The Media Rules

As a general rule, I think it’s wrong to understand  our embarrasing media through the prism of ideological preference. It’s certainly true that at any point they could be skewing the coverage toward one party or another, but overall they’re just sloppy and lazy, so when Matt Yglesias notices this:

But this morning on MSNBC there was a lengthy discussion of Obama’s involvement in Blagojevich’s corruption. Of course, there was no evidence of any involvement on Obama’s part. Nor, despite this being a news channel, was there any original reporting of any kind whatsoever. There was, however, a ton of time spent criticizing the Obama campaign’s PR strategy with regard to this issue — the suggestion being that had Obama adopted a better PR strategy, then people wouldn’t be on television making evidence-free guilt-by-association accusations against him.

This strong me as odd. The people making the accusations kept acknowledging that they had no evidence. One might think that communicating to television personalities the fact that there was no evidence of wrongdoing on Obama’s part would constitute a good PR strategy. Given that they knew there was no evidence of wrongdoing, they should have ceased implying that there was wrongdoing. But they didn’t do that at all. Not, I would submit, because of any failings on Obama’s part, but because Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, John Heileman, Mark Halperin, and Pat Buchanan don’t care at all about the accuracy of the impression their coverage gives.

I think it’s most important to keep the overall media landscape in mind. To wit, Pat Buchanan and Joe Scarborough are obviously not journalists, they’re conservative talking heads. Mark Halperin might be a journalist in name but he’s among the absolute worst of Beltway offenders in that he never actually does any journalism, and his “reporting” consists of passing along transcripts of conference calls, posting video of ads, copying candidates’ daily schedules, and just basically passing along meaningless fodder in bulletin board style. So even if we allow that Brezezinski and Heilman are good journalists (even though they’re as plugged into the CW as anyone) they’re still outnumbered 3 to 2, and they’re still in a format that caters to this sort of nonsense.

The problem here, really, is that there’s no consequences for this sort of nonsense. Public officials aren’t generally covered by libel/slander laws, so you can basically say whatever you want to about them. There’s also really nowhere for viewers who might be disgusted by all of it to turn to, since all of the other networks are essentially doing the same thing. So while I’m certainly conscious of the 1st amendment, it seems to me that it’s certainly within the public interest to have some sort of repercussions to this kind of shoddy reporting. After all, protection of a free press doesn’t exist to protect journalists, it exists to protect the public’s ability to get information from the government’s incentive to quash that flow of knowledge to the voters.

But what do we do when it’s the journalists who are actively squashing information the public ought to have in favor of baseless speculation about scandals even they know have no there there? It seems to me that, at the very least, MSNBC, CNN, etc. ought to be open to libel lawsuits by Barack Obama, Rahm Emmanuel, and anyone else they’ve baselessly speculated might be involved in the Blagojevich scandal, even as the prosecutor in the case has blatantly said they are in no way part of the investigation, and that there’s no evidence at all that they did anything wrong. The exemption of public figures from libel and slander protection exists mainly to protect against judgment from publishing inaccurate stories, in the idea that the fear of a lawsuit may force media outlets to sit on information they’re not 100% sure about, something that would be damaging to the public’s ability to gather information about its government. But that’s clearly not what we have here, where the media is rather knowingly disseminating baseless speculation built on a premise they already know to be inaccurate. And there ought to be some sort of recourse against that.