Reality is Not Debatable, Issues Are

Bob Garfield rarely rails into my earbuds, but his Feb. 6 podcast of NPR’s On the Media was an exception. After playing a series of newscast clips of anchors teasing stories on the growing “debate” about vaccines, he erupted.

“For crying out loud, there is no controversy. There is no debate,” said Garfield, emphasis in the transcript. “Cynical politicians like Rand Paul and Chris Christie may pander all they want to frightened moms and the tinfoil-hat crowd–just as 49 US Senators can deny man’s role in climate change. But there is no rational basis for their beliefs. They are simply wrong — and when the media frame such idiocy as one side of a debate, they are not only legitimizing ignorance and demagoguery, they are threatening the lives of children.”

Garfield’s boil was followed a few days later by the announcement of Jon Stewart’s retirement. And I was immediately reminded of his 2004 takedown of CNN’s crossfire. Stewart did his own quiet railing that day, telling Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson to “stop hurting America” by reducing serious issues to predictable daily doses of partisan rant.

Of course Stewart and Garfield aren’t complaining about the same thing. Issues deserve debate and Stewart’s point is they deserve nuance rather than a 30-minute squeeze through the cable hack funnel. Understanding challenges, tracking the issues they become and working on solutions has nothing to do with the false choice of two simple sides we’re fed by some media. Garfield understands what issues are – matters in dispute. And in the case of vaccines or climate change or evolution, there is no issue unless the media allows one to be created. The media has that power: presenting false choices where there are none and narrowing our alternatives for real debate when issues are real.

As a onetime and still occasional partisan hack myself, I think Stewart’s point missed some nuance itself. We could have used a lot more partisanship on issues like the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the crash/bailout at the end of the Bush years that seems to have blown a permanent hole in the bottom line of most Americans. In the absence of partisanship and debate on big stuff, the media had little to cover.

This is exactly the equation that science-deniers especially have learned so well: Complicated Subject + Prominent Expressions of Doubt + Reporting of Same > Reality.

Can that be true? Garfield says, “Reality just is. It can’t be “balanced” by lies, superstition, or even true conviction. And any attempt to do so courts catastrophe by aiding and abetting very dangerous fools.”

What about dangerous fools? What about Vladimir Putin? Former Russian television producer Peter Pomerantsev spent years as an insider in the “news” operations of the regime. He told the New York Times he believes he saw “many classic techniques” of propaganda during his tenure: “He says one favorite trick was to put a credible expert next to a neo-Nazi, juxtaposing fact with fiction so as to encourage so much cynicism that viewers believed very little. Another was to give credence to conspiracy theories — by definition difficult to rebut because their proponents are immune to reasoned debate. ‘What they are basically trying to undermine is the idea of a reality-based conversation,’ Mr. Pomerantsev said, “and to use the idea of a plurality of truths to feed disinformation, which in the end looks to trash the information space.’”

Speaking of dangerous fools, Gov. Bobby Jindal is no Putin. But the verbose Louisiana opportunist trying to claw his way into the Republican presidential field understands the information space. In mid-January, Jindal claimed European cities have Muslim areas under Sharia law that are “no-go zones” for police, a claim so false it had been retracted by FOX News days before. No matter, even later in January, Jindal doubled-down on the claim, warning of a Muslim invasion of the U.S.

We’ll see how comfortable the media will be accommodating Jindal’s strategy of denying reality. Said the Times story of Putin: “slick techniques imported from the West helped engineer a spectacular rise in his approval ratings. They are now being deployed, not just against Western policies, but against basic Western values, Mr. Pomerantsev argues. ‘It’s not so much an information war, but a war on information.’”

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