As I join so many other Americans in watching the coverage and updates regarding this past Saturday's tragic and senseless events in Arizona, I hear recurring themes in the recommendations on how best to avoid these incidents in the future. There are predictable, perhaps procedurally mandatory, calls for a tempered cooperation between our representatives. There are recommendations for those representatives' enhanced security, many of which make a great deal of sense. There are also frequent calls for backing away from the toxic political discourse that demonizes opponents, especially the sort issuing from politicos like Sarah Palin and Sharron Angle, and media personalities like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.
All of these are well received, of course, and all of them spark discussion of how far off track our political society finds itself. There is one consideration, however, that is conspicuous for its lack of media attention, and that is the media itself. Indeed, there seems to be an active effort on the part of media's talking heads to hold themselves innocent and blameless in shaping the political environment in which we find ourselves.
Of course, Fox News has come in for frequent mentions of their contribution to the problem, but one must view the problem through blinders to imagine that Fox, while perhaps the most egregious contributor, is the only contributor. All media outlets, which allow the hate mongers to have an uncritical soapbox, share in responsibility for this problem.
The broadcast media outlets, represented by ABC, CBS and NBC are complicit in the state of political discourse, all having drawn false equivalencies between positions on both sides of the current debates by a number of techniques that they practice. For one, they will present truth and falsehood as equally valid, but opposed "positions" on an issue. They will also draw equivalence between a clear view of an event and the spin that presents it in a light favorable to those whose agenda benefits from that. In covering an issue like global climate change, they offer one scientist's opinion from one side, and balance it with one scientist's "opinion" from the other side, never mentioning necessary background information like one opinion representing 98% of scientific thought and the other representing 2%, or the fact that one of the scientists is working for, or being funded by interests opposing any change to the status quo. They justify the use of these techniques with the laughable claim to journalistic balance.
Another way to control the debate, and the public's perception of it is couched in the editorial decisions that choose the stories that are aired and those that are not along with how the stories that are covered get prioritized. Of course this has always been so with news media, but once upon a time when media outlets had well known editorial positions, these decisions were well understood by their patrons. When the public is conditioned to expect that the news media are "fair and balanced", not so much through practice as through the incessant repeating of the phrase, the process becomes insidious.
Then there is polling. Polling is supposed to be a scientific exercise, based on the mathematical science of statistics, in which a carefully constructed question is put to a carefully selected sample of the population to determine what their opinion is within a rigorous margin of error, normally 3% in either direction.
During election campaigns, though, when different organizations are asking closely related questions of closely similar, if not identical, samples; we should expect this rigorous exercise to yield closely similar results. This is often not what we see. Indeed, when the contest is closest, we seem to see the most widely divergent results. The conclusions to be drawn from this are narrow in scope. Either the polls are not scientific, or one or both organizations conducting them have skewed one or more factors affecting the outcome, yielding a false result, albeit the most desirable result for those commissioning the poll.
This is also a technique in use by media companies seeking to shape public opinion, as poll results while ostensibly measuring public opinion, are also well known tools for shaping public opinion. When a falsified result is published, it not only leads public opinion, it causes succeeding legitimate polls to measure opinion that has been shaped by the false results, yielding two false results.