"The outbreak of Ebola virus disease in Liberia is over," announced the World Health Organization on May 9, declaring a cautious end to the deadly wave that claimed 4,700 Liberian lives since last summer. That outbreak, of course, eventually sparked panic in the United States last September and October when a handful of Ebola cases were confirmed domestically. Ebola mania raged in the media for weeks and became one of the biggest news stories of 2014.
So how did the American media cover the latest, good-news Ebola story in the days following the WHO announcement? Very, very quietly.
By my count, ABC News devoted just brief mentions of the story on Good Morning America and its Sunday talk show, This Week. On NBC, only the Today show noted the development, while CBS This Morning and the CBS Evening News set aside brief mentions. None of the network newscasts have given this Ebola story full segments, according to a transcript search via Nexis.
A scattering of mentions on cable news and a handful of stories including in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, among others, rounded out the remaining coverage in the past week.*
Pretty amazing, considering that late last year the U.S. news media were in the grips of self-induced Ebola hysteria. During one peak week, cable news channels mentioned "Ebola" over 4,000 times, while the Washington Post homepage one night featured at least 15 Ebola-related articles and columns, many of which focused on both the international crisis and the political dynamic, and the problems Ebola was supposedly causing President Obama.
That's not to say the tragic outbreak was not a big story worthy of any news coverage. It was, but American media went into overdrive hyping concerns that a deadly domestic outbreak was imminent -- only to rapidly forget.
The recent look-away coverage from Ebola shouldn't come as a surprise. The American media lost complete interest in the story right after Republicans lost interest in the story, which is to say right after last November's midterm elections, when they brandished Ebola as a partisan weapon.
That's no exaggeration. From Media Matters' research:
A Boston Globe columnist compared anti-gay groups fighting against marriage equality to activists who fought against Jim Crow-era racism, attacking marriage equality supporters for trying to "redefine" marriage.
In a June 18 op-ed, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby touted the upcoming March for Marriage in Washington, DC - an event sponsored by the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage (NOM). The march is likely to be a largely astroturfed event and will be attended by some of the most extreme anti-gay voices in America.
According to Jacoby, however, the anti-gay activists attending the march should be compared to the civil rights heroes who fought against Jim Crow era discrimination:
It would certainly be easier to make peace with the new order, especially considering the aggressiveness and hostility that many "marriage equality" activists deploy against those who oppose gay marriage.
Then again, much the same could have been said a century ago to those who insisted -- in the depths of Jim Crow -- that the cause of civil rights and racial fairness was worth fighting for. They too must have heard with regularity that they were on the "wrong side of history." The promise of Reconstruction was long gone. In much of the country, black enfranchisement was a dead letter. The Supreme Court had ruled 7-1 in Plessy v. Ferguson that racial segregation -- "separate but equal" -- was constitutional. The president of the United States was a white supremacist on whose watch black employees were fired from government positions, and public facilities in Washington were segregated.
Honorable voices argued that blacks had no realistic option but to make the best of a bad situation. But there were others who insisted that the lost spirit of abolitionism could be revived, that Jim Crow could be fought and eventually overturned, that "separate but equal" was based on a falsehood and would ultimately prove untenable. They founded the NAACP in 1909, launching a movement that would eventually transform America. [emphasis added]
Organizations that monitor reporter access and safety overseas are harshly criticizing a Fox News reporter's suggestion that U.S. forces could have posed as journalists in order to more quickly apprehend a recently-captured suspect in the Benghazi attacks.
Earlier today, news broke that following "months of planning," U.S. Special Operations forces had captured Ahmed Abu Khattala, a suspected ringleader of the 2012 attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
Several conservative media figures have criticized the administration for the timing of Khattala's capture. At a State Department press briefing, Fox News reporter James Rosen questioned State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki about why journalists had been able to access Khattala -- several major outlets have published interviews with him since the attacks -- while U.S. forces had still not apprehended him.
After Psaki responded that there was a difference between suspected terrorists wanting to talk to reporters and special forces being able to capture them, Rosen asked, "Following your own logic...why didn't we pose as a reporter to capture him then?"
But organizations that advocate for reporter access and safety overseas told Media Matters such an approach would put legitimate journalists in danger because their credibility would come into question more often.
"Let's recognize that military and intelligence operations should never, ever use journalists as cover," said Joel Simon, executive director of The Committee to Protect Journalists, which monitors treatment of reporters in foreign outposts and tallies physical and rights abuses of journalists. "Intelligence agents should never use journalistic cover, never because that jeopardizes the work of the media.
Simon and other experts said that military elements posing as journalists could pose a danger to the ethics and safety of legitimate reporters who would be accused of being spies or intelligence plants.
"We see every day all over the world that journalists are accused of being spies and of having ties or supporting military efforts that a particular country is taking," Simon stressed. "The most important asset that journalists have in those situations is their independence and their impartiality and anything that compromises that or the perception of their impartiality further endangers them."
Bryan Bender, former president of Military Reporters & Editors and a current MRE board member, agreed.
"I think setting aside for a second the case of this suspect, many of us who cover the Pentagon would have huge concerns if we learned U.S. military was posing as journalists," said Bender, also a Boston Globe national security reporter. "We'd get upset as we did in Iraq years ago that the military was planting stories in local media to help their cause. It is important to us as journalists and it should be important to the government that we fulfill our unique roles and not confuse one with the other."
As the nation mourns the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, conservative media figures have attempted to appropriate his legacy and attribute to the beloved former president their conservative ideas and positions. This effort runs counter to Kennedy's stated positions, speeches, and other historical facts surrounding his presidency.
Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby argued that LGBT workers don't need the protections afforded by the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), falsely asserting that the free market already provides an adequate check on workplace discrimination.
In his November 17 column, Jacoby noted that many Fortune 500 companies and prominent business leaders including Apple CEO Tim Cook have spoken out against LGBT employment discrimination. Reprising a common argument against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Jacoby contended that businesses should be free to decide whether to discriminate against LGBT people. In Jacoby's view, the fact that many businesses don't do so is sufficient to obviate the need for ENDA (emphasis added):
APPLE CEO Tim Cook, writing recently in The Wall Street Journal, urged Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, which would make it illegal under federal law for employers to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Prejudice, Cook insisted, is bad for business. Indeed it is -- as defenders of free markets have pointed out for years, irrational discrimination tends to reduce an employer's profits. Far from strengthening the case for a new federal law, however, it seems to me that Cook's observation cuts the other way.
Thanks to the changes already produced by the marketplace, a significant addition to the Civil Rights Act is superfluous. According to the Human Rights Campaign, the influential gay-rights organization and a prominent supporter of ENDA, nearly 90 percent of companies in the Fortune 500 have explicitly banned employment discrimination against gays and lesbians. As of April, only about 60 companies on Fortune's list had not yet formally adopted such policies, and very few have actually voted against doing so.
Clearly there has been a sea change in the way Americans have come to think about employment discrimination against gays and lesbians. It would be surprising if that change weren't reflected on payday -- and sure enough, that's what the data show. Economists Geoffrey Clarke and Purvi Sevak, in a study just published in the journal Economic Letters, note that gay men in the 1980s and early 1990s had less earning power than straight men of comparable age, race, and education. By the mid-1990s that "gay wage penalty" had disappeared; in the years since 2000 it has turned into a wage premium. As far back as 2002, for example, gay men were outearning their nongay peers by 2.45 percent.
Is it logical to conclude from all this that the American workplace is so poisoned with bigotry against gays and lesbians that only a drastic change in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 can end the oppression? Or would it be fairer to say that the vast majority of American workers have no desire to see colleagues hired or fired because of their sexual orientation -- and that the vast majority of US companies have no interest in letting sexual orientation become an issue? For years opinion surveys have documented near-universal support for gay rights in the workplace. The market is doing what markets have always sought to do: break down unreasonable discrimination by making it unhealthy for a business's bottom line.
New federal laws should be a last resort, when there is no other means of solving an urgent national problem. In a country of 300 million people, there will always be occasional incidents of bigotry and unfairness directed at people where they work, but plainly there is no urgent crisis in the treatment of gay and lesbian employees that Congress alone can fix. As it is, 21 states and nearly 200 cities and counties have followed the market's lead and enacted legislation barring employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Washington has more than enough on its plate. It doesn't need to add yet another protected category to the list of groups legally protected from private discrimination. That will only make federal cases out of even more disputes.
The Boston Globe's Mattias Gugel covers political issues like Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-MA) reaction to the ongoing government shutdown and the tea party -- but he also has a right-wing resume and is a self-described "staunch conservative."
On October 2, Gugel authored an article highlighting which staff members in Sen. Elizabeth Warren's office were furloughed due to the on-going government shutdown -- a shutdown led by conservative Republicans in the House that Warren has argued against. Gugel wrote:
Despite the government shutdown, Bay Staters seeking to contact most members of the Massachusetts delegation in Washington can still reach a staffer by phone, with the exception of Senator Elizabeth Warren's office .
Warren, a Democrat, determined that having staff answer phone calls is not an essential part of her office's job during a shutdown, leaving constituents to go to voice mail when they call to give their opinion or to seek services or assistance.
Also on October 2, Gugel wrote an article for the Globe centered on congressional tea partiers' reactions to the shutdown -- characterizing them as "combative, defiant, defensive, and resolute."
But Gugel has previously been vocal about his support for tea party Republicans and once wrote in their defense that, "Bipartisanship ended during the glorious reign of President Barack Obama."
Gugel also previously worked as an intern for U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) and as a staff assistant for State Sen. Joe Leibham (R-WI). He praised a list of "leading conservatives" from Wisconsin that included Republicans Rep. Paul Ryan and Gov. Scott Walker, and hoped that, "someday my name might be added to that list."
Gugel, who once described himself as "a pretty staunch conservative all around," believes that Obama's 2012 re-election campaign slogan "Forward" is a Marxist code-word aimed at "diehard liberals because of these socialist connotations":
The president's approach to this problem is evident in the radical imagery the new slogan invokes. Leftists have historically used the word as a rallying cry for progress, and many Marxist publications were named "Forward" (or its foreign equivalents). And for those naysayers who think only conservatives believe Obama is a socialist, he himself chose the direct symbolism this time.
Photo Credit: Timothy Valentine via Flickr
Over the past three months, major print outlets throughout the country largely failed to discuss rising structural inequality and poverty in the United States while reporting on policies and programs that affect low-income groups.
In the weeks leading up to Election Day, major media outlets whitewashed many of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's extreme positions, including on abortion, health care, and the situation in the Middle East. In doing so, these outlets aided Romney's efforts to remake himself as a moderate politician.
Hosting Rep. Paul Ryan on the Today show this week, Matt Lauer asked the Republican vice presidential candidate whether he would concede that some of the statements he made in his convention speech in Tampa last week "were not completely accurate."
Specifically, Lauer pressed Ryan on his controversial assertion suggesting president Obama was responsible for the closing of a General Motors plant in Janesville, WI., when in fact GM made the plant-closing announcement in June 2008, while President Bush was still in office. (The plant halted its production of SUVs in December 2008; also while Bush was in office.)
Ryan's easily debunked attack on Obama has put the candidate on the defensive. It's also sparked a debate within the media about fact-checking and how to cover candidates who campaign while aggressively removed from the truth.
And yet despite the GM controversy, and through the endless debunking, Ryan has remained loyal to the issue, even tweeting about the plant closing this week:
Questioned by Lauer about the controversy, Ryan's told him to go "read the speech," and then mounted this defense [emphasis added]
RYAN: What I was saying is, the president ought to be held to account for his broken promises. After our plant was shut down, he said that he would lead an effort to retool plants like the Janesville plant to get people back to work. It's still idle; people are still not working there.
But that's not what Ryan said in his speech last week.
In Tampa, Ryan quoted candidate Obama speaking at the auto plant on February 13, 2008, months before it was shut down. Then on Today, Ryan told Lauer he had referenced comments Obama made "after our plant was shut down." [emphasis added]
Hammered for dishonest comments he made in his convention speech about the closing of a GM plant, Ryan went on national television this week and compounded that dishonesty by revising what he said in his convention speech.
How is the press supposed to cover a post-truth politician like that? And should they trust Ryan's assertions in the future?
A Boston Globe editorial noted that by the end of his first term, President Obama will have appointed far fewer lower court judges than either of his two predecessors, and chided him for "fail[ing] to make the most of an opportunity to shape the federal judiciary." The editorial referenced a recent New York Times article that highlighted unprecedented Republican obstruction of President Obama's nominees but does not actually mention this fact. By ignoring Republican obstruction, the Globe gives its readers far less than half the story.
The federal judiciary currently has so many vacancies that more than half of Americans are living in a "judicial emergency." That is, as district judges are increasingly faced with disproportionately large dockets, attention to individual cases falls, resolution is delayed, and access to justice for everyone suffers. As The New York Times reported, as of August 17, "Mr. Obama has appointed just 125 such judges, compared with 170 at a similar point in Mr. Clinton's first term and 162 for Mr. Bush."
Former U.S. Senator John E. Sununu's dual career as a contributing op-ed writer for The Boston Globe and an advisor to a lobbying firm is raising ethical questions.
A review of Sununu's columns reveals that they have not contained disclosures about his ties to lobbying giant Akin Gump, where he serves as a "senior policy advisor." Indeed, Sununu has written about issues related to Akin Gump's lobbying without disclosing his role in the firm.
Political scientist Brendan Nyhan points to a Boston Globe essay by Joe Keohane (based largely on research conducted by Nyhan) about the stickiness of misperceptions and the challenge this poses for those who think it is important for people to not be wrong.
Keohane notes that "Americans lack even a basic understanding of how their country works." Or, as Princeton's Larry Bartels put it in 1996: "the political ignorance of the American voter is one of the best documented data in political science." That, I think, is quite clearly true, and is an indictment of the news media as much as (or more than) it is a criticism of American voters.
Keohane also points out that studies have found that "misinformed people often have some of the strongest political opinions." Again, probably not surprising.
The really troubling part, though, is that several studies have concluded that presenting people with the facts may not do much to convince them. Keohane summarizes Nyhan's findings:
Facts don't necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.
What's going on? How can we have things so wrong, and be so sure that we're right? Part of the answer lies in the way our brains are wired. Generally, people tend to seek consistency. There is a substantial body of psychological research showing that people tend to interpret information with an eye toward reinforcing their preexisting views. If we believe something about the world, we are more likely to passively accept as truth any information that confirms our beliefs, and actively dismiss information that doesn't. This is known as "motivated reasoning." Whether or not the consistent information is accurate, we might accept it as fact, as confirmation of our beliefs. This makes us more confident in said beliefs, and even less likely to entertain facts that contradict them.
New research, published in the journal Political Behavior last month, suggests that once those facts — or "facts" — are internalized, they are very difficult to budge.
Nyhan suggests one solution to this problem:
Nyhan ultimately recommends a supply-side approach. Instead of focusing on citizens and consumers of misinformation, he suggests looking at the sources. If you increase the "reputational costs" of peddling bad info, he suggests, you might discourage people from doing it so often. "So if you go on 'Meet the Press' and you get hammered for saying something misleading," he says, "you'd think twice before you go and do it again." Unfortunately, this shame-based solution may be as implausible as it is sensible.
I am a huge fan of increasing the "reputational costs" of peddling misinformation -- of not only shaming, but shunning, too.
But, as Keohane suggests, that isn't sufficient, both because there are plenty of people who are incapable of being shamed, and because neither journalists nor politicians demonstrate much interest in shaming their peers.
Keohane's essay, I think, reinforces something I've been arguing for years: the importance of repetition. It isn't enough for news organizations to occasionally correct false statements; they must do so every time they quote, paraphrase, or refer to a false statement. And it isn't enough occasionally give readers and viewers basic information about public policy debates -- it must be done over and over again. Such an approach would, I think (hope?) have two benefits: It could make it more likely that voters internalize the truth before misinformation takes hold and the repetition could break through the barriers presented by preconceived notions -- it seems likely that it's harder to dismiss something you hear a dozen times than something you hear once.
And that, by the way, is why I keep coming back to this point...
UPDATE: Also, the way in which false claims are debunked is important...
UPDATE 2: See also: Assessing the media's health care coverage
The Associated Press, The Boston Globe, CNN's Wolf Blitzer, and Fox News' Major Garrett ignored Rep. Charles Boustany's (R-LA) past comments regarding whether President Obama was born in the United States in reporting on the GOP's decision to have Boustany deliver the party's response to Obama's health care reform address. In fact, in a video for which videographer Mike Stark says he asked congressional Republicans whether they believed Obama was born in this country, Stark is shown asking, "Do you think there's a question here?" to which Boustany responded, "I think there are questions, we'll have to see."
The Boston Globe uncritically reported Sen. John McCain's false claim that Sen. Barack Obama proposes to "fine" small businesses that do not provide employee health insurance. While Obama has proposed requiring large businesses that do not provide employer-sponsored health coverage to pay a percentage of their payroll into a National Health Insurance Exchange to help Americans purchase private health insurance, small businesses would be exempt.
Several conservatives in the media have recently blamed the Community Reinvestment Act for the current financial crisis -- when, in fact, the CRA does not apply to institutions making the vast majority of troubled loans underlying the crisis. It applies only to depository institutions, such as banks and savings and loan associations. Experts have estimated that 80 percent of high-priced subprime loans were offered by financial institutions that are not subject to the CRA.