Bruce et al v. Gore and Al Jazeera: Why the sale of Current is undeniably a good thing for any neutral observer

Imagine my surprise when I checked Twitter last night to find that “Al Gore” was trending, considering I happen to follow him and he hadn’t really tweeted all day. Then imagine my surprise to click it and find the headline:

Al-Jazeera in talks to buy Current TV

“Huh”, I think. “That’s interesting, and makes a bit of sense. It’s not too different from when Al Gore bought the old NWI network in the first place – effectively inheriting existing distribution deals. Al Jazeera has made zero inroads at penetrating the American market, while beIN Sport has been more successful, for certain definitions of “successful” (scroll about halfway down), suggesting their reputation might not necessarily be a deal-breaker given the right circumstances. It’d be interesting to see what sort of a splash Current could make with Al Jazeera’s financial and journalistic resources.”

Then I see the actual tweets:

I wonder how @algore is going to spend all his oil money he received from selling Current?

Is it me or does it seems like prominent climate activists (Matt Damon & Al Gore) seem very happy to take money from oil rich Arab nations.

Inconvenient Truth: Environmentalist Al Gore sold out to oil money, did so just in time to take advantage of tax benefits for the very rich

Al Gore is trending because he just made 100 million dollars from the oil he’s been railing against for the last couple decades.

Needless to say, this pretty much mirrors the reaction of the conservative blogosphere (along with accusing Gore of trying to push a deal through before tax hikes kicked in, ignoring the larger liberal justification for high taxes on the upper classes).

Alright, let’s set the record straight here. Oversimplifying Al Jazeera to “oil money” sells them short quite a bit, and accusing Gore of cashing out without regard for his principles seems to overlook the broader picture. First of all, on a basic and obvious level, Al Jazeera first became a dirty word for Americans with their release of Osama bin Laden’s tapes, so they have a history of running afoul of Republicans, making them and Al Gore good bedfellows. But more broadly, it highlights a sort of journalism it’s impossible to imagine today’s American “journalists” ever pulling off. As much as simply hearing the name (or even the “Al” followed by a word that triggers spell check) can cause some Americans to instinctively retch, Al Jazeera’s record really is top-notch; specifically, it’s clear that Al Jazeera isn’t a lapdog for Arab oil sheiks, given their record of reporting on the Arab Spring and other rebellions in the region, suggesting the prospect of a surprisingly smooth transition for Current, as Gore would himself point out. Given the state of American “journalism” these days, perhaps we could use Al Jazeera to show everyone how it’s really done.

It’s true that Al Jazeera is in fact owned by an Arab oil sheikh on behalf of the ruler of Qatar, but that brings us to the next point: as much as the oil-rich nations of the Gulf get rich off of selling us the fuel we need to power our cars, and as much as OPEC tries to make sure we continue to do so, they’re also well aware the oil river won’t run forever and have invested heavily in developing their countries to be economic powers even beyond their oil production, which news-watchers saw hints of in the Twitter-fueled response to the disputed 2008 Iranian election, and later in the more tech-savvy elements of the Arab Spring. In Qatar’s case in particular, said ruler has presided over, besides the launch of Al Jazeera, the institution of women’s suffrage, legalization of labor unions, and the introduction of a written constitution and Christianity; it’s hard to find another Arab nation quite so Westernized, certainly not one that hasn’t had Americans push “regime change” on them. (They’re still too small and hot to host a World Cup, though.) Admittedly, it has long been the single most polluting nation per capita in the world, but it’s easy to see that dropping faster than most other Arab nations.

It’s also true that Al Jazeera will be shuttering Current’s current (heh) format in favor of more of a straight news channel, bolstering the image of Gore abandoning his principles when someone comes calling with a multi-billion-dollar check. But it’s worth noting that since Gore bought NWI, MSNBC has become the liberal news channel Gore originally hoped to build, rendering Current superfluous; Current essentially lucked into taking up Gore’s original vision when MSNBC fired Keith Olbermann, but it was never going to measure up to MSNBC, certainly not after firing Olbermann itself. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gore had eventually sold Current to someone else for less. If anything, while Al Jazeera’s apparent plans to create another clone of its usual operations are noble, they might well betray a lack of understanding of the American news market, where people would rather hear people complain, preach, and bicker about the news than actually report it. At the very least, I’d strongly urge them to avoid the “Al Jazeera” name, which might well still be a poison pill for most Americans, if not for the name itself then certainly for its “foreign” connotations. (There’s a reason BBC News has a very limited American presence; indeed upon learning of the deal, Time Warner Cable couldn’t drop the channel fast enough.)

Discounting such questions on the wisdom and practicality of the matter, this court finds the prospect of a somewhat widely distributed network run by Al Jazeera to be a cause for unbridled hope for those fearful for the state of journalism on American television, assuming Al Jazeera can properly appeal to the American market. Given this, and given the long-term prospects of Current in its current form considering the rest of the marketplace, the court finds that despite unsavory appearances, there is no reason to believe that Gore’s sale of Current was done without regard to his own stated and personal principles, but rather was done out of genuine appreciation of their vision for the channel, and indeed the court suspects Gore would actually prefer their vision but was pessimistic about its practicality when he originally made noise about a liberal news channel. While he cannot be let completely off the hook for effectively selling to the ruler of one of the dirtiest countries in the world, the court has reason to believe that Gore can justifiably claim that it is not a betrayal of his own cause. This court rules in favor of Al Gore and Al Jazeera, with some reservations, including serious lingering ones regarding the timing of the matter vis-a-vis new tax rules.

Understanding the News: Ignoring the Day of Reckoning

Note: As this was heavily edited down from a post three times the size, I’ll issue another post greatly expanding on this one.

On January 8, 2011, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner shot US Representative Gabrielle Giffords in the head during a meeting she was holding with constituents near Tucson, Arizona. Although Loughner was a mentally disturbed man who held extreme views on all sides of the political spectrum and paid more attention to conspiracy theories than anything that could be called “news”, the shooting came as a shock to a country deeply divided between left and right. Attention turned to a map made by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in the lead-up to the 2010 midterm elections showing candidates in vulnerable districts targeted by crosshairs.

People on both sides called for bipartisanship, civility, and toning down the political discourse, and later that month at the State of the Union Address, congressmen of both houses sat in the chamber regardless of political affiliation, breaking with tradition. Even Keith Olbermann, who arguably was one of the standardbearers of the division of the political discourse on the left, apologized for anything he may have ever said that might have been construed as supporting violence. Later that month, Olbermann’s MSNBC show, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, was abruptly cancelled.

Did anything result from all the calls for bipartisanship? Not really. Other than Olbermann, the same figures are the most public representatives of left and right, and I see no evidence any of them have changed their MO. Radio host Laura Ingraham recently expressly rejected another call for unity from President Obama, and another radio host, Mike Malloy, suggested that the Navy SEAL team that took out Osama bin Laden should have taken out George W. Bush instead. And I found these incidents from, respectively, Media Matters for America, which had a column calling Obama’s haters “deranged“, and Newsbusters, which called one recent claim of radio host Randi Rhodes “lunacy“. Even Keith Olbermann will restart Countdown on Current TV next month – and it’s worth noting that the breakup with MSNBC may have been in the works ever since Olbermann was suspended the previous November for donating to Democratic congressional candidates.

In my view, the left seemed more self-aware about their sins than the right. While Olbermann fell on his sword, no comparable conservative figure shared the same fate that I know of (with Glenn Beck’s Fox News program only being cancelled in April). While Olbermann apologized for any perceived sins, Palin – from whom one could have drawn a more direct line to the shootings in Tucson – refused to take any responsibility and instead attacked the media for allegedly jumping to blame the right for the attacks. In the end, the left’s reluctance to play the same game as the right only came out as a win for the right – one side pulls the conversation as far right as they want, but the other side is too reluctant to do likewise. I’d like to think it wouldn’t take a conservative figure being shot to shock the right out of their complacency, but I’m not sure if even that would work. But if an assassination attempt can’t bring “red America” and “blue America” together, what can?

Tribalism is a natural result of the human experience. We like to think that we’ve risen above tribalism, but we merely live in bigger tribes today, and smaller sub-tribes among them. One of the most important aspects of any group of people are the moral precepts and core beliefs holding the tribe together. These core principles are at the heart of the tribe’s identity; they allow its members to identify other members of the tribe, beyond those they personally know, and they serve a more practical purpose in keeping the tribe together by creating social controls against those who undermine the rest of the tribe. These controls, and the principles themselves, can have nasty consequences. Anyone who disagrees with a group’s core principles will not remain a member of that group for long.

So it is that our two great political persuasions have purged themselves of heretics and seek complete purity. The other side is pure evil; it is the enemy; to even consider it for a moment is to introduce an impurity. When these core beliefs are held in unanimity, they can be self-reinforcing, and as such they are often deeply held, thought to be self-evident, so now the enemy becomes stupid too, if not outright liars; after all, aren’t our positions so obviously right? At this point, they have become fundamentally religious beliefs, so deeply held that those who hold them cannot make any decisions, cannot even function, if they find themselves forced to throw them out.

In the case of our two great political persuasions, it is thought that the course of action most in accordance with these core beliefs is always in the best interests of America, in every situation and on every issue, regardless of whether or not it contradicts other beliefs they claim to be just as core; to claim otherwise is an absurdity, a heresy. Regardless of what they may claim their principles to be, both parties will sacrifice their principles to support their true clientele. Republicans will always seek the best result for corporations, while I suspect there is some truth to the Republican cariacture of Democrats as not-so-closet socialists.

To make matters worse, the media – Fox News, MSNBC, and major radio companies such as Clear Channel, but all the media to some extent – have gleefully exploited and furthered the political divide. By providing mass outlets for those who would drive each party further into the fringes, they further legitimize such extreme positions and in fact make the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann instantly mainstream. That it is eminently understandable (outrageous positions attract attention and ratings) does not make it any less shameful.

The media are responsible for the divide, and they have a responsibility to put that divide back together. In previous posts I’ve mentioned my frustration with CNN for trying to stand in the middle rather than on both edges, and specifically that letting Jon Stewart shame them into cancelling Crossfire was a mistake. But while that’s still important, I now suspect it’s doomed to failure without more sweeping changes, because the divide is now being driven by forces outside the media, and there’s probably no convincing Fox News to stop furthering the divide.

I don’t know anymore how to really begin healing the divide, or even stopping its growth. It will take a humanization of the enemy – a realization that there are real people who are persuaded by the other side, and they aren’t all misled or delusional – a recognition that we are all Americans who have to live with the people and ideas of the other side; a recognition that politics is not some sort of zero-sum game where the only goal is to “win” but something with real consequences; a sober assessment of our values, what they mean, why they’re desirable, and when they can be too much of a good thing; and above all, it will require a recognition that the partisan gridlock now afflicting Congress – a natural reflection, and microcosm, of the division of the country – is preventing us from moving forward.

I’m not sure if either side really wants to do any of this, and I’m not sure how to get them to – our political persuasions are so entrenched it seems impossible to pull them out of the trenches. But something needs to be done… or else I fear the shots that were fired near Tucson will prove to be the first shots of a new civil war.

An Emergency Summit between Left and Right

If last year’s health care debate and the rise of the Tea Party movement have shown anything, it’s that the 2008 election was not the messianic defeat of conservatism that many on the Left hoped it would be.

The Left saw itself as putting firmly to an end the abuses of the Bush era, the capstone of the rise to power that started with the 2006 takeback of Congress. I felt, and I suspect many on the Left did as well, that with Obama in power and a Democratic Congress, the “progressive” agenda could be pushed forward, and if it worked, it would kill the Republican party for a generation. Obama received one of the largest electoral vote wins in history; Democrats won a nearly filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. The people had given the Democrats a mandate to pursue their agenda however they saw fit, and had firmly repudiated the conservatism of George W. Bush.

It did not work out that way. The Democrats received pushback. Obama struggled mightily to get anything at all passed; the country remained mired in the recession; and far from being killed, Republicans started beating the Democrats at what used to be their own game, marching and demonstrating. Now Republicans look likely to win seats, if not control, in both houses, and many on the left claim that this happened because the Obama administration wasn’t leftist enough. One wonders if the best thing for the Democrats would be to lose the White House and be marginalized almost to the point of irrelevance in Congress to force the Democrats back to their base and their own Tea Party-style movement.

What actually happened was that the Democrats put too much stake in politics. They felt that if they just elected enough of the right politicians they’d bring a “progressive” heaven on earth. We just needed to defeat the moneyed corporate forces trying to destroy our future. But there are actual conservatives out there, actual people listening to the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and they aren’t just misled by misinformation being spread by Big Corporations. The Left has claimed that the Tea Party is nothing but a big astroturf movement by moneyed interests, but at this point it’s difficult to see that as anything more than a tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory. After all, it’s taken aim at fellow Republicans, defeated GOP favorites in the primary, and made the claim that they lost in 2008 because they’re not rightist enough. The final Democratic triumph won’t occur until it sees the conservatives beyond the corporate boardrooms and recognizes their grievances and the forces behind them. At the same time, the Republicans need to realize that there are real Democrats out there, and they aren’t all misled by the liberal media – both sides need to realize that neither side is dominated by lunatics. After all, many of them have taken to the blogs in much the same way Republicans took to talk radio 20 years ago, and one of their complaints is that the media is if anything conservative!

And ultimately, the media is at the heart of all of this, accused of liberal bias on one side and conservative pandering on the other. I once tried to read both Media Matters for America and Newsbusters and came away with the idea that the media is just plain incompetent. Sure, everyone – including journalists – has an opinion, but why can’t the media simply report the facts as they are? Why can’t the mainstream media simply report all the relevant facts and leave them up to the reader’s interpretation, the way Fox News’ slogan claims – give us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? After years of being pilloried by left and right, how could the mainstream media still be biased?

The short answer is that your definition of “truth” is dependent on where on the political spectrum you lie. There will always be another fact you could have added, another study you ignored, and then some of the facts and studies you did cite may be misleading and just plain inaccurate. Every “fact check” you perform is showing bias in favor of the side you come out on. And then if you try “investigative reporting”, even in the past you had to choose where to send your resources, and then you’re effectively choosing entire stories that could show a liberal or conservative bias. And then on the flip side are those potential stories left behind, and no matter how radical or ridiculous the story sounds, if you refrain to report it it will ironically give the story more credibility than if you had reported it: “See, the mainstream media is covering up this story!” This is how we got 9/11 truthers and Obama birthers. The mainstream media could do a better job of bringing up these fringe theories the moment they come up and decisively squashing them, laying out all the evidence, but then one side will say you’re “legitimizing” the fringe theory (the fear that has been the mainstream media’s problem in the past), while the other will say you’re showing bias by presenting the “opinion” that the theory is wrong “uncritically”, which proves the first side right by legitimizing the theory.

And so the media can’t win. And in a landscape where the media can’t win, the winners are those places that are telling them the media is wrong in the first place. If you can’t trust the media, you can trust the partisan echo chambers known as talk radio, blogs, Fox News and MSNBC. Each political persuasion now has their own media, independent from each other and from the mainstream media. It is now possible to cocoon yourself and only expose yourself to those media that present a viewpoint that meshes with your own, that tell you how obvious it is that you’re right, how those big bad people on the other side want to ruin everything, and how the media are hiding the truth and coddling them. Party politics in this country is taking on almost religious connotations, with many of the same aspects of worldview, explanation, and reassurance – and it may be becoming literal, if Glenn Beck is any indication. (It would help if there were more than two political parties, but as Ralph Nader has proved, that’s difficult to accomplish as is, and the status quo arguably reflects one of the oldest divisions in the country, North and South, and maybe one of the oldest in the world, haves and have-nots.)

It becomes a vicious cycle: The partisan machine says mainstream media is biased, so you need to get your news from partisan sources, and that feeds the partisan machine. And the end result is that we now have two factions that are increasingly not speaking to each other – indeed, they increasingly can’t even understand each other. How can they? Admitting the other side might be right about something is a win for them. If they so much as claim that the risks of your position aren’t worth the benefits, you need to raise the stakes, ramp up the risks of their position, lest your followers potentially give in to the enemy. So every issue becomes an apocalyptic battle for the future of America. (On the plus side, no one now plausibly says there’s no difference between the parties.)

And not only are the mainstream media throwing up their hands and giving up on resolving the divide, they’re profiting on it and making it deeper. Complaining about the divide fills up time on political talk shows, but very little is done to do anything about it. CNN profited off the divide for a time by hosting Lou Dobbs’ rhetoric; MSNBC, where Keith Olbermann was once an anomaly, has now decided to plunge headfirst into becoming the liberal equivalent to Fox News, virtually matching if not exceeding Fox note-for-note in pundits with talk shows. Nowhere is there any serious effort in any of the three camps to bring the warring parties back together, to expose them to the other side’s views both on politics and the truth and give a reality check, to start a real conversation on common ground.

CNN tries to be nonpartisan. I think it would be better for the political discourse if it were bipartisan. I actually didn’t like it when Jon Stewart went on Crossfire, lambasted it, and led to its demise – that was one of the few places where left and right could come together and have their respective ideologies meet. In my view, the failure of CNN to see the true character of the political discourse in this country is reflected in its attempt to revive that format, Parker Spitzer. I saw an episode last week and saw a show where the hosts’ differing political ideologies seemed like a coincidence. It was a genteel setting where the hosts mainly engaged in roundtable discussions of high-level issues. There was very little effort to play left and right against each other, or even to represent them. Even in the opening segment, where each of the hosts presented their “opening arguments”, they basically agreed with each other that Obama needed to defend himself better. It’s like the show is living in a completely different universe than the rest of the political discourse, and not in a good way.

Defending the show to Richard Viguerie, who had expressed how unconvinced he was as a conservative about the show’s goals, Eliot Spitzer claimed that CNN was interested in fairness and balance, but it was also interested in the truth. That, to me, is the failing of the show. For many, Obama being born in Kenya or 9/11 being an inside job is the truth. If CNN really wants to correct the political discourse in this country, it needs to dwell on the fringes. I don’t want to see a debate between Kathleen Parker and Eliot Spitzer; I want to see a debate between Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann, Sarah Palin and Al Sharpton, Michelle Malkin and Michael Moore, Rush Limbaugh and Markos Moulitsas. And I don’t want it to be a cable version of Charlie Rose, I want it to be a political version of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption. I once brought up this issue in a class and was told that, precisely because of the religious fervor and diverging worldviews of each side, it could lead to nothing but the sort of shouting matches that Stewart criticized Crossfire for – neither side would really get anywhere because they wouldn’t be arguing from common premises and couldn’t argue to the other side’s values, so they’d just go around in circles repeating themselves.

I don’t believe that’s the case, and I know that because I myself have found myself agreeing with or at least understanding conservative positions online, despite my own liberal leanings. In fact, while most people seemingly believe whatever they encounter first, I find myself agreeing with whatever I read last. I’ve found myself getting very self-conscious about my own liberal leanings when I read something from a conservative point of view, and worrying about whether or not I really am ruining America. Unfortunately, people like me seem to be few and far between, and they’re getting fewer and farther between. In reality, I suspect they make up the majority of Americans, but most of them just don’t hold strong positions, don’t feel strongly enough to speak about it, and are turned off by the shouting that goes on by the people who feel strongly enough to speak up. And I’m not terribly optimistic about the potential for Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity to bring them out of the woodwork. (Especially when whatever serious message may lie behind the comedy is undermined by the parallel “March to Keep Fear Alive”, and especially when several in the media paint it as a “progressive” response to Glenn Beck’s rally, taking part in the breakdown of the political discourse instead of trying to fix it.)

Unlike a lot of people, I don’t believe we’re becoming a nation of two colors, red and blue, with completely different cultures that can’t understand each other. I certainly hope that’s not where we’re going, or it could lead to another civil war. However, we could get there if the current political discourse is left unchecked, so I’m using my understanding of both sides to force an intervention, one more substantial than the Rally to Restore Sanity. Over the next few days I will attempt to explain the basic credo of both left and right – but the political discourse has fallen far enough that I don’t believe it’s sufficient to merely explain but also to defend, and it’s not sufficient to defend, but also to actively attempt to persuade. I will attempt to promote the political ideology of the left in an appeal to conservatives, and attempt to promote the political ideology of the right in an appeal to liberals.

I’m going to lay my biases up front: As someone with liberal leanings, I am more likely to do the left justice than the right, and I am more likely to show a comprehensive understanding of liberal values than conservative ones. Note also that in order to properly appeal to each side, I would need to follow up on things said while defending that side – to argue one side to the other, I’d need to appeal to the other side’s values, which I would have established while defending that side – so things may seem a little disjointed. I’ll then attempt to find some sort of common ground between them, to the extent there is any, and use this framework to look at various issues in the political discourse.

I like a la carte too, but let’s not get too excited.

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a bit of a debate raging on a la carte television – allowing you, the cable television consumer, to pay for only the channels you’re actually interested in watching. Consumer groups like it, because it saves the consumer money, but the cable channels don’t, because small cable channels would be more likely to find an audience if cable companies pushed them on companies. But really, the large cable channels would be hurt more than the small ones, because channels most people find useless, like Oxygen, wouldn’t be picked, saving money for smaller channels people might have more interest in. That would reduce the resources of all of cable and possibly swing some of the cable channels’ advantages back to broadcast, as well as make niche networks, appealing to niche markets, more viable.

But to claim, as this blog did in July, that it would completely revolutionize the news and sports industries?

It’s become mandatory to have cable if you’re a sports fan, and a la carte would take away a significant portion of the revenue stream for the sports networks that gives ESPN an unfair advantage over the broadcast networks, but to say it would end journalistic botches like the Roethlisberger scandal? To say it would force the news networks to become actual news networks instead of partisan machines? MSNBC and Fox, and to a lesser extent CNN, play to partisan crowds because partisan shows like those of Keith Olbermann, Bill O’Reilly, and Lou Dobbs get ratings that straight news doesn’t. You’re saying that, even though more people watch the partisan shows than straight news, more straight news people would order the news channel than partisan news people? That’s a bit of a leap of logic, especially since the media’s turn towards partisanship encompasses more than just the cable news networks, being the order of the day on the Internet. (Wait, isn’t one of the big selling points of the internet choice? Isn’t that what this guy wants? Doesn’t this mean a right-winger could order Fox and leave out CNN and MSNBC entirely?) A large portion of Howard Stern’s audience may have left him when he went to satellite radio, but to say that what’s popular in “cable TV socialism” is completely different than what would be popular in a la carte makes no sense, especially since there would be no alternative.

Honestly, I think the horse has left the barn on the changes this blog post wants, which might have happened had the government never imposed “socialism”, but not now. To say ESPN would have a lot of its power taken away might have made sense before 2005 or even last year, but with the BCS and Monday Night Football now in its pocket I think there are enough people desperate enough for those two things, and more besides, that they’re willing to fork over enough for ESPN for it to still be a powerful force. Sports fans are a notoriously passionate and desperate bunch. And to say that fixing cable would fix the news networks makes no sense at all, and in this day and age, where our partisan discourse (which is slowly creating a real “two Americas”) is reinforced by the Internet and with the news networks entrenched in their ways, I doubt it would lead to significant movement.

Besides, any debate on the role of television, broadcast or cable, is probably missing the larger point (hinted at towards the end), that it’ll all be swept under the dustbin of history as the Internet comes in within a decade or two. And while I suspect when that happens, broadcast and cable “networks” will become largely obsolete and sports entities will produce and distribute games themselves, all evidence suggests ESPN will still have its popular website and the partisan discourse on cable news will continue unabated on the Web.

Now how imposing a la carte and moving to the Web would affect entertainment, now that’s a question worth asking…

I hope this is anywhere near as good as what I was going for.

If it seems like there isn’t anyone it seems like you can trust these days, that’s probably because there isn’t anyone it seems like you can trust these days.

Once upon a time, most Americans got their news from a handful of sources. There was your local paper (which probably got its national news from the Associated Press or similar), there were the network newscasts, maybe newsmagazines like Time or Newsweek, and that was the definition of what was going on in the world today. Today there are more places to get news than you can shake a stick at, from local news to talk radio to CNN to MSNBC to Fox News to blogs to other Internet forums to just people in the street. It’s a bewildering array of news choices.

Once upon a time, a few suits in New York determined what Americans would talk about each day. Until conservatives in the 1980’s started finding a liberal bias in what they reported, most people took this system for granted. Now there is no news monopoly, no news oligarchy. If you want to find out about voting irregularities in Ohio in 2004, you can. If you want to find out about the case against man-made climate change, you can. If you want to find out about the happenings of the Joe McLonewolf party whose only candidate is its namesake running for mayor of Nowheresville, Montana, you can.

But all this has made it a lot harder to at least have the idea that you really know what’s going on in the world, at least if you’re not setting out to be a partisan hack. Will you get your news from Fox, or from CNN? Will you get your news from the ABC station, or the CBS station? From Rush Limbaugh, or from NPR? From Huffington Post, or Drudge Report? From Talking Points Memo, or from Town Hall? Or will you drive yourself insane by trying to take something from all of the above? You don’t need to know every single detail of what’s going on in the world, at least theoretically, but the new conventional wisdom is that you can’t trust anyone to decide what’s important. Best to just take it all in, even though no one has that much time in the day.

But wait! What happens when different sources contradict each other? Frustratingly, you will rarely hear any of Talking Points Memo’s claims debunked at Town Hall (or vice versa), you’ll just see its very existence torn down. If someone says everything is going great in Iraq, and someone else says Iraq is going into the crapper, which is right, or how right is each claim? There are groups that publish exposes of inaccuracies, distortions, and omissions in the media, but a) they are ALWAYS partisan (and often more concerned with bashing their target than actually critically examining it and acknowledging where it might be right) and b) they focus exclusively on the mainstream media. These organizations are either lefty and complaining that the media is biased to the right, or righty and complaining that the media is biased to the left. Read the two in unison, and you get the sense that if the media is anything, it’s just plain incompetent.

Seriously, after years of being pilloried by the right til the cows come home and seeing conservatives drift over to Fox News and the like, why on Earth would the so-called “MSM” still exhibit left-wing bias?

It’s been said that having certain preconceived notions simply comes with the territory of being human, and that “bias” is inevitable. It’s also been said that in response to complaints of media bias, the media started publishing all claims no matter how specious and started presenting every debate as having two sides, even if it’s an evolution-v.-creationism debate where every last shred of evidence favors one side. Maybe people who watched ABC, NBC, and CBS were more likely to vote for Kerry because those three networks were in the tank for him; maybe it was because honestly looking at the facts of what was going on in the world would suggest Kerry was the right man to vote for. I wouldn’t be able to say if the media has reacted like that or if it’s to the extreme often suggested. Certainly cable news has essentially become a series of shoutfests driven by ideologues who draw immense cults of personality around them, embracing partisanship rather than getting rid of it.

I would suggest, though, that in addition to legitimizing illegitamate viewpoints, point-counterpoint debates may make it harder, not easier, to escape charges of bias, because if one side is seen as “winning”, obviously you didn’t make the other side strong enough. It couldn’t possibly be that if both sides were as strong as they could be the first side would be shown to be correct.

I do know for one thing that regardless of whether the mainstream media is biased or even incompetent at what it’s trying to do, it’s not entirely blameless. The media has been slow to react to the new proliferation of voices and in many cases only pays lip service to the Internet and its allies – launching web sites and “I-Reports” or whatever they call their user-generated video with one hand while snickering at nerds-in-the-basement-bloggers the rest of the time, feeling that they’re not really all that popular and beneath their notice. There really isn’t much of a reason why the “mainstream media” needs to be separate from the Internet, strictly speaking, why it shouldn’t cover the same stories and discuss the same issues that people online are debating, even if they sound like the deranged rantings of a crazy person. Especially if they sound like the deranged rantings of a crazy person, because thanks to the Internet, they won’t go away if you don’t lay the smack down.

The media’s quest for journalistic integrity and sourcing is in many ways something that’s sorely needed in the… non-mainstream media, for lack of a better term. If the blogosphere concerns themselves with correcting the MSM, maybe the MSM can concern itself with correcting the blogosphere. 2004-election-stealing conspiracy theorists, 9/11 truthers, (in 2004) Swift Boaters, and the like may want the media to look at their claims and publicize them, but I suspect that if the mainstream media actually did investigate them they would lose much of their popularity. And the media would do a more effective job at losing their accusations of bias than their recent efforts have been capable of. In fact here’s an idea: Let’s take the most far-out, extreme lefty you can think of, pair him up with the most far-out, extreme righty you can think of, and have them hash out any argument they may have, bombarding each other with points and evidence, until one side is throughly decimated and both sides become more sane.

It was thinking like this, several months ago, that led me to launch Truth Court (okay, maybe the actual announcement was only a month and a half ago) after reading True Enough by Farhad Manjoo, proposing an initiative that would look at every shred of evidence at both sides of a factual debate and attempt to come to a coherent worldview or conclusion, if not by me then by someone else. At one time I had been considering also starting a new feature, possibly after the elections, that would take all the hot posts from the top blogs on all sides of the spectrum and unite them under a single post so you could see what all sides were talking about, which might encourage cross-pollination of information. Right now, I’m thinking I’m not going to do that – and that Truth Court may be becoming less necessary – for two reasons. One, the election will almost assuredly change the paradigms on all sides of the political debate, especially if Obama wins.

Two, the media itself is starting to shake into a new paradigm, taking to heart some of the suggestions I made above. People in media are starting to realize that they threaten to be overtaken by blogs and “new media”, that the Internet and talk radio is not beneath their notice, and if they aren’t, they should soon. The Edwards scandal may have largely shaken the mainstream media out of what complacency they may have had, by creating an easy base for accusations of liberal bias and generally embarrasing the media for getting scooped by the National Enquirer and following a policy of “the blind leading the blind” thereafter. And more importantly, it gave a preview of what could have been the media’s future of irrelevancy and pariahhood.

That the media called around looking to fact-check and get to the bottom of Sarah Palin’s qualifications and McCain’s and Palin’s statements caught some commentators by surprise and got them wondering if the press is finally serving the American people in the way they always should have. The recent popularity of “fact-check” segments is also an encouraging sign as well. Quite a few people on the left see the Bush years as the dark years that, they hope, Obama will pull us out of. It’s somewhat fitting that the red state-blue state meme was started after the 2000 elections, because we may finally be pulling out of the dark years of barbaric partisanship as well.

Newsbusters v. Kilpatrick et al: Part II of the Truth Court announcement

After subscribing to Media Matters and Newsbusters, I’ve realized – or rather, re-realized – an insight that may come across as novel.

The battle over media bias has three sides, not two: conservatives, liberals, and the media itself.

The problem is, the two political sides merely conflate the media with the other side, and see no difference between them. Conservatives simply see the media as part of the vast left-wing conspiracy, and liberals see the media as simply being an arm of the right. But the media is worse: it doesn’t see itself as part of the battle at all, or rather, it sees the battle as an altogether different battle with “new media”, with bloggers and the Internet, and ignores some of the reasons why people may not be following them onto their own new media platforms. The media goes after the wrong enemy without realizing that many of the accusations of bias are within its own pages – hardly “new media”. Because the media doesn’t fight back against the actual charges and goes after a strawman instead, someone reading Media Matters and Newsbusters dispassionately might be led to believe that the media isn’t tinted to the left, right, or balanced; it’s just incompetent.

I should add that in order to truly reach that conclusion, you’d have to add another liberal blog, because Media Matters only goes after specific instances of “conservative misinformation”, while Newsbusters attacks at any perceived slight, no matter how minor. For example, Newsbusters has been attacking the MSM’s coverage of Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s troubles for allegedly not labeling him as a Democrat, when they would be so quick to label him if he was a Republican! Hmm, could that have something to do with the mayor of Detroit being an officially nonpartisan position? Could it be that if they had called him, say, “Detroit’s Democratic mayor”, as Fox News did, they would actually be inaccurate and would come in for an even heavier pillorying from the left? Newsbusters itself has found enough exceptions that it makes me wonder if the rare cases of being quick to label Republicans as such that they cite are themselves exceptions… though I’d need more information to verify that for certain.

Farhad Manjoo (of True Enough fame, remember) appears to be one of the few to recognize that the left and the right are really putting forth two sides of the same coin. One of the studies he cites in True Enough (page 154) concerns an incident in Lebanon in 1982 and the reaction to news reports on the incident by students at Stanford – one pro-Israel, one pro-Arab, and one neutral group. Predictably, the partisan groups believed the news was biased against them and towards the other side, likely to turn viewers against their own side. What did the neutral group think? Funnily enough, they didn’t see any bias one way or the other. It would seem to be evidence that, at the very least, the news could in fact be perfectly fair and balanced.

But it’s unlikely to convince partisans in the United States who would just see it as evidence that the bias in the news is “subtle”, even subliminal. Even if the neutral group didn’t see bias, didn’t even claim to favor one side or the other more than before, that’s just because the media tries to hide its bias because they know people want a fair and balanced account. In reality, the media is sowing the seeds so that when people hear something closer to the truth, closer to what the partisans know is true, they will dismiss it because “well, what I heard on the news was…” Certainly the fact that Newsbusters is on the lookout for such minutiae as whether a politician’s party is identified – which would be, if a crime, one of omission – would seem to support this idea.

But consider that conservatives have been hammering the media for having a liberal bias for decades. If people are abandoning the MSM for blogs because of all the bias they see in it (a claim often voiced in Newsbusters’ comments), if polls show that media bias is a bigger problem than worship of the almighty dollar in campaigns, if operations like Media Matters and Newsbusters exist to call them on any perceived slight the instant they show one and shame them for thousands, maybe even millions, of readers to see, why, the media would be absolutely foolish to show any bias whatsoever. There should be less media bias than at any time in history.

But not only do Media Matters and Newsbusters still have plenty of targets, the exact opposite has happened: The mainstream media has become more biased, even blatantly so. Fox News is the most obvious example (and it’s telling that Newsbusters sometimes calls Fox “fair and balanced” with a straight face), but CNN (ex. Lou Dobbs Tonight) and MSNBC (ex. Countdown with Keith Olbermann) have more than their fair share of partisan screeds disguised as news too. Even the seemingly balanced shows on cable news tend to be debatefests between pundits and/or party surrogates. (As I’ll explain in a later post, it’s possible that if anything, these debatefests are too tame, as though their contestants were politicians running for office and chasing the center. Give me a strong, popular extreme righty against a strong, popular extreme lefty anytime.) Perhaps this trend – that to avoid charges of bias, the media has made them come true – suggests that the problem was never that the media wasn’t balanced, but that it was too balanced. (That said, the fact that liberals only recently have taken up the media bias cant may suggest that the media was once at least slightly tinted to the left. Or it could indicate, as the title of Arianna Huffington’s book suggests, that “Right is Wrong”.)

But trying to be balanced to everyone is too much work. Say a study comes out that says a bunch of stuff about offshore drilling but doesn’t come out one way or the other. But if you don’t report on the study, the next time you do a story about drilling Newsbusters will hammer you for not reporting on the study that proves how far we could drive down oil prices and declare our oil independence by drilling (ignoring that the report shows Republicans arguing exactly that, albeit not citing the study). So you report on the study, only to find Media Matters accusing you of ignoring that the same study shows drilling would actually do nothing to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and would cause three species of marine life to become extinct. If you’d said the study had said that, Newsbusters would accuse you of purposely misrepresenting the study, so you have to present both the liberal conclusion and the conservative conclusion. And now both sides are accusing you of putting forth a partisan spin on the study “uncritically”…

What I’d like to see, then, is a blog defending the media from accusations of bias from both sides, enough of an insider to be privy to the discussions deciding what gets printed and how, but not so far inside the MSM that (s)he would be subject to some of its quirks like, say, not talking about the John Edwards scandal. The media doesn’t need to become what the news would look like if partisans ran it. It doesn’t need to see the enemy as this amorphous “new media” that’s just out to destroy it. We don’t even need to see a clear distinction between old and new media, and the fact that bastions of old media like the Los Angeles Times and ESPN have started sponsoring forays into blogging is evidence of that. It just needs people to credibly say, “no. We’re right, you’re wrong, and here’s why.” It needs someone to explain to Newsbusters why it won’t identify Kwame Kilpatrick as a Democrat (or why it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t), to Media Matters why it won’t report how closely John McCain has followed President Bush, to the right why it didn’t pursue the John Edwards story (and why it did pursue the affairs of Republicans – and even if more Republican infidelities are reported than Democratic ones, that may have more to do with the fact that Republicans are the party of “family values” than with any liberal bias), and to the left why it didn’t look more critically at the case for war in Iraq, and to sit through both sides’ rebuttals and patiently counter-rebut those.

Maybe no one in the mainstream media wants to put up a blog responding to the accusations of partisans. And maybe they don’t have to. Barring that, I’d like to see someone put up a site that employed both liberals and conservatives looking for bias from the mainstream media – but also looking for inaccuracies and shortcomings and distortions from Media Matters and Newsbusters and even its own analysts, and not just those but the entire conservative and liberal blogosphere. Its slogan could be “Keeping the media honest… and the people who watch them.” Or something like that. If blogs are the new place to get the news, surely they need a Media Matters or Newsbusters just as much as the mainstream media does. If I’m right, and the media itself is just as much a side in the debate as the left and the right, then it logically follows that it needs its own Media Matters or Newsbusters to keep the other two sides in check.

Or would that just be accused of being just as biased as the mainstream media itself? Newsbusters’ apparent decision to write off any explanation the mainstream media give for ignoring the Edwards story as “making excuses” suggests it may be. Still, if the consequenses otherwise are the “death” of the mainstream media made very real, replaced by a bunch of partisan outlets not speaking to one another, perhaps all sides would be better for a serious dialogue. Or rather, trialogue?