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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Is More Information Always Better?

Regular readers know my opinion of the Fox News corporation. Over the past few weeks, Obama's administration and Fox News have gotten into a couple of real and contrived wars of words. One of the main talking points for the defenders of Fox is this (pulled fromRob's comment #34 from one of PZ Myer's posts as a representation of echoed sentiment elsewhere):
Freedom of the Press is important and the more we have of it the better. Its your freedom to choose which to regard as truth and which to regard as bias. If you have less to refer to, how will you know if you are making the right choices?
It is actually kind of amazing how closely this parallels the arguments espoused by "teach the controversy" advocates for intelligent design/creationism instruction the biology classes. Freedom of the press is important, but so is journalistic ethics. What freedom of the press means is that the government does not mandate what can and cannot be reported. There are already many issues with this in the United States, but the problem here is not that the White House team is trying to silence Fox News (because they are not), just that they are calling them on being biased and playing to an agenda. While I recognize that true journalistic neutrality is impossible to achieve, it is still what one must strive for to be a good journalist. Presenting incredibly biased or blatantly false claims does not help people "make the right choice". After all, how is one supposed to decide "which to regard as truth and which to regard as bias"? Based on which news network has the most attractive reporters or greatest emotional appeal to their rhetoric? When a news organization has no legal obligation to the truth and spends money and time organizing and fomenting the dissent that they plan to cover, it ceases to be a legitimate source of news and ceases to bring useful information into public discourse. At this point, Fox News is no better than the Discovery Institute. Likewise, Fox's emotionally charged defenders' false dichotomy of either treating Fox News uncritically or being against freedom of the press is no better than the "teach the controversy in the name of academic freedom" nonsense the Discovery Institute spouts.


Robert said...

This is a subject at times I feel conflicted on. I generally have an emotional reaction to radical support of the 1st amendment, including freedom of the press. But, when people do radically support that, and support no limitation on ideas and letting everyone decide what is true for themselves, I think they drastically overestimate the abilities, background knowledge, and time commitments available to the average person. I think a lot of people pretty much have to be engaged in a sort of deciding what "experts" to blindly believe in by a combination of what "experts" appeal to them emotionally, and what "experts" appeal to their ingrained biases. (I put experts in quotes, because the experts I am largely referring to in this case are the tv pundits that are ransacking the US airwaves and the networks that support them). We cannot all be experts on everything. So we have to, in a way, blindly accept the opinions of experts to get by in the world.

As you say also, journalist neutrality is impossible. I agree. However, you go on to say that journalist should strive for neutrality. I also might agree with this, depending on what you define as neutrality. Instead of theoretically trying to describe what I mean, here is an example:

Al Gore accepts the science of global warming. James Inhofe does not and calls it the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people. One of these two people are correct. Objectively. Neutrality I think in this case would be call Inhofe on his crap, and dismiss him as spreading lies and basically just give time to Gore. However, there is another thing here. Is Global Warming a problem? Well, there are objectively demonstrable effects of global climate change. Some small island nations disappear, the world’s food supply will get thrown into disarray, and a large percentage of the worlds species will die. Canada will also become hospitable to human life :) (sorry, I take it back, I take it back). But whether or not you think these are problems depend largely on your values. You can think these outcomes are okay. I think you are a morally disgusting individual if you do, but the question here is, what does the media do with individuals that feel this way. Is there a way to report the value debate while maintaining neutrality. I am not sure there is. And I think that it is impossible to say that one reporting on the subject is more neutral than another, because even the act of favoring a "bipartisan" approach to reporting the issue, you are making a value judgment and therefore not being neutral. And in all these discussions, there are more than two sides to the debate, and deciding which voices to include or not include is also a value judgment, and no matter how bipartisan you may be in reporting the sides you chose to report, you are not being "neutral" because you made a judgment 1) about excluding certain voices and 2) making a judgment about how to present those voices, which exudes value into the presentation of the ideas. Even a bipartisan presentation of the ideas supports some interests (generally the status quo and the elites that favor the status quo) and even by framing the issue as bipartisan, you are making a politically non-neutral statement about where the political center (and likewise where the extremes) of the debate are.

Robert said...

(I split my comment into two sections, because the comment thingy said there is a 4000 or so character limit. So here is the last part of what I wrote):

In closing, I will say two things. 1) I hope this comment had some definable point that you can understand. 2) I am seriously joking about Canada. I think I want to move there. If it would get warmer. For example, I was playing around on google street view, and randomly came across this. Take a 360 turn around that. If you do not think that has got to be one of the most beautiful places in the world, well, something is wrong.

Mitchell Gerskup said...

The way I see it, at least Fox news doesn't try to pretend (or if they do, it's very thinly veiled) that they're presenting the unbiased truth.

The discovery institute, on the other hand, often tries to pass off what they're doing as "scientific dialogue".

I might dislike Fox, but at least they tend to be honest about what they're doing.

Mozglubov said...

Robert: I am still thinking your response over, so I'll get to it in a bit.

Mitch: I disagree. Although, as you say, Fox News does only thinly veil their bias, there are a lot of people who buy it, and it is a position they adamantly maintain unless cornered. While this video was taken during the American election, I think it illustrates the point fairly well. The Fox News reporter is not only extremely hostile, she is adamant that Fox News is unbiased and balanced. Likewise, the Discovery Institute guys are quite obviously (to anyone with a decent historical and scientific set of knowledge) not doing science and are religiously motivated, but they continue to deny it as often as they can.