Monday, April 11, 2011

Who Watches the Watchdog?

Note: This article is also my first post at Critical Thinking Applied, a group blog to which I'll be contributing from time to time. Its mission is "to show how critical thinking can be applied in a manner that enables polite, civil, and reasoned discourse on [social and political] issues," which, I promise, is a lot more exciting than it sounds—especially considering the ideological diversity of the contributors. In the future, I'll (usually) post only at one site or the other, but in this case a little cross-promotion seems appropriate to mark the occasion.

If I were asked to illustrate what's wrong with American political discourse in 60 seconds or less,[1] I'd probably talk about Media Matters and NewsBusters. They're the two best-known media watchdog groups in the country (in my estimation, by which I mean I did a Google search for "media watchdog" and they were the first two non-Wikipedia results), and both are founded on the absurd proposition that media bias is a one-sided problem. From their respective "about" pages (emphasis mine):
Launched in May 2004, Media Matters for America put in place, for the first time, the means to systematically monitor a cross section of print, broadcast, cable, radio, and Internet media outlets for conservative misinformation — news or commentary that is not accurate, reliable, or credible and that forwards the conservative agenda — every day, in real time.
In August of 2005, with the assistance of Matthew Sheffield of Dialog New Media, the [Media Research Center] launched the NewsBusters blog to provide immediate exposure of liberal media bias, insightful analysis, constructive criticism and timely corrections to news media reporting.
Both organizations are capable of—and frequently produce—meaningful, insightful analysis, but I'm increasingly convinced that whatever legitimate media watch-doggery they accomplish has more to do with basic probability than anything else. When your strategy for rooting out bias and misinformation is essentially to "expose" everything that appears to favor a particular side, you'll probably get one right every so often. It'd be hard not to.

But there's also going to be stuff like this, from a recent NewsBusters article (emphasis theirs):
In an argument which would make his ex-NPR colleagues proud, Juan Williams took to Fox News Sunday to push for tax hikes to reduce the deficit. Scolding Brit Hume, an exasperated Williams contended: "You're going on as if, 'you know what, we don't know in America how to help our own deficit problems.' We do. We just have to tax people."

Moments before, in assessing Republican Congressman Paul Ryan's expected plan on how to slow budget growth, Williams insisted "tax increases should not be off the table," chastising Ryan for, during an interview with Chris Wallace earlier on the show, rejecting a tax increase: "I don't know why it is that he somehow suggests the rich in the country have no obligation to support the country."
To recap, Juan Williams, a commentator known for having liberal views, appeared on a Fox News program and expressed a liberal view (which, by the way, he does on a regular basis, because he works for Fox News), and that view was immediately shot down. This might be the least convincing evidence of liberal media bias I've ever seen. In fact, given how Williams barely had a chance to defend his idea against its detractors, I'm a little surprised the same clip didn't show up on Media Matters as a sign of conservative bias.

While NewsBusters posts a ton of medium-length articles that assert conclusions based on flimsy (but rarely indefensible) logic and insufficient (but rarely nonexistent) evidence, Media Matters' content is something of a mix of lengthy, well-researched (albeit one-sided) analysis, and shorter pieces highlighting the various screwy things airing on talk radio and Fox News throughout the day. One recent post celebrating the end of Glenn Beck's TV show was simply a three-minute compilation of out-of-context clips of Beck saying and doing crazy things.[2] Another alerted readers to Beck's cryptic warnings about the upcoming "summer of rage." How is that bias? Or misinformation? Is it even information to begin with?[3]

I don't know, maybe I'm being too harsh—in principle, I'm all in favor of private organizations working to keep the news media honest—but I'm not convinced NewsBusters and Media Matters don't contribute more to the problem than the solution. Both claim to be committed to honesty and accuracy, but only on their terms, which is inherently unworkable. Even worse, they relentlessly promote the "you can trust us, but you can't trust them" mentality. They treat opposing media outlets—including each other—as if their default settings are dishonesty and misinformation, and in the process create an unsettling paradox, because they can't both be wrong.

Any thoughts?

1. Of course, the only scenario I can think of where the "describe something absurdly complicated in a minute or less" hypothetical isn't unrealistic is during a political debate, which, in and of itself, is also a pretty good illustration of what's wrong with American political discourse.
2. Would Beck's antics seem materially less crazy within the proper context? I doubt it, but that almost makes the lack of context worse.
3. Alas, I was unable (through moderate-but-not-extensive effort) to find a better example of what irritates me about Media Matters. I suppose it's to their credit that when they add commentary it's usually pretty good, but the problem is that much of what they "expose" is more in the realm of silliness than misinformation. They may not add commentary when that's the case, but merely posting the clip encourages the inference that it's representative of conservative-leaning media in general, rather than an outlier.

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