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The problem with the media

After the declassification of the Benghazi report by the House Intelligence Committee late last month, the only politician to speak to the contents of the report turned out to be a minority member of the committee, Democratic Representative Mike Thompson. He was quoted as saying the report “confirms that no one was deliberately misled, no military assets were withheld and no stand-down order (to U.S. forces) was given.”

There was not a single mention of the decision to declassify the report from Republicans, despite thousands of accusations that the Obama Administration had acted purposely or with malicious intent to create more of a situation there and were acting in a coordinated effort to cover up their actions. Talking Points Memo, for instance, reports that Fox News has mentioned Benghazi over 1,100 times in the past year. Yet elected Republicans included no mention of it on their official website, were unavailable for quotes to the media, and made no statements from the committee dais or House floor.

But oddly, there has been little to no reporting on Thompson’s statement, presumably because media outlets weren’t able to provide a comment from the right to respond to the potentially biased statement made from the democratic member. And there lies the exact problem. When breaking news transpires, the media condones reporting that is the equivalent of “shoot first, ask questions later”, but when it comes to investigations, analysis of events, determining causes, and other time consuming tasks, the media is reluctant to report without providing flavors of that report from both sides of the story. Yet, logic would tend to suggest that as a story is unfolding you’d want balanced reporting, but after the fact, the media should play referee and make decisions about the credibility, accuracy, and reliability of conclusions. There’s no point to value to be gained in spin after the facts are laid out.

Yet that’s exactly what the media does. I’ve read numerous reports suggesting that Thompson’s quote should be taken lightly, considering we do not yet have the report, despite the obvious fact that republicans have refused to make a comment on Benghazi for the first time since the events transpired in 2012. But news outlets reported republican accusations of wrong-doing since then, permitting unfounded rhetoric with obvious electoral implications to flow freely on the airwaves. And House Republicans have determined to not release this report until after another series of investigations by other committees (many whom have already done initial investigations that have failed to reveal any startling conclusions that fit Republican talking points). Why? Because these investigations will conveniently continue until after the November election so that the issue can still be used to sway some voters and then released at a time when it will have zero impact on elections by the time 2016 rolls around (assuming they don’t now try to spin this as a State Department Hillary Clinton conspiracy).

The point is that in today’s environment, the media treats most viewpoints equally, despite the fact that doing so creates a false equivalence and gives respect, legitimacy, and consideration to unreasonable points of view. Instead of looking to measurable or demonstrable metrics to craft a news story, the media instead values opinions and rhetoric that can be abused in exactly the same way as it has been in the Benghazi story. It also has the potential for even more extreme consequences. While this style may build a reliable audience that tunes in regularly, it likely shrinks the total market as more Americans become cynical of news reports and choose to become less engaged in current events.

It seems the major difficulty with how the media presents news today has to do with the types of journalists that exist in the world. Journalists are typically rewarded (in terms of reputation, not necessarily tangible accolades) for two (often times opposing) achievements. The first type of reporting focuses on being the quickest and fastest to break news, which is messy, noisy, and often inaccurate. In order to be first, you sometimes report incomplete or misleading news, but being the first to break a huge story has a way of forgiving being wrong on another.

The second type of journalist focuses primarily on quality of reporting, taking a bit more time to ensure that facts are accurate, editorial content is minimal, and the scoop is trustworthy. Surely, this is more along the lines of what journalists should strive to be, but there seems to be a huge hole in between these two types that is, for the most part, not being filled and creating a less informed electorate.

Ironically, this journalism hole seems to be filled only by comedians that feel very uncomfortable referring to themselves as journalists at all. The likes of John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, and John Stewart produce shows that take viewers on a narrative journey, explaining the various moving pieces of a story rather than focusing solely on breaking news and punditry after the story breaks. Last Week Tonight, the Colbert Report, and the Daily Show provide background on a given story, providing context for those vast majority who likely missed one or two chapters. And by doing so allow for obvious conclusions to be parsed without taking major partisan editorial views. This is because these comedians get that drawing a conclusion does not have to be partisan because certain conclusions are beyond debate. Taking the example above, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to conclude that perhaps Representative Thompson has a point when eight Congressional Committee findings before the latest have failed to find wrong-doing.

But until the media drastically changes their model, choosing instead to focus on a narrative based and analytical approach to the news, we will continue lacking an essential piece to our democracy. That’s both sad and a bit scary.