Saturday, January 10, 2015

Television & Expertise

An essential feature of media is to provide accurate information to the consumers of that media. That’s a rather obvious point, but given how completely the profit motive has infiltrate almost all of the mainstream news media, it is a point that must be scrutinized to explore the effectiveness of this prime directive. There are rather obvious examples of gross negligence in this regard, with Fox News at the top of the list and Christian radio a close second (in providing political news, not necessarily in feeding the religious needs of its audience). In a more general sense, as writers like Chomsky, Herman, McChesney and Alterman and movies/television shows like Network, Face in the Crowd, Broadcast News, Newsroom and even Anchorman 2 have been arguing for years, the news media is arguably corrupted in a general sense by the profit motive, which leads toward sensationalism, under coverage of complex news and the push toward infotainment.

We can certainly ask questions about who gets to judge accuracy, but there are clear strategies for manipulating information to serve particular ideological and/or commercial ends. The media can manipulate the news it disseminates in a number of ways including: framing, selection, emphasis, flak and filtering. It can also heavily influence the slant of a story based on whom it talks to, and whom it ignores (generally called “sourcing”). And it is here where I want to focus for the rest of this post, mainly because sourcing is arguably one of the most troubling issues in American media today (and for some time now). What experts are asked to discuss stories? What experts are ignored? How do we even decide who is an expert?

Let’s take a rather obvious example, but one that highlights the problem quite well: the buildup to the Iraq War. The media has been charged with a pro-war bias throughout the period leading up to the invasion, particularly given the fact that they did little to challenge the Bush administration’s strategy of conflating Hussein/Iraq and 9/11 (which, of course, had nothing to do with each other). But one other area that I believe played a huge role was essentially centering their arguments over the war as discussions about the strategy of the war, how easy it would be to win and what kind of casualties it would result in among American soldiers. The experts they spoke with were predominantly retired military men, none of whom argued against the war. In fact, in 2003 a study released by FAIR found that the network news disproportionately focused on pro-war and left out anti-war sources. According to the study, 64 percent of total sources were in favor of the Iraq War while total anti-war sources made up only 10 percent of the media (and only 3 percent of US sources were anti-war). The study found that "viewers were more than six times as likely to see a pro-war source as one who was anti-war; with U.S. guests alone, the ratio increases to 25 to 1." FAIR conducted a similar study in 2004, finding that current or former government or military officials accounted for 76 percent of all 319 sources for news stories about Iraq that aired on network news channels.

Turning away from the news, the question of expertise becomes even more concerning. We have shows where people with very real problems like addiction, depression, obesity, relationship or financial issues and the like looking to supposed “experts” to help them, from talk show hosts like Dr. Phil and “the doctors” to intervention specialists. But are these “experts” really in a position to provide accurate and helpful information? Many aren’t even trained in the fields for which they are doling out this advice. Worse yet, the entertainment value of the shows has to be a factor, as ratings are the ultimate goal of any show on television. The latest entry into this growing genre of “turn to the expert” shows is TNT’s “Wake Up Call,” staring Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson.

Each episode of Wake Up Call focuses on a different person who needs help with some aspect of their life, whether it’s a troubled teen dropout, a workaholic ruining his family business and marriage, or a defeated former NBA star. The Rock then swoops in to help them out, usually with the help of another expert. They are given motivational speeches, the means to better themselves, and ultimatums. Now I’m not saying the Rock might not help these people, but how in the world can the inspiration ever really trump the implicit exploitation involved in the effort. Is it really healthy to live out your problems in front of an audience of strangers with a preened celebrity giving you advice? Fans might argue the Rock isn’t out of his wheelhouse here, as he has had his fair share of troubles including multiple arrests, eviction and having his football dreams crushed. But does this really make him an expert who has been properly trained to deal with the variety of issues the show will address? Does the tough love approach these shows tend to take even work? There is substantial evidence to show the answer is actually often no and many respected sources have been challenging this approach which was so popular in the 80s.

The problem is that tough love is more entertaining for viewers, whether it works or not. And that is the problem in general, isn’t it? Entertainment is what television is about – keeping you watching from one commercial break to the next. That’s okay when people are looking to be entertained. But is it acceptable when citizens in a democracy are trying to stay informed about important information that affects their lives? And is it acceptable when people make the poor choice of turning to television to make choices about their lives? I’ll leave that up to you to decide …

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