One of Dean Baker’s many complaints about the media is that it reports budget figures without context. For example, it will report some very big number of dollars in Social Security fraud. But given the enormity of the Social Security program, it turns out that all those dollars are a tiny fraction of the program. It isn’t just that it feeds into the conservative narrative that “the government can’t do anything right.” It is more that it simply doesn’t provide the reader with any real information. The paper might as well report, “Fraud in the Social Security program amounted to twiddle dippity doo da widget time.”
I think that most of the dysfunction of our media can be explained simply by the fact that it is lazy. And I’m not talking primarily about reporters here. They do what they are expected to do. They get the story — such as it is — in the time allotted. In the case of putting budget numbers into perspective or finding opposing opinions, it is obvious that these things get dropped because they would slow things down. And this is the case, even when newspapers explicitly decide to change. There was a moment a couple of years ago, when The New York Times made it policy that it would not present budget numbers out of context. And then, almost without missing a beat, their reporters continued to do it.
Glenn Greenwald pointed out a similar situation with The New York Times — and really the entirety of the press, The Spirit of Judy Miller is Alive and Well at the NYT, and It Does Great Damage. As everyone knows, Miller was the most prominent reporter at The Times to facility the White House’s war propaganda campaign. The high point of it was where Cheney’s office released “anonymous information” to Miller; she reported it; and then Cheney went on television, pointing to The New York Times as proving that he was right.
But okay, after the total catastrophe that was the Iraq War, The New York Times admitted its error and turned over a new leaf. They had a new policy that stated when anonymous sources would be used. And the policy is good. But just as with the no-context budget numbers, The Times didn’t even seem to take a break to read the new policy; they just continued to pump out the anonymously source articles like before.
A great example from Tuesday is, ISIS Leader Takes Steps to Ensure Group’s Survival:
Now you really have to wonder what the justification was for giving anonymity to a government official for claiming the official government enemy Snowden is the reason that ISIS is so knowledgeable about our spying. That’s the sort of thing that the government wants leaked, and so something that reporters should know not to provide anonymity about. But regardless, the claim is preposterous. We’ve known for a very long time that groups like the Islamic State are very aware of our spying. Greenwald noted how this is exactly what the government has said about leakers going back at least to Daniel Ellsberg. But more specifically, “The Terrorists™ had been using couriers and encryption for many, many years before anyone knew the name ‘Edward Snowden.'”
But Greenwald documents a series of establishment reporters who took this as proof that Snowden has harmed the United States. Even if you thought that was the case, you would think that reporters would be so vested in the philosophy of the free press that they would respond, “Well, this is the price we pay for the free society.” But instead, they are like fascist apologists.