Just the ‘facts’ fails us all

Neal Gabler is the author, most recently, of "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination."

T.S. Eliot was wrong. August is the cruelest month. As we head toward next month’s congressional face-off on a national healthcare bill, the news media are infatuated with town hall meetings. Over and over, we see angry citizens screaming about a Big Government takeover of the healthcare system, shouting that they will lose their insurance or be forced to give up their doctors and denouncing “death panels” that will euthanize old people.

Of course, none of this is even remotely true. These are all canards peddled by insurance companies terrified of losing their power and profits, by right-wing militants terrified of a victory for the president they hate and by the Republican Party, which has been commandeered by the insurance industry and the militants. But the lies have obviously had their effect. Recent polls show that support for healthcare reform -- reform that would insure more Americans, would force insurance companies to cover preexisting conditions and prevent them from capriciously terminating coverage, and would provide competition to drive down costs -- is rapidly eroding.

Maybe Americans should know better. Maybe they shouldn’t fall for the latest imbecilic propaganda and scare tactics. Maybe. But a citizenry is only as well-informed as the quality of information it receives. One can’t expect Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin or the Republican Party or even the Democrats to provide serious, truthful assessments of a complex health plan. Truth has to come from somewhere else -- from a reliable, objective, trustworthy source.

That source should be the media, and there has been, in fact, some excellent coverage of healthcare, especially by our better newspapers and especially lately when the untruths have become a torrent, rousing reporters to provide a corrective. But overall, the coverage has not been exactly edifying. According to the Pew Research Center, 16% of the stories in its media sample last week were devoted to healthcare, but three-quarters of that coverage was either about legislative politics or the town halls. Tom Rosenstiel, who heads Pew’s Center for Excellence in Journalism, said that if the healthcare debate is a potential teaching moment, that “moment is passing us by.”


Television particularly has been remiss, even without mentioning cable news, which may be the greatest source of disinformation. ABC took some heat from Republicans for giving President Obama a prime-time forum to answer questions about healthcare in June. But as far as I can tell, it is the only prime-time special that any broadcast network has devoted to the healthcare debate. Even so, rather than merely host the president, ABC should have had a variety of experts and qualified reporters assessing exactly what the proposed bills will and will not do and who is and is not telling the truth -- a difficult but not impossible task.

To look at this in a larger context, journalists would no doubt say that it isn’t really their job to ferret out the “truth.” It is their job to report “facts.” If Palin says that Obama intends to euthanize her child, they report it. If Limbaugh says that Obama’s healthcare plan smacks of Nazism, they report it. And if riled citizens begin shouting down their representatives, they report it, and report it, and report it. The more noise and the bigger the controversy, the greater the coverage. This creates a situation in which not only is the truth subordinate to lies, but one in which shameless lies are actually privileged over reasoned debate.

Don’t think the militants don’t know this and take full advantage of it. They know that the media, especially the so-called liberal mainstream media -- which are hardly liberal if assessed honestly -- refrain from attempting to referee arguments for fear that they will be accused by the right of taking sides. So rather than be battered, the media -- and I am talking about the respectable media, not the carnival barkers on cable -- increasingly strive for the simplest sort of balance rather than real objectivity. They marshal facts, but they don’t seek truth. They behave as if every argument must be heard and has equal merit, when some are simply specious. That is how global warming, WMD and “end of life” counseling have become part of silly reportorial ping-pong at best and badly misleading information at worst.

All of this is even more relevant given the death of media oracle Walter Cronkite several weeks ago. He achieved his legendary status, as many have observed, not because he was the reassuring avuncular voice of America, blandly reading the news, but because he was often its truth teller, upsetting our complacency. It was Cronkite who visited Vietnam and declared it a stalemate when nearly everyone else in the news media was gung-ho. And it was Cronkite who decided to take the Washington Post’s reporting on Watergate and devote 14 minutes of his broadcast to it, thus dragging it from the sidelines into the national conversation. The truth is also relevant in light of a recent online poll that showed Jon Stewart as the nation’s most trusted newsman. Stewart is, of course, a comedian, and the news media’s incapacity to tell the truth, along with the idiocies and hypocrisies of our political leadership, are his running joke. What he does to politicians and to the media is exactly what the media should be doing to politicians and to one another.

It was because we didn’t have a committed, truth-telling media that the country marched happily into Iraq, with tragic consequences that should have been foreseen. As media analyst Michael Massing discovered in his study of the prewar coverage, virtually the entire media, except for the McClatchy papers, reported the administration’s rationale without devoting more than a few sentences or minutes to dissenting voices, much less doing their own analysis. It was because we didn’t have a committed, truth-telling media that the country plunged off the economic cliff with so little warning. And it may very well be because we don’t have a committed, truth-telling media that we will fail to get the healthcare reform we so desperately need.

Why don’t we get the truth? Part of it, as I’ve said, is fear -- fear that if journalists dispel the rumors they will be bashed by the right, which is implacably against the president’s reforms no matter how much sense they make. Part of it is a lack of expertise. Most reporters are not equipped to quickly and authoritatively tell truth from spin on an issue such as healthcare. And part of it, frankly, is sheer laziness.

Telling the truth requires shoe leather. It requires digging up facts that aren’t being handed to you, talking to experts, thinking hard about what you find. This isn’t easy. It takes time and energy as well as guts, especially when there are conflicting studies, as there are on healthcare. But finally, we may not have a journalism of truth because we haven’t demanded one. Many of us are invested in one side of the story; we are for Obama or against him, for healthcare reform or against it. These are a priori positions. Truth won’t change them.

Yet the danger of not insisting on the truth in a brave new world of constant lies is that it subjects our policies to whichever side shouts the loudest or has the most money to spend to mislead us. That is likely to lead to disastrous governance: a needless war, a great recession, a continuation of a failing healthcare system.


What it comes down to is that sometimes the media have to tell the truth not because anyone really wants them to but because it is the right thing to do -- the essential thing to do -- for the sake of our democracy.