For brief moments I do occasionally forget that allowing grossly inaccurate assertions to sail by anchors and reporters without challenge like footballs past blind octogenarians is the media doing its job in the era of appearance of balance. But a CNN afternoon and evening devoted to interviewing every teabagger or Republican operative who hasn’t rejected television as inconsistent with the original vision of the Founding Fathers was a rude reminder of the consistency and prolificacy with which it occurs.
CNN now has a sleazy proclivity for utilizing sizable chunks of airtime during its “news” programming for the unsubtle purpose of promoting upcoming CNN shows or events. It’s one thing to run a promo; it’s another altogether to rig segments of a newscast or an entire program or an entire day as blatant promotion. A couple of words other than sleazy come to mind: shameless and unprofessional.
But that was only a small part of the problem yesterday when CNN spent much of the afternoon and evening talking to members of the “Tea Party,” more honestly known as the hardcore Republican base, and various Republican operatives in order to promote tonight’s CNN Tea Party Debate. It’s billed as being hosted by CNN and a hundred or so “tea party” organizations, but it’s just another in the eternal parade of nominating debates, in this case another two hours with the Republican presidential lineup of screwballs, along with lifelike corpse, Mitt Romney.
I should have actually tried to count the number of times some Republican mouthpiece claimed Social Security is “bankrupt”, “broke,” “insolvent” or “in trouble,” but I would have needed to watch the totality of the day’s “coverage” at the expense of my gastrointestinal tract and mental health. But in the period of time I devoted to watching this newsy promotion, it occurred repeatedly, as Don Lemon or another CNN patsy sat there like a potted plant (in fairness, Wolf Blitzer, Candy Crowley and NBC’s David Gregory among others have been guilty of the same thing).
One would think this misrepresentation would matter to persons designating themselves journalists, given that factually, Social Security is neither “bankrupt,” “broke,” “insolvent” nor “in trouble,” but rather its trust retaining an enormous surplus, the program able to pay 100% of benefits until the mid 2030’s at the earliest, or perhaps the 2040”s, after which, with no changes whatsoever” it would continue paying benefits in perpetuity at less than 100%, perhaps seventy or eighty percent. In fact rectifying for the demographic bump of retiring baby boomers requires no more than a minor adjustment. Yet, I heard no reference whatsoever to this set of facts during the entirety of my viewing time, nor as much as a request for an explanation of this putatively dire set of circumstances regarding Social Security from those asserting it, and act not so much as a cough when it was said.
Considering the importance of the Social Security insurance program to millions of Americans, its prominence in American life, and the fact that it has become a subject of contention among Republican presidential candidates one might think, journalistically speaking, accurate information not only is desirable but in fact demanded. Now that media organizations have transformed themselves into “neutral” enablers of lies for appearances sake, the latter being the reach of, “journalistic” concern now, the expectation of such requirements is moot.
Here’s how the bunco scheme works from the Republican point of view: a Republican consultant or politician knows the real state of Social Security, but repeats as often as possible that it is “broke” or “insolvent,” aware that Republican rank and file, as well as others not privy to the actual facts will accept what they have heard is true. Then, when Republican politicians say they intend to “fix” Social Security, and proceed to do so, in other words to end or diminish it for all intents and purposes, persons who otherwise would strongly object to such a course will say, “Oh, but this has to be done because Social Security is in terrible shape.”
The anchor or reporter doesn’t need to argue with the falsifying party; but they do need to provide the audience with accurate information. The guilty party may and probably will reject the accurate information and continue to lie; but at the least, inaccurate information is not simply accepted as fact by the audience simply because it has been accepted as such by the mute “journalist”. Journalists of any worth should be well enough informed about Social Security or any other major issue to interject facts and correctives as it is necessary. Failing to do so is journalistic malpractice.
And regrettably, the problem isn’t confined to our friends in television news. Yesterday, a report in a very good newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, committed a similar offense in an article entitled, “Floridians Contemplate Perry’s View on Social Security.” It quotes Marc Rubio campaign operative Alberto Martinez as saying, “They know Social Security and Medicare are going bankrupt.” A retired firefighter in Florida was quoted opining “It was a Ponzi Scheme from day one.” Nowhere in this article of approximately a thousand words is there a single mention of the actual state of Social Security, much less any clarification surrounding rhetoric about “Ponzi” schemes. That not only is lazy reporting it is an indefensible failure of reporting.
Though perhaps my standards are much too heavenly and idealistic, the foremost job, the foremost duty in fact of journalism is to accurately inform an audience and convey objective truth, if for no other reason than so the democratic process can function as it should: properly informed voters making properly informed decisions. When media decide instead that their foremost duty is to “appear balanced,” regarding all statements, assertions and positions as equally meritorious they have failed to properly perform their basic function; and when individual journalists are unprepared, incompetent or silently enabling the manifestly false, it not only is a failure of journalism it is a failure of democracy.