Fake Journalism, Real Ignorance

My point in the last post, and one I rarely tire of making, is to highlight the taboo against intruding too far into the private lives of public figures that we still see in (especially northern) European public discourse.  Kohl’s criticism of Thierse’s performance in office — however nasty — is fair game, because it relates to his performance in office.  But when he went into Kohl’s private life, he went to far, as even he recognized (and I assume he did apologize personally to Kohl in the letter). 

There are many reasons for this discretion, likely including a cultural tradition of respect for the private sphere, and a sense of decorum between journalists and politicians, who are generally both members of elite groups.  But another important factor is the belief that the public needs much more information about what politicians stand for in their public lives than what they do in their private lives.  Most journalists here have an ethos which recognizes that "bad news" — in the sense of trivial speculation about politicians’ private lives — will tend to drive out "good news" — in the sense of reporting about public policy and substantive differences between the political parties.  Why will bad news drive out good news?  Because it’s easier for journalists to write, and because lots of ordinary people are interested in gossip about public figures.  You can sell lots of newspapers with trivial gossip about politicians’ and officials’ private lives.

Let’s look at the United States, where virtually all media outlets are privately-owned.  Among the subjects covered intensely in the past few years in the mainstream media have been John Edwards’ haircut, whether Hillary Clinton prefers diamonds or pearls, what kind of underwear her husband wears, the state of the marriages of all presidential candidates, including whether they’ve committed adultery or been divorced, the clothes Al Gore picks, or whether he is too fat, or what his beard looks like (it "has become the subject of intense analysis"), George W. Bush’s taste for mountain biking, or whether former Presidential Candidate Howard Dean’s wife should have played more of a role in his campaign.  Trust me, I could go on, and on, and on.  (Want hundreds more examples, and I mean literally hundreds?  Troll the archives here.)  Let us not forget that in the summer of 2001, the American media was obsessed with the warning signs of a potential terror attack whether an obscure Congressman might have had something to do with the disappearance of an attractive female aide (turns out he didn’t).

I hear plenty of readers already: "Lighten up.  There’s still some reporting about substantive policy issues in the American media.  What’s the problem with a bit of fun once in a while?  Can’t you have some tasty soup after eating your broccoli?"  Sorry to be so curmudgeonly, but no, no soup for you!  There has to be an active taboo against gossip reporting (as in the German elite media), because it drives out substance.  Once the substance is driven out, viewers, like most Americans, will end up ignorant about basic political information, and about the rest of the world.  American’s aren’t getting, or eating, enough broccoli.  And speaking of broccoli, the two facts most Americans remembered the most clearly about the first George Bush presidency were the fact that his dog was named Millie and that he didn’t like broccoli.  In fact, studies consistently reveal that the most widely-known facts about politicians in America are trivial personal tidbits.  (I’m drawing these examples from a book by two political scientists: Michael X. Delli Carpini & Scott Keeter, What Americans Know About Politics and Why it Matters (1996)).

Judging by polls of younger Americans, this ignorance will only get worse.  A recent survey, in line with so many others: Two-thirds of Americans between 18 and 24 couldn’t locate Iraq on the map in 2006, half of them couldn’t locate the Indian subcontinent on a map of Asia, only thirty percent thought it was important to know the locations of countries in the news, and a miserable fourteen percent thought speaking another language is a necessary skill.  Of course, one shouldn’t put too much stock in these kinds of surveys, since Americans arguably need less knowledge of the rest of the world than people who live in smaller countries surrounded by larger neighbors.  But look at the lack of curiosity this poll reveals.  Not only are young Americans ignorant of other countries, they don’t care that they’re ignorant.  Even after three years of war, only 1/3 of them have bothered to try to find out where Iraq is, which seems like a fair enough proxy for some important forms of geopolitical knowledge.

Delli Carpini and Keeter also report studies showing Western European voters are better-informed than Americans.  The difference isn’t huge, but it’s there.  Now, nobody expects ordinary people to sit down and read complicated books about public policy.  Most people never do so, either in Europe or in the U.S.  They get their information from newspapers and, especially, television.  So it matters who’s providing them the television.  And there’s the rub: a strong, publicly-funded press which takes its mission seriously delivers more useful information about actual policies to ordinary people.  This, in turn, creates a better-informed electorate.

I hardly need to add that the ignorance of many Americans is a problem for the whole world, because (1) it makes them easily manipulable; and (2) their government has a powerful military, and the will to use it.  I’ll end with a statistic that says it all: after hearing years of threatening rhetoric about Iran, 52% of Americans now support a military strike against that country.  If you think that most of these people support bombing a country that isn’t at war with the United States because they have carefully reviewed Iran’s history, alliances, political system, culture, and military chain of command — and have analyzed the effect on oil prices and the possibility of a backlash — then I’ve got a bridge to sell you.   

To sum up, even if you believe that not knowing much about other countries (1) is an unavoidable aspect of human nature (2) an appropriate choice for most people (who don’t need this information); and (3) and nothing to be concerned about, that’s only true unless and until your country starts planning military action against those other countries.  That’s why I hope you’ll forgive me if I harp on this theme once in a while.

10 thoughts on “Fake Journalism, Real Ignorance

  1. It is a boon to have plurality and diversity in the media landscape, which to some extent already exists in America, with public television freely available (NPR, PBS, and so on). Such public broadcasting receives some government funding while remaining relatively independent, and that’s a good solution. (I do hope that’s what you mean by “publicly funded,” because media that’s only an extension of some government public affairs ministry seems to me a great Orwellian risk.)

    The fault lies with the Americans who don’t avail themselves of other sources of information than those supplied by the big commercial broadcasters, whose news programs, as you note, do at times seem but a continuation of the soap opera/cop-and-bad guy programming so popular in the U.S.

    By the way, there are some promising developments in American programming, among others, “The Sopranos” or “Deadwood,” which, in the guise of Mafia or Western soaps, dissect American society and the forces driving Americans with intelligence and accuracy and not little wit.

  2. According to Maria Luisa, the student who asked Hillary Clinton whether she preferred “diamonds or pearls”, the question was planted by CNN:

    “Every single question asked during the debate by the audience had to be approved by CNN,” Luisa writes. “I was asked to submit questions including “lighthearted/fun” questions. I submitted more than five questions on issues important to me. I did a policy memo on Yucca Mountain a year ago and was the finalist for the Truman Scholarship. For sure, I thought I would get to ask the Yucca question that was APPROVED by CNN days in advance.” […]

    “CNN ran out of time and used me to “close” the debate with the pearls/diamonds question. Seconds later this girl comes up to me and says, “you gave our school a bad reputation.’ Well, I had to explain to her that every question from the audience was pre-planned and censored. That’s what the media does. See, the media chose what they wanted, not what the people or audience really wanted. That’s politics; that’s reality. So, if you want to read about real issues important to America–and the whole world, I suggest you pick up a copy of the Economist or the New York Times or some other independent source. If you want me to explain to you how the media works, I am more than happy to do so. But do not judge me or my integrity based on that question.”

    “Diamonds v. Pearls” Student Blasts CNN (Updated With CNN Response)
    CNN Spokesman Confirms Network Chose “Diamonds And Pearls” Question

  3. The point why so many people were upset about what Thierse said was not that he interfered in Kohl’s private life. Thierse’s statement seemed to imply that Kohl didn’t care enough about his wife and her illness, which in turn may have been a cause for her suicide.

  4. Germans are just as ignorant as their american counterparts.
    Think of the holiday-photos of Schröder and Merkel, of the Baby-stories with Seehofer, etc.

  5. Alphager, good point about the German press. If mass circulation publications like “Bild” show what average Germans have on their minds, they can’t be far behind their allegedly uninformed American counterparts.

    Perhaps “dumbing down” is more of a global phenomenon than assumed.

    On the other hand, many Americans are woefully, perhaps willfully, ignorant of political and geographical realities. As “fear always springs from ignorance,” if their rulers continue to use fear as an instrument to keep them in line, the future does not look all that rosy.

  6. About the american press (not only the american, but this “bad news” trend is growing all over the world, I think), the same old story:

    “Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about people.” – Anonymus

  7. > There has to be an active taboo against gossip reporting (as in the German
    > elite media), because it drives out substance

    Taboo? Active? Check Spiegel Online’s “Panorama” section: gossip & boobs galore – here’s two screenshots of today’s issue: 1, 2. To boost it, the Spiegel aquired Patricia Dreyer, formerly head of the Bild-Zeitung’s entertainment section, raising quite some eyebrows. Of course it’s arguable whether the Spiegel merits the elite qualifier, however, it surely has that role, Wikipedia feels that it is “Europe’s biggest and most influential weekly magazine”, and that’s right.

    > If you think that most of these people support bombing a country that isn’t at war with
    > the United States because they have carefully reviewed Iran’s history, alliances,
    > political system, culture, and military chain of command — and have analyzed the
    > effect on oil prices and the possibility of a backlash

    So, to have a say on energy policy, the electorate needs a PH.D. in physics?

    > On the other hand, many Americans are woefully, perhaps willfully, ignorant of political and
    > geographical realities. As “fear always springs from ignorance,” if their rulers continue to
    > use fear as an instrument to keep them in line, the future does not look all that rosy

    Paul: granted, fear is an political instrument for the present US administration (and most governments and politicians at that), however, we Euros never had trouble to stimulate us that way without governmental interference: remember global cooling (yes, we used to have that prophecy, too), mass starvation, overpopulation, DDT horrors, Y2K hysteria with planes falling out of the air (worldwide Angstlust, though), Avian Flu killing millions, and the Club of Rome’s many doomsday scenarios of the mid-seventies, that never came true?

  8. “Angstlust” is a good word for it.

    “…the malaise has settled like fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall….”
    (Walker Percy, “The Moviegoer”)

  9. “Wikipedia feels that it is “Europe’s biggest and most influential weekly magazine”, and that’s right.”

    Hmm, I might quibble on this one. Speigel is Germany’s biggest and most influential news magazine, and Germany is Europe’s biggest country, so presumably Speigel is more influential than the French, or Dutch, or Itaian, or Spanish equivalent publications. But that may fail when one considers the Economist. The Economist is fully as influential in the UK as Speigel is in Germany, but the Economist has more of a global audience than Speigel does, if only because more people speak and read English than do German. Considered only within the borders of Europe Speigel may or may not be more influential than the Economist. Considered globally I’d argue the Economist is clearly more influential.

  10. Marek said: “So, to have a say on energy policy, the electorate needs a PH.D. in physics?”

    No, but then again, the risks from having poorly-grounded opinions about energy policy are moderate and borne by all people on the globe, albeit not equally.

    The problem with Americans, specifically, being ignorant of foreign countries is that, their country, unlike others, has a large military and leaders willing to use it in foreign countries. Thus, Americans’ vulnerability to foolish or bad-faith pro-war arguments actually translates into real-world havoc for other nations. The risk is completely unequal — the people in the other nations suffer all the excess death and chaos from an incompetent or unjustified military intervention, while the lives of most Americans continue largely unchanged.

    That’s why I say you can absolutely speak of a duty to be well-informed in the context of war. Given the current state of the American media, this duty is not close to being fulfilled. To address the problem another way, you could put the decision to go to war in the hands of people who have specialized knowledge about the target nation and region, and no institutional or economic interests. Assuming you could find them somewhere…

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