Current debates regarding journalistic bias ignore the larger issue: the extraordinary degree of incompetency, lack of knowledge, and carelessness of many journalists.
I loved being a journalist. I worked covering politics in all of its forms--local, state and national--and one of the things I loved the most about it was looking at the debates that occured on substantive policy issues. It always comes down to a collective decision on how we are going to perceive and address the issues that bedevil society, both writ large and small. Should the community build a new high school or renovate the current school? Should stimulous come in the form of tax cuts, spending or a mix of both (tax cust are actually passive spending). These decisions, as we are seeing played out today in the debate surrounding the stimulus bill have huge repercussions. The policies could fail or take the people being governed in new and excitinging directions.
Being able to report on these issues required not just understanding the policies being put forth, but an indepth understanding of education, constitutional parameters, the meaning of governance, economics, and every other little detail encompassed by these debates. I was able to do this well because I have a degree in political science that included not just an examination of policy and its impact on foreign and domestic issues, but also an in depth understanding of where our political system comes from--the larger philosophical issues that underpin our justice and economic systems, for example.
However, as I worked I found that the vast majority of the other journalists reporting on these same issues lacked any formal education in the issues they covered. This is not true of all domains such as health reporting (though a large number of these journalists lack degrees in what they write about), but it was amazing to see highly paid journalists covering matters of immense importance with only a limited understanding for the subtleties and nuance of the issues and policy implications.
A couple of stories stand out. I covered the NH primary in 2000 and after an event by Democratic primary candidate Bill Bradley I met a handful of the journalists riding in the bus with him (I did not ride the bus). Almost to a tee they moaned about having to cover the primary, which they viewed as something of a non-event. One in particular was really peeved that she was pulled from covering entertainment issues to ride around with Bradley.
After this and many more instances such as that it never surprised me that my coverage of the campaign diverged from what was being reported nationally. It was as if there were two realities--the one where things actually happened and the one that was reported. The culmination was the "surprise" victory of McCain over Bush. I and my other colleagues in NH that were doing our homework knew without a doubt that McCain was going to win the primary.
I would also add that after interviewing Bush a number of times it became VERY, VERY clear to me that he would be a disaster if elected. He showed no intellect, little understanding of the specifics of his proposals, and an off kilter mental state. I reported what he said accurately and included experts to evaluate his proposals, but was always amazed when other journalists referred to him as intelligent and thoughtful. Had they actually met him? Had they actually evaluated his proposals, which were mostly nonsensical? Did they have any basis of experience, education and knowledge to ask truly smart and relevant questions?
By contrast I remember a small press conference with Tucker Carlson (who I witnessed swear vehemently at a young intern at a small NH TV station), the lead reporter from the Boston Globe, a Washington Post reporter, and a few TV journalists (I can't remember the stations) after a televised town hall by Al Gore. During the town hall a member of the audience asked Gore how he felt about medical use of marijuana. Gore gave a very personal answer where he described the death of his sister from cancer and the suffering he saw her go through. He ended by saying that if marijuana could have helped eliviate her suffering, then it is something we should do for these very sick people.
After the show we were given the chance to ask Gore a few questions. Carlson and the other media elites honed in on the marijuana issue and ignored everything else he had said (most of which was very important and substantive). hey fired off at him asking if he was saying he favored legalizing drugs. Repeatedly (at least five of six times) he said of course not and reexplained that if marijuana can help sick people we should look into why that is so and replicate the beneficial effects. The media there completely ignored every thing he said and badgered him on this one issue until he finally gave up and walked away. The next morning these media people reported that Gore had suggested legalizing drugs.
I shake my head in profound sadness when I think how different our country and the world would be today had the media been as persistent with Bush and reported that his tax cut proposal include not one cut in taxes for middle income earners (people making $45k to about $95k per year). Who would have voted for Bush if they knew his tax cut literally was not for them? In one interview with Bush we went head to head on this issue with a number of people watching (Ari Fleischer, Karen Hughes, and a few others) and Bush became incensed when I pointed this fact out and asked him about it. He avoided me, yelled at me, and tried to evade it, but finally I got him to state straight out the truth of his bill, and I reported that not because I was biased, but because it was the truth. I then took a huge amount of heat for it, was attacked publicly and threatened professionally.
So now I see the media still operating this way. Obama naively, in his desire to transcend partisan politics, has handed control to people like Rush Limbaugh who are taking this very elemental mistake and using it to try and kill the stimulus bill. The very same thing happened to Clinton in 1993, but Clinton then quickly righted his course and took on the GOP to get things done. Now Clinton and his wife are accused of being divisive, overly tactical and partisan, but the bill passed and was an overwhelming success.
As I watch the media allow false and dishonest arguments become facts in the public consciousness and allow a handful of Republicans put their own ideological interests ahead of those of the American people I am reminded of everything I witnessed when I was one of these journalists. By merely focusing on the actual policy and by having an understanding of the stimulus effects of tax cuts combined with spending, which requires an understanding of the dynamics behind the Great Depression as well as the few recessions the country has gone through, people such as Rush Limbaugh would be put in their place. Unfortunately, the media simply doesn't seem to have that level of understanding for the dynamics that underlay the issues we face. Nor do they seem to care if what they report is accurate.
Causes James Buchanan Supports
Expanding health care in the US, ending war as a viable tool of foreign policy, and issues related to social justice in general.