Once upon a time, not so long ago, and not at all far away, it was reasonable for Americans to expect television news to be fact based, and even to speak truth to power, when the times required it. I’m thinking of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather in his prime. These days, we can’t even expect it to speak truth to crazy. Terrified of being accused of liberal bias, our contemporary news outlets go to absurd lengths to pretend all opinions are equally valid, all sides of any story equally deserving of respect. Fearful of losing access to sources, losing corporate parents points before Congress, or regulatory agencies, they let abuses of power, lack of integrity, eithical or intellectual, and offensive stupidity go unchallenged. Anyone who does otherwise is immediately accused of liberal bias, his or her opinions implicitly dismissed on that account.
As maddening as the sorry state of our news is the discourse around it, or rather, the lack thereof. Anyone who dares to mention it is of course, dismissed as a biased liberal. Some try to sidestep such accusations by claiming both sides of the political spectrum are equally at fault. This would be fine, were it true, but it’s not. MSNBC and Current TV on the liberal side make no bones about their biases, but stick with fact based reality in their reporting. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, for instance, is unabashedly liberal, but does her homework like nobody’s business, as does Current’s Cenk Uygar, host of The Young Turks They can do that, because liberal opinions can stand the scrutiny of reality, unlike many conservative ideas.
Over on the conservative side of things, at Fox, reality is uniquely ethereal. And that’s not just my liberal bias at play. Study after study shows how ill informed Fox viewers are. They are, it turns out, less well informed than people who don’t watch any television news at all.
A 2003 study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes found Fox viewers 80% more likely than others to harbor demonstrably false beliefs about the Iraq war. Things like Sadaam Hussein’s imaginary role in the 9/11 attacks, or the existence of nonexistent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. In 2009, an NBC survey found Fox viewers believed ridiculously untrue things about President Obama’s proposed health care reform. It would provide health care for illegal immigrants, government funding for abortions, and would ultimately result in an NHS style government takeover of the health care system, none of which were ever remote possibilities. In 2010 a Stanford University study study found Fox viewers more likely to disbelieve in the very real scientific consensus that global climate change is happening, and it’s our fault. I could go on and on with these, but I think you get my point. No studies exist having found comparable disconnections from reality among viewers of any other networks, not even MSNBC.
I never loved Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing the way a lot of liberals did. I couldn’t say exactly why, but I didn’t find the characters engaging, couldn’t muster up much interest in how, or even if, their storylines resolved. Instead of inspiring me to see the possibility of change, comparing Martin Sheen’s impossibly perfect progressive president with Bush era realities just depressed me. So my expectations for Sorkin’s new HBO series, The Newsroom, were so low as to be essentially nonexistent, especially after I read a couple of less than stellar reviews. Emily Nussbaum’s for the New Yorker in particular put me off the show. She didn’t love it, and thought only those who, “share its politics,” would. To me, this description conjured up visions of a West Wing retread, more tiresome preaching to the progressive choir. I didn’t even bother watching the first few episodes till weeks after they’d initially aired.
When I did, I was shocked by how much I liked it. Not just because of the excellent cast, or the much better writing than I ever remember finding on The West Wing, but because of its basic premise. We’re getting shitty news, and it’s leading to shitty government, more or less. Television news matters, and it doesn’t have to be this way. Where’s the political agenda in that proposition, exactly? It strikes me as something everyone should be able to get behind.
Emily Nussbaum is one of my favorite television critics. We’re even Facebook friends. Even when I’ve disagreed with her opinions in the past, I’ve never thought she was flat out wrong, just that we disagreed, in the way we’re always told reasonable people can. This time is different, though. By ascribing a politically partisan slant to The Newsroom‘s agenda, she’s unquestioningly accepting the false premise that the desire for better, fact based reality style, news is implicitly a liberal one. That, because facts do, more often than not, support liberal perspectives, only liberals care about getting them right. To be fair, I can’t in good conscience say I’m sure Nussbaum is wrong to do so, but I find the possibility she might not be unbearably depressing.