Two entertainers discuss the state of American news journalism
The great US Senator and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan once observed that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts”.
Moynihan died in 2003, which may have been a mercy, for it meant he did not see the full flowering of Fox News, Rupert Murdoch’s cable TV channel and fact-mangler nonpareil.
Fox News, now the most-watched cable network in the United States, is in the business of misinforming people. Don’t take my word for it, there have been academic studies which put facts to Fox viewers, asked if they believed them and measured the results. Here’s one.
But I can save you the reading. What it found was that in general, the more varied news sources people consumed, the more likely they were to have a factual understanding of the world.
There were, however, cases “where greater exposure to a news source increased misinformation on a specific issue”.
This applied to some extent to those who got their news and views from sources other than Fox, such as the left-leaning cable channel MSNBC, for example.
But no group of people was so consistently, stupidly, even comically wrong as Fox consumers. The more they watched, the dumber they got.
And the questions they were asked were by no means slanted. They were totally factual. On climate change, for example, the researchers did not ask “Do you believe in climate change?” They put the proposition “Most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring” and asked if it was true or false. Fox viewers were far more likely to think it true. They also were far more likely to think President Obama was not born in the United States, that their own tax rates had gone up when they had not, and so on.
Their level of ignorance is an enduring testament to Rupert Murdoch and the man he hired to craft the Fox model, Republican party propagandist Roger Ailes.
The troubling thing is, the Fox model of deliberate distortion, of purposeful polarisation works, and so it has been copied.
The above-mentioned MSNBC set out to be the progressive equivalent.
As partisan journalism has grown, fact-based journalism has withered, and people are less inclined to trust any journalist.
It’s reached the point where a number of surveys have found the most trusted commentator in America is not even a journo, but a comedian: Jon Stewart.
Which brings us to Wednesday’s edition of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, which featured a dummied-up image of Australia’s Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, as Joseph Stalin. There also were head shots of China’s chairman Mao, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In big letters across the front page it read: “These despots believe in controlling the press. Conroy joins them.”
Wow! What had Conroy done? Proposed some relatively mild changes to media law, aimed at preserving diversity in the media and making media more accountable for their errors. Far from amounting to state control of newspapers, it would simply give some teeth to the existing self-regulatory regime.
We might say, he’s a bit late on the former. As noted by the Finklestein inquiry into the media and media regulation – whose findings informed Conroy’s proposals – Australia’s newspaper market is by far the most concentrated among 26 developed nations studied.
Measured by circulation, Murdoch papers, of which the Tele is one, had 65 per cent of total metropolitan and national daily papers. Fairfax had 25 percent of all metro/daily circulation, and WA Newspapers had 10.
Australia was the only country where one owner controlled more than half of total circulation.
“With a share of 86 per cent, Australia also ranks highest by a considerable margin when considering the share of the top two companies,” says the report.
And, as is patently obvious to anyone who takes even a passing interest in the media, they all sing from the same song sheet.
There is precious little diversity among the Murdoch publications. Right now, for example, they are all dedicated to getting rid of the current government.
So let us ask again, which despot controls the media in Australia?
Anyway, as you might imagine, the Tele’s hatchet job was the talk of federal parliament on the day.
And in Question Time, the Liberals went in to bat for the media organisation that goes in to bat for them.
The usually-sensible Liberal communications spokesman, Malcolm Turnbull, asked a question, based on the Tele’s front page, so transparent in its “gotcha” intent as to be stupid.
He asked Prime Minister Julia Gillard if she considered the front page of the Tele would amount to a breach of standards under the proposed changes.
She swatted it away, saying it was not the role of politicians to determine. Outside Parliament, Turnbull also went way over the top, saying the proposed changes presented a “threat to democracy”.
Actually, the real threat to democracy is an uninformed electorate, as any number of thinkers from Thomas Jefferson to Winston Churchill to, I suspect, Malcolm Turnbull, have realised.
And as that study referenced above clearly shows, an informed electorate comes through media diversity, something sadly lacking in Murdoch-dominated Australia.
So, dear readers, the best media advice seems to be like the best dietary advice. Consume a wide variety of things. The odd Big Mac is okay, as is the odd bit of Murdoch. But too much of one will make you fat, and too much of the other will make you dumb.
(Photos: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images; Ella Rubeli/The Global Mail)