Sunday, January 16, 2005

Media need to consider alternative realities

The problem for the media is they cannot get past their liberal bias. - Sailor

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Media need to consider alternative realities

By Thomas Bray / The Detroit News

It's not just big government that has trouble reforming itself. So do big organizations of any sort. Around my hometown, a prime example is the Big Three automakers, better known these days as the Struggling Two and a Half automakers. The Catholic Church's sluggish response to its sexual abuse scandals is another case. The latest to fall is Big Media.

The scandal over CBS News' attempted election-eve hit job on President George W. Bush is only the most recent sign. Two investigators asked to look into the case, former Associated Press chief Lou Boccardi and former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, took the Al Capone approach -- nailing the defendants on some technicalities. But lopping off a few midlevel heads, or the "retirement" of Dan Rather, won't solve the problem.

That problem runs deep, so deep that many of my colleagues in the business, for the most part well-meaning, talented people who truly feel a sense of public obligation, simply don't recognize it. It rests on their assumptions about the way the world works, assumptions that are widely shared in the nation's newsrooms and thus rarely challenged.

Assumptions are inevitable in the news business. Somebody must decide what's news -- and what's not. There isn't space, time or knowledge to cover everything. So editors and reporters have to choose the stories and facts they think are important. And what they choose is usually the information that fits some preconception of which stories are important.

Among these preconceptions:

• That compassion for the little guy requires government action and taxpayer sacrifice. Thus government must ensure welfare for the masses, ignoring the tendency of such programs to encourage overuse, abuse and community demoralization.

• That individuals are victims of large external forces beyond their control. Thus Bill Cosby is castigated by so-called civil rights leaders for "blaming the victims" when he is merely calling for parents to take personal responsibility for making sure their kids arrive at school ready to learn.

• That markets are irrational and destructive. Thus prices, profits and property rights are seen mainly as a means for creating ill-gotten gains for a few at the expense of the downtrodden, the environment and (see above) compassion.

Much of the media's world view stems from the New Deal/civil rights/Vietnam/Watergate era. The default mode is to seize on stories that buttress the argument for enhanced government powers. Insofar as the press still believes in its classic role of a watchdog on government, it's to worry about the use of American power abroad. Lest we stumble into another Vietnam-style quagmire, in this view, we should rely on multinational institutions to define our mission.

Just as Rather and producer Mary Mapes are still insisting that their story is true, even if they got some of the facts wrong, the top dogs at the networks and in much of the print media refuse to acknowledge that the world has moved on. They keep trying to stuff everything into the New Deal/civil rights/Vietnam/Watergate bag.

All of which helps explain the final, and most fatal, preconception of the media: that the public is incorrigibly stupid. How else explain public support for tax cuts, for welfare reform, for equal opportunity rather than racial preferences, for houses in the sprawling suburbs, for George Bush over John Kerry? Surely these couldn't be choices that an intelligent people would make. They must be made to see the error of their ways, even it requires taking a few journalistic shortcuts.

The public isn't always right, of course, and the old-line media aren't always wrong. But when an industry thinks it knows better than its customers what the story is, and consistently refuses to acknowledge alternative realities, much less vote after vote of the American public, it's in big trouble.

Thomas Bray is a Detroit News columnist who is published on Sunday and Wednesday. You can reach him at (313) 222-2544 and

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