Bill Moyers: Media and Democracy

Hear me: An unconscious people, an indoctrinated people, a people fed only partisan information and opinion that confirm their own bias, a people made morbidly obese in mind and spirit by the junk food of propaganda, is less inclined to put up a fight, ask questions, and be skeptical. And just as a democracy can die of too many lies, so that kind of orthodoxy can kill us, too.

Bill Moyers has a clear idea of what is going wrong within our democracy.

He sees the sickness that is afflicting us. Fed on complacency after the last great enemy fell, it has grown fat on the fear and uncertainty that gripped the nation after 9/11. It is fed now by the desires of ambitious men, who see the restraints that protect us from tyranny as inconveniences to be overcome. It’s bigger than the current administration, which has done us a great favor by pushing this malaise into the light. It’s bigger than any single party, and bigger than both parties together.

This country was not founded on the principle of nodding weakly in the face of power. It was founded with the conviction that the will of the people is more important than the will of the privileged and the rulers, and that the rights of the people were more important than the whims of any mob. It was founded with the conviction that its citizens- not voters, not consumers, not taxpayers, but citizens- deserve to be told the truth. Instead, we’ve been lied to again and again, and the keepers of truth find it easier to repeat the lies than to seek for the truth. It isn’t all new. Maybe, it isn’t even mostly new. But before, we had the luxury of ignorance, and the handicap of blind trust. That trust is gone. Or should be.

The problem is, I believe, as much or more one of visibility as negligence. It isn’t that there is no serious journalism going on within the mainstream media. The problem is that the center stage is held by dueling press releases and puff pieces. Serious journalism is relegated to magazine sections and back pages, where small numbers of dedicated readers wade through 12 page explorations of government corruption and subversion. Print media, in particular, is doing great work in both electronic and printed formats that, to judge by televised coverage, continue to fly entirely under the radar. TV itself is not the problem; cathode ray tubes and LCDs do not produce some form of heretofore unknown radiation that renders Americans unable to understand the issues presented in a longer form by the print media. Instead, TV media has chosen not to package these stories as they do thousands of other stories of no greater complexity. Perhaps it’s the pressure of the vaunted ’25 hour news cycle’ that leaves TV networks unable to transform these hidden treasures into TV-consumable news. Instead, we see constant, repeated coverage of the same five facts drawn out into eight hour news events. Thinking that they’re capturing some great scoop in the making, television services show us unending hours of footage of the exteriors of courthouses or the Vatican- seemingly oblivious to the fact that ever other station in the country is doing it too. TV news stations are regularly straining until they’re blue in the face to make 24 hours of news out of five minutes of facts- when they could be working so much less to produce so much more.

Here’s some advice. Hide the keys to the news van. Turn of the satellite uplink. Let the cameraman sit down for a few minutes and have a cup of coffee. Send the hair and makeup folks off for their lunch break. Sit down for an hour or so- maybe even two- and think about what is being said, instead of just acting like the babbling inner monologue of a video camera. There are thousands of serviceable electronic devices all over the globe to capture every image you need from every conceivable angle. Sit down with a computer and a phone- they really are everywhere these days- and do those things that we used to tell children to do in high school. Think critically about what you are hearing and seeing. Does it make sense? Does it contradict facts that are available from other sources? How credible are the sources that you are hearing from? ‘Balance’ does not mean saying that some believe that the moon is made of green cheese, while others do not. Balance is assessing the truth of claims according to impartial criteria, in cooperation with current, informed consensus based on the available material. Where no consensus exists, say so, but think carefully about who the players are and the strength of their evidence before making generalizations.

We need more than equal spin from both sides. We need individuals who are committed to seeking the truth as truth- even when it might not be possible- rather than accepting the convenience of the packaged fact. If these individuals aren’t around any more, than we are in even greater trouble than Bill Moyers believes.


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