When I was in graduate school, it used to drive me crazy to see newspaper headlines like, “Ozone Depleting Methyl Bromide Levels Rose by 10% Last Year.” The reason that it was growing so much was that the concentration of the gas was really small. In other words, “Concentration of Unimportant Gas Rising Quickly Relative to Low Current Level.” Basically, such articles were just the result of a reporter not knowing what he was doing. He saw a paper in Nature, so he wrote an article. It’s deceptive, but not malicious. There is no conspiracy. In general, it is no big deal.
But I see this kind of thing in conservative political reporting all the time. And it isn’t just a question of ignorance. It is rather a specific attempt to deceive the reader. And I think the reason that it is mostly seen in the conservative press is because politics in this country is already so tilted toward conservatism that there is rarely anything for conservatives to complain about. The supposed liberal president gave the country as conservative a healthcare reform plan as is possible. So it isn’t surprising that liberals have actual evidence-based articles they can write. In order to complain, conservatives are stuck with cherry picking data.
I remember reading David Brock’s book Blinded by the Right. The book tells the story of his life as a conservative hack writer and how he came to write pernicious propaganda like The Real Anita Hill. In his telling of it, it wasn’t so much that he meant to be a propagandist, it was just that he was never trained in how to do journalism properly. I’ve always found this contention a little hard to accept.
Maybe my problem is that I was trained as a scientist. So I have a great focus on the truth. Sometimes, while writing an article, I will find that the numbers don’t back me up. So I try to figure out why that is. It changes what I write. Sometimes, I don’t write about the issue at all if I can’t figure it out. But that clearly wasn’t the case with Brock.
The best case scenario was when Brock started with his conclusion and then went searching for facts to back that up. And he’s a smart guy and was good at this kind of thing. But there were times when he knew that he was lying. For example: when an article attacked the Anita Hill book claiming that Clarence Thomas had rented pornographic video tapes from a local video store. This was important because one of Anita Hill’s main claims was that Thomas would force her to listen to him describe the plots of pornographic films he had seen.
This was during the very earliest days of video rentals. Brock checked with Thomas and asked him if the video store rented players. If they didn’t, then how could Thomas have watched the films? Checkmate! The problem was that Thomas told Brock that he didn’t know if they rented players, because he owned his own. He also admitted that he did rent pornographic films. Brock knew, as clearly as any investigator ever does, that Thomas was guilty and that Anita Hill had been telling the truth. So what did Brock do? He just ignored the issue and wrote his defense, which was generally accepted.
What Brock did would be perfectly fine if he were Clarence Thomas’ lawyer. But as a journalist, what he did was malpractice. It was not even ethical propaganda. He could have apologized for the information he had and presented it in the best possible way. But instead, he just buried it. In his defense, I think that was the beginning of the end. I think that was the point that he realized that he was playing for the wrong team and that his position was, as he said, “a right-wing hit man.”
But the thing is, Brock is absolutely the rule in the world of conservative “journalism.” Michael Hiltzik found a recent example of it, The Latest Bogus Attack on Obamacare: It’s Anti-Innovation! It is about a Wall Street Journal article by Scott Atlas, ObamaCare’s Anti-Innovation Effect. Atlas started with the title and then found whatever data he could to support it.
Hiltzik dismantles Atlas, piece by piece. It is all about how the medical device tax is killing innovation. The whole idea of this tax is that with the increased spending in healthcare because of the law, medical device companies are going to get more sales and thus more profits. That isn’t right, so the idea is to offset this unfair windfall. So even though the medical device industry has made a lot of noise, the tax doesn’t change anything.
But one part of the whole thing stood out to me. It was Atlas’ claim that the Obamacare tax on medical devices was causing companies to move production overseas. There is no doubt that medical device manufacturers are moving production out of the country — just like all manufacturers. But there is absolutely nothing in Obamacare that would encourage them to do that. The tax applies to all companies on their sales inside the United States. But this is part of the cherry picking — in this case putting in information that has absolutely nothing to do with the subject at hand.
Unlike the reporters who so annoyed me in graduate school, reporters like Scott Atlas are malicious. They are trying to deceive. And this is because their positions are untenable. And note that Atlas is the David and Joan Traitel Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. His specialty is “domestic and global health care policy, particularly the role of government and the free market in pricing, quality, access, and technology innovation.” So he’s got to know what’s going on. But his purpose isn’t to inform — it is to push a particular policy. So he’s no reporter and certainly no scholar; he’s a right-wing hit man. My understanding is that it is a very well paying position.
 Methyl Bromide does harm stratospheric ozone. But it is not much of a problem. It always bugged me that farm workers had been trying to get rid of this chemical for years because it is a carcinogen. No one cared. But then it posed a tiny threat to the ozone layer and suddenly people cared. There has always been a bit of a class problem with environmentalism. I don’t think we give enough consideration to this. It just doesn’t cost that much to take care of coal miners at the same time that we regulate coal. We already have the corporations dumping on the American worker, we environmentalists shouldn’t do it. We environmentalists and workers should be in league.