Media Outlets Legitimizing Wrong

In the real world, if you do something wrong on the job, you are fired. If your rain forecasts always turn out to be sunny, you will be demoted. But in the news media, the more wrong you are on an issue, the more likely you are to be promoted. This Bizarro World in the news media has helped provide legitimate cover for hate and division in America’s public conversation.

Opinion in the country’s leading newspapers and on news shows is supposed to be informed opinion at the very least. A guy talking about climate change should be a climatologist or equivalent. Someone talking about war strategy should be ex-military or an appointed member of the Defense Department.

That makes sense because we all turn to news to help develop our views on the world. We turn not to “CSI: Miami” or “Glee.” However, news managers from Fox News to CNN to The New York Times have chosen to give readers drama, a he-said, she-said vitriol of endless spin where the more outlandish a person is, the more viewers they might bring to an industry clamoring for survival. It doesn’t matter if they are right. In fact, it’s even better if they are wrong, because it creates drama. Controversy. The media gets to talk about themselves and bask in the conversation like a popular kid in high school.

When Weekly Standard magazine editor William Kristol spoke about Iraq in the buildup to the war, he knew Saddam Hussein had illegal weapons. He knew the war in Iraq would lead to a wider war in the Middle East. Sure, Kristol was not the only one to say those things, but long before The New York Times hired him to write a column on foreign policy, the rest of us had already discovered that Iraq was clean. Kristol was wrong. His reward? He gets a column in a major daily. This greatly misleads readers who are not familiar with Kristol’s world view but believe he is legitimate by the very fact that he has a column in The New York Times.

The popular news programs and publishers, in a rush for an audience, have chosen drama over fact. In doing so, they have provided a platform for many viewpoints that have no basis in reality. The more divisive our media culture becomes by giving overwhelming and legitimate cover for politicians and pundits who have been proven wrong on an issue, the more divisive our politicians become as they try seeking approval from a mass of people that they, too, believe are dramatically split along party lines. And why wouldn’t they believe that? The New York Times is telling them so. Sarah Palin is telling them so on Fox not once in a while, which would be tolerable, but every day.

Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was right when she called out Palin for her target-shooting imagery on Fox. Palin said that the tea party candidates had to reload and go after that Arizona seat. But this is not Palin’s fault, even if she was partially aware of what she was doing.

Giffords’ alleged would-be assassin Jared Loughner was politically motivated. He distrusted and feared the government. We should not doubt that this emotionally deranged individual’s belief was made legitimate by powerful media outlets and the pundits they employ for getting it wrong.

Originally published in The Standard Times, a small daily in southern Massachusetts, on Monday, Jan. 17, 2010.

By Kenneth Rapoza:

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