James Woods, who acts better than he is, would like us to know about his latest obsession, the murder of Mollie Tibbetts. Who happened to be a white girl, as he is anxious to draw to our attention. This was in reply to CNN commentator Sally Kohn’s tweet on the choice of Fox News to place priority on the murder of Tibbetts — whose suspected killer is in the country illegally — over the legal woes of Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen.
Is it shocking these days to say that media organizations like to emphasize some stories over others? Woods and Kohn both have adopted the attitude of Captain Renault, but at this point, most people have come to realize that Fox is right wing, while CNN has staked out ground in the corporate left. British newspapers have been openly partisan for a long time, and it would be helpful if our purveyors of news were to drop attempts at creating the air of objectivity. Facts ought to be stated honestly, but the media also does interpretations — explaining causes, predicting results, deciding priorities — and those are grounded in a political perspective that should also be in the open.
The National Public Radio program, All Things Considered, illustrated on Wednesday (22 August) how to report the story, stating the facts of the case, including the debate about the immigration status of the suspect. But reporting the facts is too often seen as a political act when such reporting is not done selectively, presenting only such facts as support a particular side. Commentary programs can also do a good job of stating the facts. The Young Turks is unabashedly on the left, and the show’s hosts are open about their interpretation of the news. Their segment on the Tibbetts murder demonstrates how to offer both facts and opinions.
The choice of what to report and not to report is also made necessary by the limitations of resources that is the human condition. Our stocks of money and time are finite, and the latter is not even renewable. Complaining that a particular news organization does not share one’s personal interests is not all that worthwhile. If we want to suggest that CNN or Fox ought to give attention to something, it is our duty to show why.
For example, if the claim is made that the murderer of Mollie Tibbetts can be used as an argument against some aspect of immigration, we have to put things into context. People who have crossed the border illegally have not caused an increase in rates of crime, and they commit violent crimes at lower rates than citizens — as is predictable when we are talking about people who need to avoid the attention of law enforcement.
Leaping to assumptions about a whole group of people based on the actions of one is not limited to one side, sadly. The same fallacy shows up whenever some loser shoots up a crowd to get his white face in the news. Guilt by association is contrary to Enlightenment values, the foundation of American law.
But clarity in thinking requires us to think through the claims that are presented to us. Acknowledging the limits of resources available to individual news organizations puts the burden on us to seek out and verify multiple voices in the media. This is the duty of citizen in a free society. If we demand inclusion in the decisions that our nation makes, we have to do the work of being informed about those choices.
This is not easy, of course. The filter bubble that social media companies impose, steering users into what they perceive as our prejudices and the efforts to silence users who are not liked by advertisers makes for a hard time seeking out a diversity of opinions. And as I know from my own experience, when we do not conform to group identity, there will be a cost in popularity.
What this all gets to is the comprehension of reality that we will have. I do not mean to imply an acceptance of any post-modernist (or later) interpretations, but in practical terms, it is true to say that the world is what we say it is. It is so at least to the degree that our lived experience takes in the information from outside. And socially, the consensus is taken as the truth all too commonly.
Saying that the leftist media does not care about Mollie Tibbetts is enough for many on the right wing. Saying that concern over who is coming into the country is racist is just as sufficient for many on the left. And for busy people, being on a team is comforting. But our nation depends on all of us doing better than what is easy. Follow people with whom you disagree. Check the basis of one of your beliefs each week. Insist on evidence in support of claims of fact and analyze the values that lead people to the priorities they have. These are what we have to do if we want as honest as possible an assessment of the way things are.