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Media Fails First Test of Obama Era

Jack Cafferty and Maureen Dowd

Jack Cafferty and Maureen Dowd

With the nation’s economy reeling, and corporate advertisers desperate for help, some assumed that the traditional media would have an incentive to provide solid, fact-based coverage of the stimulus package debate. But like “bipartisanship,” this expectation has proved unrealistic. From Jack Cafferty and Campbell Brown on CNN, to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, to virtually the entire television news industry outside MSNBC’s Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow, Republican talking points claiming the House bill was filled with “bling, bling,” “pork,” and a “Christmas tree” of non-job producing programs were repeated without specific examples being identified.

And when examples were given, the same two programs – one for contraceptive planning, the other for resodding the National Mall — were mentioned time and again, despite being struck from the House bill well prior to passage. The problem is less about ideology, and more about two endemic factors: laziness, and a format that offers opinions – as in CNN’s “best political team on Television” – rather than facts.

If you read Daily Kos -- which has been at its most essential in recent weeks — you probably know all the basic facts about the House and Senate stimulus bills. But far more Americans get their news from television, and are being done a great disservice by networks that increasingly rely on punditry, not facts.

CNN: Much Bias, All Bull, Few Facts
Because CNN is the only cable news show on during non-peak hours, and cleverly promotes itself as an “objective” source — right-wing racist Lou Dobbs bills himself as “Mr. Independent” while evening host Campbell Brown titles her show, “No Bias, No Bull” — millions trust CNN as their news source. This makes its reliance on pundits rather than reporters particularly damaging for progressives.

During the stimulus debate, CNN framed its coverage around the Republican view that House Democrats had added billions in spending that had nothing to do with job creation. In some cases, as with Lou Dobbs’ insistence that the House bill gave millions of dollars to ACORN, CNN simply provided outright false information.

But far more common is for the CNN host, whether Wolf Blitzer, Campbell Brown, or Anderson Cooper, to lay out both sides of the debate and then turn matters over to CNN’s self-proclaimed “Best political team on Television.” These pundits then argue the merits of their position without any effort to connect their comments to facts, or even to fact-check any of their statements.

This “cable chatter,” as President Obama describes it, is not a separate show that follows the CNN newscast. Rather, it is CNN’s newscast.

This means that viewers learn from CNN what the pundits tell them, and have little ability — unless they go online or read a newspaper — to know whether the pundits attacks and defenses of the stimulus had any basis in reality.

Marketing surveys have likely convinced CNN that showing pundits’ arguing with each other makes for a much more lively news show than having a reporter assessing whether a specific program will create jobs. But this gives a tremendous advantage to opponents of new programs, as its easier to misrepresent proposals when there is no fact checking.

Chris Matthews’ Hardball on MSNBC is no less guilty of relying on pundits rather than facts, and Matthews appears far more interested in expressing his opinions than in educating his audience.

That’s why Olberman and Maddow are so refreshing: not only are they more progressive, but they avoid the multiple talking heads and use interviews to uncover facts, not more opinions.

Laziness Prevails
The traditional media has long been accused of framing economic issues to please corporate advertisers. But since the U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports the Obama stimulus, this would not explain why CNN and other commercial broadcasters are reasserting anti-stimulus talking points.

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The problem here is laziness. It takes work to actually explain why a particular program will not create jobs; much easier for New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to echo R.N.C. chairman Michael Steele in describing the House bill as including “Grammy-level “bling, bling” without providing a single example.

Or for CNN’s Jack Cafferty to declare on February 10:

Acting like children who hadn't seen Santa Claus for eight years, House Democrats busily loaded up the bill with stuff they had been unable to get for eight years. It was payback time. Contraception, funding for the arts, restoration of the national mall, stop-smoking programs. All while Americans lose their homes, their jobs, and their savings. It was both childish and disgraceful.

What’s really disgraceful is Cafferty’s laziness in not only citing two items long removed from the house bill (and the contraceptive measure would have saved taxpayer dollars), but making no attempt to explain why funding for the arts does not create jobs. The stimulative impact of such funding has been well documented, yet Cafferty apparently did not take the time to read the huge number of these stories in major newspapers and instead borrowed his talking points from Oklahoma nutcase Tom Coburn and the right-wing Heritage Foundation.

Nor did Cafferty explain why saving millions in health costs through non-smoking programs neither creates jobs nor saves taxpayers money, and is thus “disgraceful.”

But Cafferty’s readers and viewers aren’t told these facts – all they know is that objective and independent Jack Cafferty is blaming Nancy Pelosi, not Republicans, for any problems with the stimulus package.

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Bad Omen for Future
If the traditional media is going to rely on Republican talking points and pundit arguments rather than facts on an issue where Corporate America backs Obama, just imagine what we have in store on issues like universal health care, the Employee Free Choice Act, and immigration reform.

And as Think Progress has reported, GOP lawmakers outnumbered Democrats almost 2-1 in cable news coverage of the stimulus debate.

Thank goodness that fewer and fewer people are relying on the traditional media for their news, and that the demographic trends are accelerating this shift.


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the new book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press)

Republished with permission from Beyond Chron