The only difference between prostitutes and
many political reporters is that prostitutes understand what business they're
in. Many American reporters differ little from the reporters with the former
Soviet newspaper Pravda. American politicians from both parties frequently
manipulate reporters to further their political careers and increase their
The survival of democracy depends on citizens
having access to sufficient information to make informed decisions. Understanding
the inadequacies of political reporting will help us know how to evaluate
what we read in newspapers and hear on television.
Some of us compensate for inadequate reporting on television news and
in daily newspapers by reading between the lines or seeking other sources
of information. Unfortunately, many don't have the time, or perhaps the
willingness, to look beyond the mass media for news.
Some partisan reporters voluntarily serve as propagandists and attempt
to influence events as well as report them. In other cases politicians
take advantage of reporters' ignorance and naivete.
Few reporters seem to have anything more than
a superficial understanding of politicians, political systems, or political
terms including labels for different groups and philosophies. Government
officials and political activists can often use reporters to control debates
because reporters are unwilling to look beyond the information such sources
provide to discover alternative explanations of issues or solutions for
The business needs of newspapers
and broadcasters could cause some biased reporting. For example, the broadcast
networks conceivably could have pressured their reporters to favor the
Democratic presidential ticket in 1992 because Senator Al Gore encouraged
Congress to pass a cable tv regulation bill favoring the networks.
Political reporters often err by dividing politicians
into good guys and bad guys and portraying political conflicts as the good
guys versus the bad guys. Professional wrestling matches and old westerns
feature conflicts between those who are obviously good guys and others
who are obviously bad guys, but political conflicts are seldom so simple.
Most political conflicts reflect struggles
involving people interested in increasing their political power or furthering
some interest or cause. Frequently the individuals on each side believe
they are the good guys and their opponents are the bad guys.
In major political conflicts both sides often
have a few bad guys. Our nation's World War II enemy Adolf Hitler certainly
qualified as a bad guy, but our World War II ally Joseph Stalin hardly
qualified as a good guy.
Some people enter politics because they genuinely
want to serve the public. However, people also enter politics because they
want to pursue some political cause, desire power, or simply want the attention
Reporters who lack the ability to read minds
cannot conclusively determine which politicians entered the political arena
with which motives. Nor can they always determine whether or not a politician
has succumbed to the allure of political power.
During the Civil War many southerners believed
they were right because they were fighting for their right to control their
institutions through their state governments. Many northerners believed
they were right because slavery was morally wrong and inconsistent with
the American system of government.
Few people today would disagree
with the northern view of slavery. However, many also resent attempts by
the federal government to force state and local officials to ignore the
wishes of state and local voters, particularly on minor issues like whether
or not states should require motorcycle riders to wear helmets. Motorcycle
riders would be wise to wear helmets, but the issue doesn't rate federal
Reporters compound the practice of dividing
politicians into good guys and bad guys by adopting simplistic and often
inaccurate labels for various political groups and philosophies. The common
assumption that one side is always correct and the other always wrong ignores
the possibilities that one side may be right on some issues and wrong on
others and that both sides may be wrong on some issues.
Reporters often misuse the terms
"liberal" and "left" or "conservative" and "right" to describe the good
guys and bad guys. Individual reporter's political preferences determine
which side is the good guys and which side is the bad guys.
The often misapplied terms left and right are
irrelevant to modern politics. The term liberal also is irrelevant to American
politics because the politicians who prefer to apply the term to themselves
don't qualify as liberals under any logical definition of the word.
The political terms "left" and "right" refer
to the legislative seating arrangements during the French Revolution and
are of no value for categorizing other political groups. The monarchists
sat on the right and the Jacobins sat on the left.
No American political groups advocate
a monarchy and thus none of them can qualify as being on the extreme political
right. The closest situation the United States has had to support for hereditary
rule(an essential ingredient for a monarchy) involves the Kennedy family
and the Camelot era of the early sixties.
The Democrats continue to have a problem with
viewing politicians as being larger than life as if they had magical powers
to deal with national problems. However, journalists portray Democrats
as being on the "left".
The Jacobins sat on the extreme left and among
other things preferred to rule through the guillotine. No major American
political group advocates killing political opponents and thus no group
qualifies as being on the extreme left.
The most absurd use of the terms "left" and
"right" involves the claim that "fascism" is on the "right" and "communism"
is on the "left". Any logical evaluation of the two systems would place
them in the category called "tyranny".
The only difference between the two involves
the degree of control each group desires and how the group obtains power.
Both require total obedience to the government and both routinely kill
political opponents like the French Jacobins did.
Both can demonstrate racism. Hitler wanted
to establish a German run empire. The Soviet Union was a Russian run empire.
Each may attempt to create a false dichotomy
in the public mind that the only choices available are between communism
and fascism and that failure to support one will mean government by the
Communists are more likely to claim the current
government is fascist and people should overthrow it and create a communist
state. Fascists are more likely to claim that the government must adopt
a fascist system to prevent a communist takeover.
Communists normally gain power by overthrowing
the existing government with force and attempt to control all aspects of
society. Fascists tend to subvert the existing government by persuading
its various national leaders to support their effort. Fascists may allow
those existing leaders(especially industrial and military leaders) who
continue to support the government to retain their positions.
Those who place fascism on the right ignore
the fact that Adolf Hitler headed Germany's National Socialist Party. Hitler's
racism often obscures the fact that he portrayed his attacks on the Jewish
people(rich and poor) as being against an oppressive economic class. This
approach allowed Hitler to convince lower income Germans he was attacking
"capitalist oppressors" while actually working with the industrial leaders
communists traditionally label as "oppressors".
A tyrant is a tyrant is a tyrant regardless
of whether he calls himself president or chairman or Fuehrer. Political
philosophers sometimes theorize about "enlightened despots" who always
act in the best interests of their subjects.
In reality most despots treat their subjects
like slaves. Some despots, like some 19th Century American slave owners,
might be concerned about the welfare of their subjects, but the subjects
still lack the freedom to control their own lives. The modern despot's
need to use a government bureaucracy to implement his policies usually
insures some subjects will receive unfair treatment regardless of his intentions.
Serious students of political systems from
the ancient Greeks to modern political scientists realize that political
systems operate through a circle that varies from anarchy to participatory
democracy to tyranny and back to anarchy. A nation may gradually move from
any one stage to another or simply cycle through all three stages.
The political label "communism" has provided
the most trouble for naive reporters who don't understand that the term
is simply a euphemism for the political and economic system used in Nineteenth
Century imperial Russia.
For example, the communal farm existed in Russia
until the late 19th Century. Lenin reestablished it. Russian emperors also
controlled the nation's economy, and operated a secret police unit to limit
political dissent. Communism is nothing more than a new name for an old
political system that can be traced back at least as far as the Greek city-state
Democracy in the modern form dates from ancient
We usually think of anarchy as a somewhat chaotic
situation, but Israel before King Saul could be considered an anarchy because
it essentially had no formal government. Israel had leaders, or judges,
but they relied on their leadership ability rather than a formal government
structure to take actions such as raising armies to deal with external
Politicians and reporters use the term "liberal"
so inaccurately that it has become virtually meaningless. The word once
referred to someone who was flexible and willing to consider alternate
opinions and approaches to problems. Liberals should encourage flexibility
and diversity and discourage attempts at forced uniformity.
A true liberal could never support the concept
of "political correctness" that many who falsely claim to be liberals support.
The politicians who most closely support the ideals of liberalism today
prefer to call themselves "conservatives".
The politicians(primarily Democrats) who call
themselves liberals(but complain if their opponents refer to them as liberals)
are often true believers who believe that they are RIGHT and anyone who
disagrees with them is WRONG.
These politicians often favor heavy government
regulation of behavior and a uniform national approach to problems. President
Bill Clinton's proposal to force everyone into a government controlled
health care system exemplifies this idea of forced uniformity.
Ultraconservative would be a more accurate
description of the approach these Democrats favor for solving social problems
and responding to dissident views. They may claim to support "change",
but the "change" they support is a change to systems that discourage or
even prevent further change. Their strong opposition to anyone who disagrees
with them implies an ultraconservative mindset.
A true liberal should support systems that
encourage flexibility and change. Liberals should favor systems that emphasize
responding to individual needs instead of forcing people to respond as
directed by the state.
The most obvious misuse of the term "liberal"
occurs in environmental matters. Reporters often ignore the fact that the
words "conservative" and "conservationist" have the same root word.
A conservationist cannot logically be a "liberal"
in environmental matters. Many worry about potential environmental disasters
caused by technological changes and the spread of technology to undeveloped
Many of those who express the most concern
about environmental changes are actually reactionaries. They demonstrate
the typical reactionary approach when they claim we have to return the
environment to the way it used to be when it was much better than it is
today. In their view modern technology is bad and should be abandoned to
Those who oppose environmental changes are
conservatives, or even reactionaries, regardless of whether or not their
concerns are scientifically valid. Environmental changes, like social or
economic changes, aren't inherently good or bad.
Reporters overreliance on political actors
to define political issues extends beyond the labels used by political
groups. Interest groups and government officials often mislead reporters
about government actions, the definition of issues and the viability of
Bill Clinton's handling of the draft issue
in the 1992 presidential election demonstrates how partisan journalists
will support their party's candidate even when he repeatedly and deliberately
lies. Clinton even managed to persuade opponent George Bush to accept one
of his lies.
Clinton repeatedly changed his account of how
he avoided military service, beginning with the ridiculous claim about
failing the physical because of a hearing deficiency, as facts disproved
his statements. Even Clinton's last statement that he received a "I-C"
draft "deferment" after enrolling in ROTC was a lie because this classification
wasn't a deferment.
The Selective Service System assigned the "I-C"
classification to members of the military reserve forces as well as to
ROTC students and aviation cadets. The men in this classification were
no longer available for the draft because they were in the process of fulfilling
their military obligation.
Thus the Selective Service System considered Clinton to be in the army rather than being deferred from the draft. Various other military training programs, such as those for clerical positions, allowed men to begin fulfilling their military obligations by enlisting several months before actual training began.
Lying by politicians isn't unusual, but most
politicians attempt to avoid lies that reporters are likely to disprove.
Reporters should always be suspicious of statements by politicians who
lie as readily as Clinton did during the presidential campaign.
A politician who will lie about an action from
his distant past such as how he avoided the draft will also lie about current
matters including his political philosophy and goals. Journalists who attempt
to minimize the importance of such lies encourage politicians to continue
to lie about other matters.
Many of us who served in Vietnam would have
viewed Clinton more favorably if he had explained his actions with a statement
beginning with something like: "I really pulled a fast one on my draft
board...." Such a statement would have implied that he found a loophole
that others of us would like to have found.
Reporters often make the mistake of trying
to determine ahead of time who they think can win and then emphasizing
the "favored" candidates. This practice limits who can run for office and
creates a bias in favor of candidates who generate the most publicity and
have the most recognizable names. Bill Clinton may have won the 1992 Democratic
presidential nomination because the negative stories about alleged sexual
affairs made his name more recognizable than the names of his opponents.
In 1978, Kansas reporters decided that the
probable Democratic Senate candidate Dr. Bill Roy would easily defeat any
of the potential Republican challengers, especially Nancy
Kassebaum whose only claim to fame was that she was the daughter of former Kansas governor Alf Landon.
Kassebaum's ability to bride the media for
coverage(i.e., purchase advertising) during the primary helped her "upset"
her Republican rivals. She easily defeated Roy in the general election.
Kassebaum subsequently became one of the most respected members of the
U.S. Senate. How many candidates with similar ability, but ignored by reporters
because "they didn't have a chance to win", have been unable to win because
they couldn't afford the necessary advertising to put their names before
The public opinion polls reporters often rely
on to decide which candidates to cover only reflect public opinion about
candidates the respondents have heard of. Limiting campaign
coverage to candidates who rate highly in the polls provides an advantage to candidates with access to large campaign funds.
Journalists seldom cover minor, or third party,
candidates unless they are as prominent as Ross Perot or George Wallace.
Third parties often provide an outlet for people who feel the
major parties are ignoring them.
Many of these people decide that elections
don't offer them anything because no candidate supports their positions.
Such people are potentially vulnerable to the appeals of would be tyrants
who don't have the commitment to democratic government of a Perot or Wallace.
A century ago third parties helped change the
focus of the major parties by demonstrating the popularity of ideas like
the direct election of U.S. Senators. A higher percentage of the
population participated in elections because they could express their opinions on the issues that were important to them even when they didn't like the candidates who were most likely to win the election.
Journalists often criticize the
role money plays in election campaigns, but the news media can alleviate
the problem by assuming the responsibility of informing readers and viewers
about all candidates for office.
Stories about the FBI assault on the Branch
Davidian compound last spring demonstrate how a government agency can divert
attention away from government mishandling of a situation. Stories
about the assault have concentrated on the question of who started the
fire that destroyed the compound and killed most of the people inside.
Reporters have generally ignored the fact the
fire wouldn't have occurred when it did if the FBI hadn't forced the issue.
Regardless of who caused the fire, the Davidians died when they did because
of the FBI's action. If the Davidians set the fire, the FBI assault was
the equivalent of yelling jump to someone standing on a ledge.
The FBI has yet to provide any justification
for the assault. If they were as concerned about the welfare of the children
as they claim, why didn't they make a serious effort to rescue the children?
The FBI claim that it hoped the mothers would
send their children out to protect them from harm ignores the fact that
the Davidians believed they were going to heaven and the rest of the world
was going to hell. Sending the children out would have been the equivalent
of condemning them to hell.
Abortion - The False Dichotomy
The abortion issue provides an example of how
groups involved in political conflicts can create a false dichotomy by
presenting the more extreme positions as being the only options for dealing
with the issue. Reporters tend to give the greatest amount of attention
to those groups that strongly favor or strongly oppose all abortions because
these groups are the most vocal.
Those who strongly support abortions believe
the only rights involved in the abortion issue are those of the pregnant
woman. They believe a woman's right to control her body means she has the
right to have the pregnancy terminated by killing her offspring at any
time during the pregnancy.
Those who strongly oppose abortions believe
the offspring has rights that include the right to be born. They oppose
abortion anytime after conception.
An alternative approach exists that should
eventually appease both groups if they are presenting an accurate statement
of their positions. The government could allow women to
artificially terminate a pregnancy in the third trimester, but require the doctor to make every reasonable effort to deliver the child alive. The state would take custody of the child, provide
necessary medical treatment and attempt to find parents to adopt it.
Doctors can fertilize an egg in a petri dish
and place it in a woman who cannot conceive to develop into a normal baby.
They can remove a fetus from its mother, perform an operation, and return
it to the womb. Doctors can transplant various organs from one person to
another. Thus medical science conceivably could develop the necessary procedures
to move a fetus from a woman who doesn't want it to a woman who does want
it for further development.
Abortion opponents should support this alternative
if their goal is to save the child's life rather than to force a women
to continue an unwanted pregnancy. Abortion supporters should
support this alternative if their goal is to allow a woman to decide whether she wants to be pregnant.
Democracy can survive many types of threats, but only if citizens have access to accurate information about all sides of major issues. A free press requires more than simply the lack of direct government control of the news media. A free press requires a diversity of political points of view rather than just the views of one or two different factions.
I also write at Mediard
You can support this site through PayPal.