Now for an occasional feature called "The little Thing," where either some minor point in a story is the part that really annoys me or, more commonly, where something mentioned in passing in some news account is actually important and deserves far more attention than it got.
Okay. So there were some marches and rallies in Seattle for May Day. After they were over, in the evening, there were some incidents. This is how AP reported it; this is the opening paragraph of its coverage, quoting now, in full:
Police fired pepper spray and arrested a half dozen people Thursday night as anti-capitalist marchers meandered through Seattle, hours after hundreds of peaceful demonstrators took part in a May Day march in support of immigrant rights and a boost in the minimum wage.Okay, note first that while the day's main march was mentioned, the opening, the actual lede, is the evening troubles.
The article then goes on for eight paragraphs about the evening incidents, about violence at past protests in Seattle, and about threats of violence at this one.
It then devotes a total of three sentences to the "earlier boisterous rally," two of which referred to a quote by a participant, before rounding out with reports about vandalism and a threat to kill police.
So here's the point, here's the little thing: In the middle of this article, the AP says, again quoting,
Violence has plagued May Day in Seattle during the past two years, with protesters challenging police in the streets and sometimes stealing the thunder of much larger daytime events.And whose fault is that? Whose fault is it that a relative handful of people who fantasize that vandalism is an appropriate political tactic can "steal the thunder" from a much larger, "boisterous" but peaceful, group? Who made the decision to emphasize one over the other? Who made the decision that "this" is more important than "that?" Who decided to give most of the attention to some black-clad prima donnas rather than to those offering some substance?
It doesn't have to be this way: In it's article about the day, a local paper, the Seattle Times, focused on the large daytime events, then reported on evening clashes, and wrapped up by referring back to what the main demonstration was about - the exact opposite of what AP did.
But the Seattle Times is a local paper and the AP is a national wire service. Which means that most people around the country who read about the events will get their image - their distorted image - of what happened in Seattle from the AP, not the Seattle Times. And that image will not be about immigrant rights and raising the minimum wage, it'll be about spray-painted walls, burning trash cans, broken windows, and threats to kill police.
And whose fault is that? Whose fault is it that that will be the image many people have of May Day in Seattle?
We are, by our national media, by our corporate media, uninformed, malinformed, and misinformed. When it comes to the actual issues we as a people, as a nation, are facing, we are among the worst informed people in the entire industrialized world.
Because this is hardly the only example. Years ago, a friend told me she wasn't concerned about media monopolies because "I think what I think, not what I'm told to think." Which, I said, is true, the media can't control what you think. But for things beyond your immediate experience, the media does have a great deal of influence on what you think about, on what is and isn't regarded as important and, of greater impact, about what's important about what's important; that is, what are the features, the factors, the elements, of those stories that deserve emphasis in understanding them.
I'll talk more about this in the future because I have some specific illustrations of ways in which the media fails us, but today I'm going to mention just one of them: what you might call the myth of the never-ending debate.
Part of the reason a handful of loudmouths romanticizing vandalism as revolutionary gets the attention of the media is because the media loves drama. Closely-related to that is that fact that the media loves controversy. Members of the media would much prefer to report on "the controversy" than to report the dull settled facts. Not only does it sell better, it's simply more fun. What's more, by engaging in a journalistic version of "he-said-she-said," reporters can tell themselves that they're "independent" and "unbiased" because they "report both sides" even when by treating opposing sides as equals they are actually creating the bias that there really are two sides.
That is why, for example, the media keeps giving respectful attention to proponents of so-called Intelligent Design and other varieties of creationism rather than just saying evolution is real, the theory of evolution has overwhelming proof, the creationists' alternatives are debunked claptrap, and there is no genuine scientific controversy about it.
That failure is not the only reason, but it is a notable part of the reason why in a recent poll, only 31% of respondents said they were "extremely" or "very" confident that living things, including people, evolved through natural selection.
Now, whether or not you as an individual accept the reality of evolution is probably not going to have a major impact on the world at large. But another finding of that same survey could: Only 33% were "extremely" or "very" confident in the reality of human-caused global warming, while 37% were "not too" or "not at all" confident in that. That's even worse than the 25% who are, according to how a Gallup poll describes them, "solidly skeptical" about global warming - while only 39% are labeled "concerned believers."
You can, if you want, chalk up a good portion of the determined ignorance about climate change to ideological rigidity and narrow-mindedness - but if you think the media, constantly presenting global warming as "controversial," as the subject of "debate," as a "question," if you think the media doesn't bear significant responsibility for the fact that only 2/5 of Americans accept scientific reality, a reality that, if ignored, if not acted on, will have a major impact on our and the world's future, you just have not been paying attention.
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