News Roundup II: "Grab the Thorazine" Edition

Da hits, dey keep on comen, mon.  Grab a white jacket and your favorite tranq and let’s explore today’s more delicious news items ….

  • From the “denial of the patently obvious” department comes an astonishing, full-throated defense of the Associated Press by Paul Keep, editor of The Grand Rapids Press. In today’s opinion column, Keep expresses his shock and disbelief that people who comment on news stories on believe the AP is guilty of bias by virtue of omission or accent:  “My experience is that AP works hard to tell the whole story and insists on verifiable facts, not opinion or spin. It doesn’t have a dog in the fight, so to speak. That allows it to be truly objective and informative. Not as splashy as trying to whip up partisans on the right or on the left as the prime-time TV opinion shows do, but a real public service.” That may be true in terms of intent, Mr. Keep.  But the AP is also guilty, in practice, of selection bias.  Most newspapers in the U.S. turn, in whole or in part, to the AP as a leading source of wire copy to augment their sparse and declining local content. The AP, by burying certain stories (look at the different coverage paradigms between the AP and the British media over Climategate, for example) or emphasizing others (like the frequent mentions of racism or wackiness alleged to permeate the Tea Party movement), performs no less ideologically in the aggregate than if the Democratic National Committee were assigning the daily news budget.  As the former editor in chief of a community daily, I had access to the raw AP feed, and from my own experience, a part of the hard news crossing the wire was not as immune to bias as Keep suggests.  I am genuinely astonished to see a newspaper editor make the sweeping comments Keep made in his column; his apparent lack of institutional self-awareness would be comical were it not conveyed by the person whose thumb is closest to the flow of public information in my community.
  • Speaking of the Chartreuse Lady, the Press’s editorial today takes a turn for the absurd. Having decided that it’s not enough that political ads must disclose their funders, the editorial board has challenged Terri Lynn Land, Michigan’s secretary of state, to facilitate disclosure of those who fund the funders. Apparently chagrined that groups like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce can fund political advertising under their own names, the Press seems to be demanding that Land force the Chamber and any other political advertiser to publicly disclose contributors to their organization. The poker face known as “defending the public interest” was betrayed by the pettiest of tells: “But the public should know which people specifically pay for the television commercials and other advertisements that shape public opinion for good and ill. Allowing these communications to continue incognito encourages the worst in human nature and diminishes accountability.” Translation: We want a live human person to embarrass when his dollars fund an ad with which we disagree. The argument that there is a public interest in disclosing a trail of dollars from their origination in some private citizen’s wallet, to state-wide advertising campaign, is hard to defend; it is not inconceivable that a citizen may contribute to, or be a member of, an organization with which we agree 80 percent of the time but not necessarily 100 percent of the time. I would be outraged if, as a theoretical donor to the Chamber, I was listed as a “donor” for a political ad I didn’t support when in fact my donation went to enhance local businesses. Don’t be fooled — the editorial has nothing to do with exposure and accountability and everything to do with increasing the leverage to “name and shame” donors to causes with which the mainstream media may collectively disagree.  Don’t believe me?  Just look at the shenanigans surrounding the disclosure of petition signers for California’s Prop 8.
  • For reasons that defy immediate comprehension, people seem to be nodding approvingly at the notion, popularized by blogger Julian Sanchez, that conservatives are suffering from some sort of “epistemic closure.” Sanchez’s argument is the ultimate straw man: He ascribes to conservatives, uniformly, the attributes of tribalism and unreflective groupthink, then he bandies about quasi-philosophical language to explain, like Jane Goodall commenting upon ape behavior, just why conservatives are so closed-minded and incapable of rational discourse. Oh, and of course, liberals suffer from none of these traits; they are open and enjoy dialogue and revel in encountering fresh, bold new ideas irrespective of their ideological provenance.  Sanchez: ” One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)  This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile.”  The rejoinder is almost too obvious — although it is certainly true that some conservatives find solace in right-leaning sources of news and commentary, it is a grave error in reasoning to ascribe this sociopolitical introversion to all conservatives, or even to a majority of them.  Just as some liberals will only read HuffPo and FireDogLake and are incapable of thinking outside of a progressive-left box, so also do some conservatives read only The Corner or The Weekly Standard. So what? Each side has its fringe, but the bulk of thinkers on the Right (and, in fairness, on the Left) routinely engage with the substance of the other side’s opinion. To the extent that the “epistemic closure” trope has any weight, I suspect it’s in the unwillingness of the national media to present as spokespeople anyone who isn’t a tribal chieftain in their own ideological territory. Sanchez can do better than this sort of rank pseudo intellectual demonization of right-wing straw men.


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