore says that 42 percent of the benefits go to the richest one percent. Bush says the figure is only 21 percent. The truth lies in between; just where, no one knows.”

If the Newsweek reporter expected the public to sort out the figures, it wasn’t going to happen. Faced with contrasting claims, people tend to pick the more agreeable one, even when it’s factually less plausible—a condition that Lance Bennett calls “the democratization of truth.” Through a process that psychologists call “motivated reasoning,” people are able to process information in a way that allows them in some situations to believe what they want to believe. A study of news coverage of the long-term solvency of Social Security found, for instance, that exaggerated claims by GOP leaders resulted in an increase in the number of Republicans who falsely believed the program would soon “run out of money completely.” Similarly, a 2010 national survey found that a significant number of Democrats thought President Obama had cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, a view consistent with their personal desires but at odds with what Obama had done.

In an experiment designed to show the power of motivated reasoning, Stanford psychologist Geoffrey Cohen exposed self-identified liberals to two hypothetical news stories, one containing a proposal for a generous new welfare program and the other containing a proposal for a less substantial new welfare program. Half of the subjects read stories that presented the proposals without reference to their sponsors. This group of liberals expressed a clear preference for the generous program—the more liberal alternative. The other half read stories that included an endorsement of the skimpy program by Democratic leaders. Reacting to the endorsement, these liberals expressed a preference for the less substantial program—the more conservative of the two options.

Americans’ partisan loyalties are not always so determinative of their thinking. In some instances, the facts are simply too obvious to ignore. Opposition to the Iraq War, for example, rose among Republicans and Democrats alike as the human and financial costs soared. However, when the facts are less obvious and become the object of “he said, she said” partisan disputes, people often use party loyalty as a guide.

Global warming is a case in point. During most of the 1990s, a substantial majority of Republicans and Democrats accepted global warming as fact and believed human activity was driving it. However, after the Kyoto climate change agreement was negotiated in late 1997, global warming came under attack from the right, and Republicans’ belief in climate change began to waver. They didn’t have to look far to find challenges to the scientific evidence. A study found that conservative politicians, industry-funded think tanks, and other sources that claimed climate change was inconsequential or scientifically unsupported received the same level of news coverage in the mainstream press during the 1998 to 2002 period as did sources whose views were aligned more closely with those of the scientific community.

Although scientific evidence of climate change continued to accumulate after 2002, so did attacks on the evidence, as a study by Duke University’s Frederick Mayer revealed. When the climate change film "An Inconvenient Truth" burst on the scene, garnering an Oscar and the Nobel Peace Prize for former vice president Al Gore in 2007, conservatives fired back, claiming that global warming was a hoax concocted by environmentalists and government-funded scientists. The claim gained momentum when the hacked e-mails of four climatologists at the University of East Anglia suggested (wrongly as it turned out) they had manipulated data to strengthen the case for climate change. By 2009 on Fox News, the “hoax narrative” was outpacing the global warming narrative by nearly two to one. Overall, nearly 60 percent of Fox broadcasts included a message disputing the global warming thesis, whereas less than 20 percent of its broadcasts contained a message supporting the thesis.

Fox’s liberal foil, MSNBC, countered the hoax narrative with what Mayer calls the “denialist-conspiracy narrative”— the claim that the right-wing media were deliberately distorting the evidence in order to promote corporate interests. At its peak, this type of reporting accounted for half of MSNBC’s global warming coverage. For its part, CNN gave the hoax and denialist-conspiracy theories nearly equal time while granting more airtime to “he said, she said” disputes than either Fox or MSNBC. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer began a segment of "The Situation Room" by saying, “So is global warming fact or fiction? Let’s go to a debate. John Christy is professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama–Huntsville and Gavin Schmidt is a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.”

Other news outlets did not ignore these controversies but gave them much less time and space—indeed, the balance of their coverage had tipped in the direction of the scientific consensus. In other respects, however, they were still playing the “he said, she said” card. On the basis of a study of climate change economics, journalist Eric Pooley concluded that the news media “failed to recognize the emerging consensus among economists that cap-and-trade would have a marginal effect on economic growth and gave doomsday forecasts coequal status with nonpartisan ones. In other words . . . the press allowed opponents of climate action to replicate the false debate over climate science in the realm of climate economics.”

Offered a range of scenarios, Republicans and Democrats embraced different versions of reality. Whereas 86 percent of Democrats in 2007 believed there was “solid evidence” of climate change, only 62 percent of Republicans thought so. By 2008, the number of Republicans with this opinion had slipped to 49 percent. By late 2009, only 35 percent of Republicans agreed that the earth was warming and a mere 18 percent thought it was warming “mostly because of human activity.”

News exposure once served as protection against faulty beliefs. Citizens who followed the news regularly were more likely than other citizens to hold realistic views. It’s still true, but less so. A 2010 University of Maryland survey that examined Americans’ opinions on eleven issues—ranging from health care reform to climate change—found that “for some news sources on some issues, higher levels of exposure increased misinformation.” Newspaper readers were better informed than TV viewers, but that was not saying much. On eight of the eleven issues, 40 percent or more of regular readers misjudged the facts. On six of the eleven issues, regular readers were nearly as misinformed as other citizens, and on one issue—the budgetary impact of the 2010 health care reform law—they were the more misinformed group. In explaining the findings, the University of Maryland research team pointed to the inaccurate messages that now flow freely through the media system.

Excerpted from "Informing the News" by Thomas E. Patterson. Copyright © 2013 by Thomas E. Patterson. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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