Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Demonizing and Media Bias

In the interest of total disclosure, for those who do not already know, I am a supporter of the Second Amendment and of gun rights. I do not believe gun control is the answer to the violence seen in the USA.

I have had many a discussion about media bias of late. It is no secret, among those on the political right that CNN, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, ABC are all left-leaning organizations. It is demonstrated by the softball treatment this administration has received from those working for the above.

It is also no secret on the left that Fox News is right-leaning. Fox is often vilified as "Faux" news, but that is by people who believe what they hear, not what they watch. Many news outlets have commentary shows (shows in which the journalistic slant is more opinion than hard fact). This is not the type of show one would expect to hear JUST the news; it is a show on which the host states his/her perspective and invites guests on to either support or refute that perspective. I believe those who vilify Fox News are doing so based on their knowledge of the commenters. In fact, Fox News has reported factual events, just like many of the other above-mentioned outlets.

But there is commentary. On Fox, you'll find Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity discussing their views of the news, and yes, they take a hard right turn when they do.

On CNN, you'll find the increasingly pompous Piers Morgan (who tends to interrupt his guests and overshout them when they begin to answer in ways he does not see as forwarding his agenda - example found here). MSNBC has Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz to name two.

But my example from MSNBC tonight comes with an insidious example of irresponsible journalism (if it can be called journalism at all). Recently, there was a  hearing before the Gun Violence Prevention Working Group at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, CT, attended by parents of some of the victims at Sandy Hook school in Newtown. The tragedy was horrific, and the hearing had some of the most difficult, emotional testimony one could hear.

One of those testifying was Neil Heslin, whose son was one of the 6-year-old victims. Mr. Heslin testified in a breaking voice, and the hearings were video recorded.

MSNBC released a heavily edited video and this:

Heslin asked why anyone needs assault weapons and high capacity magazines. Gun rights activists replied, “Our rights will not be infringed!” and “Second Amendment!” Local news sources reported that there were nearly a dozen hecklers, who were quickly silenced.
Only the full video was released hours later, in which it is clear that there was no heckling; in fact, Mr. Heslin asked the question and no one replied. They respected him enough to stay silent. He asked the question again and this time, there were simple responses. The respondents were silenced by the public official in the room. However, print media, social media and television outlets picked up the edited, skewed story, and gun rights advocates were vilified for something they did not do.

The website Twitchy collects tweets to expose such irregularities; founded by Michelle Malkin, a conservative blogger, the site frequently captures the tweets (many times deleted after she has culled them - which she points out as well) and responses from both left and right.

Twitchy's story about the non-heckling hit the Internet and outrage over the outrage ensued. Rightfully so. When there is something to own up to, and video coverage of it, people will own up to it; but when there is an already-inflamed issue (such as gun rights), an impossibly emotional milieu (such as Newtown), and a deeply divided country such as the USA, there is no excuse for such irresponsible actions except that it has been done to push an agenda. Why else would a story be so badly twisted as to misrepresent the very people the "reporters" view as on the wrong side?

Tonight, MSNBC finally retracted its tweet. Sort of.

Not an apology. Not really a retraction - just the story repeated and the full video posted. It garnered questions from many followers of the Twitter account, asking "so? Heckled or not?" In my opinion, when such an egregious misstep is made, the responsible parties should retract, clarify, (which this is NOT) and state the facts ("Father NOT heckled during testimony at gun hearing" would have done nicely).

Anderson Cooper is another culprit. He tweeted:

(note "Tweet does not exist" at the top - this is a screen shot from Twitter when attempting to reply to a deleted tweet). He was challenged about his tweet - once again by Twitchy's Michelle Malkin - and deleted it, replacing it with:

Too many people saw it, though; and it once again demonstrates the rush to judge those whose opinions differ from one's own. Granted, CNN is left leaning, as is Anderson Cooper, but not to verify a story that has already been corrected for hours is shoddy.

Slate.com retracted their story. Other outlets began to follow suit. At the time of this writing, the only site still "reporting" this as fact is Huffington Post (which is not a news site at all, but a glorified blog; still, it has enough of a following to require facts and verification). I have written and reported the error to the author of their story, urging them not to take it down but to update it. It has garnered 32,046 comments, most of those indictments against "gun nuts", "insensitive radicals" and the right in general. Many comments (my own included) attempt to clarify the event but I find with sites like these, commenters simply post and run, not checking back for any sort of reaction or correction.

I would be the first person to be shocked, and angered if this story were, in fact true. I would call out those who had the insensitivity to push their agenda when a grieving father is speaking his heart. I would be ashamed of those who may hold my same views but do not have the same respect for those who oppose them. That, however, is not the case today.

Instead, I find myself shocked and angered because the story is not only not true, it has been pushed and the fires stoked against 2nd Amendment advocates who showed only respect at the hearing as has been reported by those present.

HuffPo's short video about the incident also includes a very miniscule clip of another father's testimony. Mark Mattioli lost his son that day too. HuffPo has a clip of him saying he wants more gun laws. This, in fact, is a gross distortion of what he said.  They quote him as saying he believes in simple gun laws, when in fact that was a sliver of what he said. Mark Mattioli, instead, showed tremendous courage in departing from the commonly held view among his peers. This is a man who has every right to want every gun banned. This is a man who has every right to vilify anyone who wants to own a gun. We would understand. He lost the most precious entity any parent could lose.

But Mark Mattioli actually said he did not want more gun laws. He even stated that should they name a gun law after his murdered son, he would not want it. He asked for civility across the nation, and individual accountability.  HuffPo did not report that. It doesn't go with their views. It is courageous, and it is heartwrenching, but it doesn't fit their agenda. So Mr. Mattioli's remarks are misrepresented as well. His thoughts are dishonored. His honoring his son...is dishonored by those who leave him out of their reports.

It cannot be disputed, no matter one's opinion on this issue, that HuffPo is one of several outlets misrepresenting actual facts. And this is just a small example of the larger problem. People tend to read shorter accounts of the news, or watch short clips for their current events. A CBS news report in 2011 found that:

A poll released earlier this year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 21 percent of people aged 18 to 29 cited "The Daily Show" and "Saturday Night Live" as a place where they regularly learned presidential campaign news.
The two shows mentioned are satire and parody shows, not news sources at all.

Twitter has become a place where news is disseminated on a minute-to-minute basis. Twitter is where the truth unfolded about the so-called heckling (and was also where it began in the first place). Twitter can be enlightening and misleading all at the same time.

Is social media to blame? It is hard to conclude that at this point (but is something I am deeply interested in researching). News sources are very much at fault for their tendencies to opine instead of report. Whatever happened to the facts of stories?

I recently had a discussion with a local reporter who claims that the viewer's bias is the only bias present but I differed with him then, and differ with him here. The skewed story of something that did not happen was the fabrication of a "news" outlet (MSNBC) which took the time to edit the raw footage in order to suggest another slant to the event. This is completely out of the viewer's control and an objective example of media bias.

Do we want our media to demonize those with whom they disagree? Do we want them to lionize those on their side? On either side of the fence, do we want opinions or do we want facts? What has happened to journalism?

I would ordinarily hope that today's lesson would not be repeated; sadly, I do not believe that is true. I can only hope those reading my words will be a little more discerning about what they read. Verify the sources. Cross-check amongst all the sources online (there is no lack of online sources) and verify by checking both perspectives. Some people like to be fed their news without questioning it. I can only hope I will reach those who want the truth, and that truth can only come from verifying sources, facts, and questioning until every last question is adequately answered. I'm not asking anyone to take one view or the other - merely to question whether it is news they are hearing, or whether there is a way to verify that report.

I blogged last time about critical thinking skills in email and Facebook hoaxes. The sentiment and methods I suggested carry over to our understanding of current events. Be a critical thinker in your own world. Spoon feeding ended when we learned to feed ourselves.

Otherwise, you become a person who thinks what they are told to think. Is that what you really want?

Think about it...


marty mankins said...

"In fact, Fox News has reported factual events"

This is true. And you are 100% correct that MSNBC and other news outlets in that report about the father being heckled. He most certainly was NOT heckled. Just a guy in the audience that was making a statement.

But even those of us that do watch Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, CBS, NBC, ABC for news, I will say ALL of them post factual events and all of them distort the truth as well. There's no pure news source anymore, although I really think PBS and NPR do their best to not lean heavily in any one political direction.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but was your post supposed to be objective on all MSM news outlets? I know the focus was on MSNBC's poor reporting on this incident, but it appeared to me a certain news outlet got a very tame pass in the quote I posted above.

lissa said...

My post was more an indictment on how I have seen news distorted and yes, more about this incident than a global commentary of media bias. I know it exists everywhere. And you're right, there is no pure news anymore.

I have to say, my local newspaper (print!) is pretty good with reporting, and maybe because it's a print layout, one can choose to read editorialized content or the news.

But the 24-hour news cycle has become a cesspool of opinions and viewers utterly incapable of thinking for themselves who take things at face value because the source they watch is the one they agree with ideologically.

The post would have gone on way too long had I found examples for each and every station that has skewed facts. That's a post for another day.

As I said, it's a topic I'm interested in researching. Maybe a PhD....