The news coverage surrounding this morning’s Supreme Court ruling which largely upheld President Obama’s 2010 Health Care law was a great example of how a well-meaning news media can perpetuate and expand misinformation. First, I should note that the law itself is extremely complex and widely misunderstood. Second, the court’s decision was extremely complicated, with four concurring opinions making up the majority, and two different dissenting opinions making up the minority. And yet the different news stations all want to have the story immediately and to have instant analysis of the political, legal, and practical ramifications of the story–even before anyone has had any time to actually read the actual decision or give any thought to it (which, you know, might take a little while, given the complex nature of both the law and the decision). So here’s a few of the things I saw this morning:
- I saw the President, the presumptive GOP nominee for President, and the GOP Speaker of the House all give pre-written speeches about the decision and the law, none of which actually made specific reference to the contents of the decision itself. It was clear that they were working from canned scripts; the Supreme Court upheld most of the law, they each grabbed the pre-written speech labeled ”Supreme Court upholds law” and went with it.
- I saw on a long sequence of political analysts assert great significance and meaning to the decision, when it was plainly clear that none of them had seem anything more than the headline.
- I saw a sequence of field reporters standing there scrambling to decipher the printed decision, while it was blowing in the wind, live-on-air, while trying to answer questions about it, and failing miserably in all cases.
- I saw live interviews with “average Americans” who clearly knew less about the bill and the decision that I did. For instance, CNN had four men at some diner, none of whom clearly had any clue what was in the health care law or even understood the Schoolhouse Rocks! version of how a bill becomes law, but all of whom clearly had very strong opinions about it (and all of whom clearly had been listening to a lot of conspiracy theories). Out of politeness, I guess, most of their theories went unchallenged. This wasn’t the only such interview on the three cable networks.
It’s not that the news media was trying to spread misinformation about the law or the impact of the decision. But the fact of the matter is that when you are trying to fill airtime with people who have not yet had time to read and digest the thing that they are supposed to be discussing, then those people will by necessity end up saying and/or doing a lot of things that effectively do spread misinformation. Of course, the smarter answer would be to give your analysts time to catch up to a news event before asking them to pontificate–but then you end up not talking about the important event of the day as it’s unfolding, and you lose viewers to your more “on-the-ball” competitors.
People complain about media bias like it is a purely partisan matter. There is certainly partisan media bias. But the media bias that concerns me more is the bias to entertain, sensationalize, and scoop. That’s the bias that led to an all-morning orgy of misinformation on the big three cable networks. That’s the bias that led to the News Corp phone-hacking scandal (which has now caused a division in the news and entertainment divisions of one of the world’s largest media empires). And that’s the bias that causes people to be afraid of walking through their own neighborhoods.