Monday, February 11, 2008

Partisan Media and its Price

Back in the 1980s there was a magnificent British TV show called "Yes Minister", about the interface between a politician - the minister - and the civil service - Sir Henry. It was so good that eventually the politician rose to become Prime Minister and the program changed to "Yes Prime Minister". The theme of the show was that Sir Henry never had the slightest intention of doing what his political overlord wanted him to do, because what could an elected politician possibly know about running anything? But appearances did have to be kept (they were British, after all), so Sir Henry always ran things while pretending otherwise.

One episode the minister explained to Sir Henry about the kind of things that politicians really do know better: the media. I quote from memory, 25 years later:

[Newspaper 1] is read by the people who run the country.
[Newspaper 2] is read by the people who think they run the country.
[Newspaper 3] is read by people who think they ought to run the country.
The Financial Times is read by people who own the country.
The Morning Star (Communists) is read by people who think another country should run the country.
The Sun is read by people who don't care who runs the country as long as the paper is full of pictures of bimbos.

So why am I mentioning this? Because the serious part of the story is that British papers, like many European papers, are overtly partisan, they tow a clear party line, and the readers choose the paper that tells them what they want to hear. It's a strange way to run a democracy, if you ask me, but the British have been running one for quite a while now, and can even claim to have invented the idea sort of, so what can I say.

(Yes, I know that the Americans also have papers with party lines, but they aren't generally the important dally papers. Not overtly).

The problem with spending your life in an echo chamber, of course, is that by and by the reality sometimes doesn't do what the editor said it was going to do, and then one way of coping is to go for conspiracy theories. The readers of the Guardian, for example, or those that respond online at least, have long since crossed this line into irrational rants, especially when it comes to the Islamist's war against humanity.

Today, however, I've taken a somewhat less loaded topic to demonstrate how it works.

Have I mentioned that the Guardian is totally enamored with Barack Obama? The Saviour of America. So yesterday Obama won some primaries or caucuses in three states. The New York Times reported about this, but also explained why the basic tie between Obama and Clinton had not thereby been broken, not yet. Delegates are awarded proportionally so both sides collected some of them, for example. Super delegates. Texas and Ohio. All sorts of complications. None of which makes its way into the report in the Guardian. There the tone is all about "the staggering defeats Obama inflicted on Clinton", Obama's victories tip the balance in his favor.." and so on.

PS. in the same issue of the Guardian there's a narrated slide show about Gaza. No mention whatsoever of about 70% of the relevant parts of the story, it mostly tells about the evil Israelis who are brutalizing the Palestinians and making them suffer. But given the basic structure of how the paper works, you have to ask yourself if this is malice, or simply a habit, so deeply ingrained, and reinforced by spending a lifetime listening only to reports that tell you what you want to hear, that these people are constitutionally incapable of thinking?

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