Ideology and the Media
June 20, 2006
The aim of debate should not be victory but progress.
Since co-founding Watching America, I have become increasingly sensitive to the relationship between the power of ideologies in American society and the shortcomings of the American media. Much is made outside these shores about the U.S. media as being all style and no substance. When the twin towers fell, I was in Taiwan, watching the coverage on cable. The graphics that accompanied the footage were over-designed, the sound effects explosive, and the words that flew across the screen were loaded almost to the point of being prescriptive. Perhaps I am too much of a staid Englishman, but none of that packaging has anything to do with collecting information or deepening anyone's understanding of a complex issue; instead, the packaging is "info-tainment," appropriate for an audience that doesn't need information to form opinions because they have ideologies to do that for them.
Every day, stylized TV commercials of American news anchors make them look tough, honest, challenging, contrarian ... and so on. Doesn't this offend anyone? If the delivery of news does not reasonably attempt to touch on all the subtleties of an issue, then it really doesn't matter who's giving it to us. Promoting the look of a news anchor is like putting a good paint-job on your car to make up for its lack of wheels. Moreover, isn't anyone expressing their discomfort with the very idea of being "sold" news anchors and news shows in promos? Brits like to joke about the American immunity to irony - but it doesn't come much better than this.
Worst of all, when the anchors actually get to the news segment, they generally just recite a one minute factual statement of the news itself as if any global issue can be fully conveyed in a minute followed by ten minutes or more of commentary and opinion.
Europeans might cynically say that the American format is to do as little investigation as required to enable two or more ideologically divergent pundits to respond. But then again, Europeans are used to 20 minute investigative pieces that divulge their sources, accompanied by informational graphics, followed by a discussion that involves people who work in the field of the issue, rather than people who are paid to take sides.
It is important to keep in mind that commentary and opinion are not news. The mode of presentation used by most American news shows featuring more commentary than fact is all the more dangerous when it leaves the viewer thinking that he's got all of the information about the issue because he's heard more than one perspective. Don't take my word for it: just read the foreign press on the issue of the day that most interests you.
In so many of the issues "debated" in the American mainstream media, which side of a particular issue is right or wrong is often much less important than the lack of demand for impartiality and thoroughness in the presentation of the facts. Presenting two opposing views does not mean that an issue has been fully covered. More often than not, the real issue is hidden in the assumptions of, or fundamental points missed by, both sides. (The immigration debate is a perfect recent example. My attempt at exposing a specific example of this pervasive problem is here.) Therefore, the only people who benefit from this kind of "coverage" are the people who already have sides to take not those who would like to form an entirely new opinion based on new understandings.