Reading the New York Times over the weekend, I came across a story that neatly symbolized one way the mainstream media perverts the news:
Mark Leibovich has an almost self-reflectively parodic digression in his article on the Peter Orszag “scandal”:
“Everyone feels the need to say, ‘I’m really sorry I have to ask you about this’ and ‘I’m only carrying out orders from my boss,’ ” Mr. Baer said. (For the record: this reporter was only acting on orders from his boss.) And, of course, the Very Serious Media are not writing the Orszag Love-Child Story, they are merely writing about the media frenzy surrounding it.
The race to cover the scandal-of-the-day is one of the worst aspects of contemporary journalism – but the Orszag scandal is perhaps a fluffy variation of this dangerous habit. Where the danger lies is in how it affects political fortunes and policy. I am all for scandal-mongering about public officials – and invading their personal lives but only – as I wrote before in defense of indiscretion: “If the media wants to report on some lewd scandal, they can at least do their audience the favor of avoiding the hypocritical moral posturing and just revel in the tawdriness of it. It would at least be honest.” This faux-outrage – this sense that we must hold public officials to some imagined moral standard that has little to do with their actual job – is merely a crude excuse to allow “journalists” to cover tabloid gossip. Tabloid gossip is fun and interesting – but when it is always framed as a serious judgment on some public figure or policy – it disfigures the political conversation. You get the insanity of people claiming Bill Clinton is a bad president because he was an unfaithful husband. You get people trying to claim Tiger Woods held himself up as some moral role model when in fact, he just claimed he was a really good golfer. You get outrage over any statement deemed “insensitive” – from Harry Reid to Sonia Sotomayor to Trent Lott.
And much worse, when it comes to judging policies and legislation, journalists follow the same mentality – picking out scandalous elements at the expense of understanding what is going on. Death panels! Stimulus money going to “imaginary” (i.e. mistyped) districts! Emails from climate change scientists that “prove” it is a hoax! Bailouts to health insurance companies! Giant vampire squids searching for cash!
These stories are presented to the public as the story when in fact they are mere sideshows – hence the name given to the media-political atmosphere that arose under Bill Clinton and has remained until today: The Freak Show. This scandal-mongering creates reporting on policy that is entertaining but conveys a fundamentally limited view of what is actually being done and proposed. As Ezra Klein has pointed out:
[N]ewspapers work very hard to report things that are true, but they are less concerned with whether the overall impression from their reporting is a true impression.
The end result that we read day after day is faux-outrage presented without any perspective – with the citizenry being blocked from actually knowing what is going on behind the billowing smoke of scandal.