Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Quick Thoughts on 'Balance' and Wingnuttery

So this morning I heard NPR quote without argument the idea that the tea bag protests were "populist outrage" at government spending. And of course, I dispute that idea--if there was so much populist outrage at government spending, where were these people back in 2004 when Howard Dean ran on a platform of among other things, returning to a balanced budget, while Bush was racking up record deficits?

The populist anger welled up because people who are struggling to pay the rent were watching their governments pay billions of dollars to the same companies that caused the recession that was making it hard for people to pay the rent.

The press has a long history of simply ignoring protests or, when they do cover them, making them sound like they're a few nut jobs who hate America. So when Fox News decided to cover the tea bag protests and legitimize them, the other news stations responded--even the hosts, like Olbermann and Maddow, who live to discount the junk spewing from Fox wound up oddly legitimizing the protests by talking about them. People who were pissed about bailouts suddenly heard their anger reflected--but deflected from the plutocrats who richly deserved it onto Obama's budget, which would, among other things, give those people struggling to pay the rent a tax CUT.

Where does balance come in? Well, as Jay Rosen pointed out, "he said/she said" has long been a substitute for actually finding out which side is telling the truth. And Digby noted that the press also uses the lack of official voices making an argument as an excuse not to cover the argument--hence the usual coverage of political protests not legitimated by an Establishment political figure.

So when Republican Congresscritters jumped onto the tea parties as a way to seem in touch with the people, the protests gained even more legitimacy, and news stations were "forced" to cover them. Now they're news! Politicians are there! Look, Rick Perry wants to secede!

And so suddenly protests that were populated mostly by John Birchers and Ron Paulies and people generally opposed to the very existence of government are being covered as if they're seriously representative of the opinions of half the American people. "Balance," right? We have to cover all the people's opinions!

Except the relative loudness (and in many cases, well-fundedness) of certain voices doesn't mean they actually represent large portions of American people.

But if you have enough money and elected officials, you can get any view into the sphere of legitimate debate (to cite Rosen again). Meanwhile, the actual left-wing equivalent of the tea party protesters are more like the few anarchists in any crowd of protesters, and protest movements full of average people (and far larger than the tea parties) are ignored or only covered when violence breaks out.

Basically, this is a perfect storm of the problems with the press: pack coverage leads mainstream journalists to follow the lead of Fox News, of all ridiculous outlets. Ideals of "balance" lead journalists to cover these protests far more than they actually deserve relative to how many people actually attended them. "Official" voices serve to legitimate wild, outlandish ideas. (Secession! Could you imagine if Deval Patrick suggested that Massachusetts secede?) And of course, money talks. Left-wing anti-government types tend to also be opposed to corporatism, while right-wing anti-government types seem to have no problem with mass corporate rule.

And so we have a situation in which a very narrowly held view suddenly is being discussed constantly, while very widely held views (like the idea that we should actually investigate the torture regime of the Bush administration) get ignored.