Fooling All of the People?

It's not really possible anymore


The Washington Post published another story Monday about how poor dumb Americans are being duped by advocacy organizations who are apparently posing as real live journalists. The Post's condescension to the world's savviest media consumers is breathtaking. At no time in history has it been easier for viewers, listeners and readers to find out who is behind articles, shows, or publications.

What must the ink-stained wretches over at the Post think of the publications like The New Republic, The Nation, The Village Voice, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Mother Jones and, of course, Reason? Not to mention The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Earth Journal, Grist, Worldwatch Magazine, Organic Style, Vegetarian Times, Life Extension Magazine, Ecology and on and on and on.

The Post article highlighted the bankrolling of the Madison County Record in Madison County Illinois by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Madison County, Illinois as been branded by the American Tort Reform Association as a "judicial hellhole" because tort lawyers have found the judges and juries there particularly accommodating to plaintiffs in big ticket class action law suits. ATRA is essentially a lobby organization financed by businesses and individuals who would like to rein in what they regard as an out of control tort litigation system. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce evidently decided to finance the Madison County Record to bring what they regard as the sorry judicial record to the attention of the voters of Madison County. The Post's main objection is that the newspaper didn't print that it was financed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. However, the Record's editor Brian Timpone and the Stanton Anderson, head of the Chamber's Institute for Legal Reform, which is lobbying for tort reform, apparently had no problem admitting the Chamber's involvement to the Post when asked.

For political balance, the Post mentions a do-gooder docudrama on the perils of nuclear terrorism being put together by the ultra-respectable Nuclear Threat Initiative run by former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn and founded by Ted Turner. NTI wants to dramatize the dangers of the nuclear threat with a made-for-cable drama. The drama is also being funded by the Carnegie Endowment and the MacArthur Foundation, which fact will apparently be acknowledged in the credits of the show. So what's the problem? If foundation funding is suspect, then PBS is surely the largest propaganda mill in the country (hey, maybe the Post has a point? Nah!). By the way, the Post misidentifies Nunn's group as the National Threat Initiative.

Consider the case of another recent docudrama, Fahrenheit 9/11. While opinions may vary, the Post's movie critic hailed Michael Moore's movie in the following glowing terms: "What's remarkable here isn't Moore's political animosity or ticklish wit. It's the well-argued, heartfelt power of his persuasion." Not a word that Moore's "cultural juggernaut" might contain just a smidgen of propaganda. But who cares? We can all decide what we think of media like Fahrenheit 9/11 and lots of people are eager to give us their points of view on this and all other matters.

The Post quotes Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania as saying, "People judge communication by its source so when you deny people full knowledge of that source of information they are losing something important about evaluating the message." Indeed she is correct, but surely most Americans view the media with a gimlet eye nowadays. They don't just assume that everything they read or hear is "fair and balanced" unless it comes with a banner headline saying "Brought To You By Lying Lobbyists." Do newspapers really need to identify themselves as they used to in the 19th century as favoring one political faction or other? Most readers know the political predilections of the media they read and don't need it to be spelled out. With the proliferation of media and media watchdogs, it's getting harder to slip one by the American public.

My colleague, Matt Welch, has made a persuasive argument that all reporters should disclose for whom they voted. Surely such disclosures would help readers, listeners and viewers to make up their minds about how fairly journalists are covering various issues? What do you think, Kathleen Hall Jamieson?

An aphorism attributed to either Abraham Lincoln and Phineas T. Barnum (take your pick as to which source is more reliable) says, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time." It's my bet that with the growth and elaboration of media outlets, it's getting harder and harder to fool people for long.