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Does the Truth Even Matter Anymore?


When I'm out and about, I'm often hit with complaints about the media in general, its various actual or perceived biases and how often we seem to get the facts wrong. There's certainly some fairness in such criticism and far more often than I'd like to admit, I wind up embarrassed by things that occur in my industry.

Much of the problem revolves around shrinking newsrooms and investigative resources, compounded by an expectation that editors produce more copy from less people, who are themselves charged with a host of additional responsibilities from editing their own copy to promoting their work via social media outlets.

The digital wind tunnel has also created a seismic shift in the way news is produced. Once upon a time, news outlets would use their platform to drive the narrative – to investigate, explore and expound on issues it deems most critical to informing its readership. Increasingly, they are responding to that echo chamber; monitoring trending topics on search engines and sites like Twitter and then creating the news that the target readership has already anointed important.

That's a monumental about-face in the way we think about news and a classic case of the tail wagging the dog. But it's not just the subject that news outlets tend to chase, it's also the perspective. Increasingly, readers and viewers can expect to have their own biases confirmed by simply tuning into an outlet that will reliably present a certain, predictable narrative.

That narrative is then reinforced by layers and layers of sub-sources, each one with less accountability than the one above it. Quite frequently, I receive forwarded emails from readers who claim to have discovered damning evidence that has been being hidden from them by the evil and biased media.

Why won't the media cover this? I am asked countless times each week. Almost without exception, the answer is the same: Dear sir or ma'am, because it's not true. Here are some links to sources which will demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that what you've presented as news, in fact hasn't happened. Thank you for reading.

Their response is also almost always the same; an ardent defense of the position they had along with the implication that, regardless of the facts, the essence of the argument is beyond reproach. Essentially: it doesn’t really matter if the information I sent you is factual, because my position is sound.

Last October, Fox News personality Sean Hannity ran a show on “the stories that the media refuses to cover” regarding "Obamacare." Predictably, Hannity's guests told their horror stories of canceled policies, premium hikes, doctor restrictions, financial burdens on their small businesses, etc.

This was everything Hannity's audience came to hear. It turned out that pretty much all of the claims were fabricated and that the "news" show apparently did no vetting of their guests once they determined that they were going to bash the law.

One after another, guests on other shows were shown to be making up their claims, in most cases never having even gone onto the ACA website to shop policies. Many were even shown to have been eligible for cheaper and better coverage through the exchange.

Of course, there was no viewer backlash, no price to be paid for, at worst, deliberately misleading them and, at best, being guilty of shoddy, sub-amateur journalism. It didn't cost ratings, because to most of the viewers, it really didn't matter. They'd decided that the ACA – ironically, based on a conservative invention supported by everyone from Newt Gingrich to the Heritage Foundation – was an evil socialist plot.

If a particular claim didn't hold water, it only mattered that it expressed the correct sentiment. I'm sorry, but it's hard not to ask how much blame the viewers (on both sides) need to carry. If they create an enormous market for propaganda, someone is going to fill it.

There's plenty of real debate to have over the Affordable Care Act to be sure. There are several genuine aspects that one might be critical of, and there would be value in creating a platform to have thoughtful debate on a news program. But why do that, if you can just tailor fictional arguments that better serve your position, especially when the reality is much more complicated and the problems often involve placating special interests (insurance companies for Democrats and providers for Republicans) you don't want to offend because they buy both advertising and political influence?

Obviously, it's much easier to create a fictional movie than to compile a documentary, especially if you want it to be politically titillating. But we seem to have reached a point where viewers/readers are willfully accepting fiction as a substitute reality so long as the underlying premise suits them. The fact that they cannot see that both sides are holding special interests above that of their constituents is frightening, and when I see everyday people, who are by and large screwed on a regular basis by the system their tax dollars fund, nonetheless carrying the water for these straw man arguments, it's clear that it's working.

I'm not excusing their lack of integrity, but it's no wonder that highly-competitive media outlets fighting for a shrinking pool of paid advertisement are delivering the product that so many news consumers want – one that will tell them their side is right all day long. More than ever before, that consumer can have their own views reinforced by what is at least presented as a credible source. They can look, listen and read all day long and never have to hear a view they don't share, creating an even more skewed perception that their position is not only valid, but that a majority of Americans share it, but are being somehow silenced.

Increasingly, the truth-be-damned dynamic has bled into politics to the point that even when one side is pointing out that another fibbed, it often cannot pass up the opportunity to tell a lie of its own. A recent Politifact.com analysis showed that the overwhelming amount of campaign advertising associated with groups funded by the right-wing Koch brothers tended to be non-factual (to put it mildly), but so did the Democratic responses to them.

So one side tells a bald-faced lie and understandably, the other side wants to leverage that to impress their dishonesty on undecided voters. But rather than let the lie speak for itself in pointing it out, the aggrieved create a fake narrative of their own to denounce it.

When confronted, the response is almost always the same: something to the effect of, okay, maybe we weren't completely accurate in the way we said that, but this group is still evil, and we're the good guys here, so at the end of the day there was no harm done because the part about you should vote them out of office stands. Meanwhile, the reason the groups put out so much advertising laced with false claims is because there is an audience that doesn't really care whether the ads are factual, so long as they purport to confirm their biases about the other side.

This is a dangerous way of thinking, as it perpetuates the idea that one side is always right, merely because their intentions are more pure and their ideology more sound. Any means to accomplishing their desired ends are therefore inherently justified. We used to be a better country than that, one where truth was not only important but essential, and we remained wary of ideologues even when they were on our side of the aisle.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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