Standing at the Edge

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August 9, 2007 Radio

A corrupt media

I lived in England for nearly seven years, and I tend to love things British. But when I was in England, the labor Party was a lot further to the left than they are today. Britain was all but a welfare state. Marginal tax rates were astronomical. Wages were low. One fellow I knew, a good salesman, told me it was hardly worth him working after May.

            Then came Margaret Thatcher and everything changed. I was gone by the time she came on the scene, but I knew how she had revolutionized the British economy. But in recent years, I encountered a labor leader who gained my respect in ways I never imagined possible. You know him. His name is Tony Blair. He has gained my respect enormously in the past several years, and as he left office, he said something profoundly important. Joel Belz, writing in World Magazine, called it to my attention. Belz wrote:


Late in June, [Tony Blair] spoke candidly to a mixed audience at the London headquarters of Reuters news service—and he acknowledged candidly that what he said would be controversial. "I know it will be rubbished in certain quarters," he ventured. Endnote

And it was. While the British press scornfully discounted and disdained his critique, way too many other media observers around the world were even more cruel. They just ignored the substance of what Blair said.


After noting that the proliferation of media outlets in this internet age has forced all of them virtually to scream for attention, Blair spelled out how the media go about that process of seeking impact at almost any price. “They go for scandal and controversy,” he said, “ahead of ordinary reporting. "News is rarely news unless it generates heat as much as or more than light. The media attack motive instead of attacking judgment.”

I thought that was a profound statement. I didn’t get it at first, though. Joel Belz went on to explain:


He didn't spell out precisely how this happened to his friend George W. Bush—but the implication was clear. It's not bad enough for the media to say that Bush has simply made mistakes on various issues. They have to claim darkly instead that he calculated to mislead the American public.

You have come to expect this sort of thing from the political opposition.


          Though it isn’t clear to me why they need to. If the leadership makes enough mistakes, isn’t that reason enough for turning them out of office?


          Is it necessary to paint them in the blackest possible hues?

A friend of mine used to work with a company that sold airplanes. One salesman, when talking to a customer made it a point to run down the competition. As it happened, his airplane was well built, but he would pour out accident statistics on the competition.


          My friend observed that the net result of his approach was to turn people off from buying a small plane altogether.


          My friend’s approach was to sell the benefits of his plane as though there were no other plane.


                      Guess who made more sales.


          I don’t think it ever dawns on politicians, that when they paint their opponent black, a lot of it gets on them as well.

If we have learned expect this from politicians, why on earth do we have to put up with it from news media.


The media, Blair said, hunt in a pack. They are "like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits."

Truer words were never spoken.


          Small wonder the media were unhappy with his words.


And Blair accused the media of elevating commentary on the news to a role higher than simply reporting the news—and regularly blurring the distinction between the two. "This is not exceptional," he said. "It is routine."


          I know he is right. The distinction is not just blurred. I can’t find it.


All this, Blair suggests, has come about because of the ferocity of the competition that now exists among the various media outlets. "Rolling 24-hour news programs cover events as they unfold. In the early 1980s, there were three TV stations broadcasting in the UK. Today there are hundreds. In 1995, over 200 TV shows had audiences of over 15 million [each]. Today there is almost none."


The sheer numbers on the one hand, coupled on the other with the incredible speed with which they are forced to produce, has trivialized rather than enhanced the competition.


So Blair argues that instead of blaming the media, we might well see them as victims. They are "increasingly and to a dangerous degree driven by 'impact.' Impact is what matters. It is all that can distinguish, can rise above the clamor, can get noticed. Impact gives competitive edge. Of course, the accuracy of a story counts. But it is often secondary to impact."

What on earth are we to do about this? Blair had two suggestions:


          First, that all the media reassert their own commitment to distinguish between news and comment; and second, that some form of government regulation might prove necessary.

Joel Belz was not impressed. He thought both approaches were “dangerously counterproductive. With hundreds of media outlets going after each other tooth and toenail, let listeners and readers decide for themselves just how much raw news and how much analysis is good for them. And whatever you do, leave government bureaucrats out of the equation.


          In general, I agree with Mr. Belz. And yet, it seems I recall, many years ago, congress did something that worked. It was called, “Truth in advertizing.”

Under the Federal Trade Commission Act: Endnote


          advertising must be truthful and non-deceptive;

          advertisers must have evidence to back up their claims; and

          advertisements cannot be unfair.

Why can’t these standards be applied to political ads?


          And how big a step is it to apply them to news stories?

What makes an advertisement deceptive?

According to the FTC's Deception Policy Statement, an ad is deceptive if it contains a statement - or omits information - that:


          is likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances; and

          is "material" - that is, important to a consumer's decision to buy or use the product.

Shucks, folks, we have seen political ads we know were designed to mislead voters.


          This is especially true of stories popped just before the election when the candidate has no time to respond.

How does the FTC determine if an ad is deceptive?

A typical inquiry follows these steps:


          The FTC looks at the ad from the point of view of the "reasonable consumer" - the typical person looking at the ad. Rather than focusing on certain words, the FTC looks at the ad in context - words, phrases, and pictures -to determine what it conveys to consumers.


          The FTC looks at both "express" and "implied" claims. An express claim is literally made in the ad. For example, "ABC Mouthwash prevents colds" is an express claim that the product will prevent colds. An implied claim is one made indirectly or by inference. "ABC Mouthwash kills the germs that cause colds" contains an implied claim that the product will prevent colds. Although the ad doesn't literally say that the product prevents colds, it would be reasonable for a consumer to conclude from the statement "kills the germs that cause colds" that the product will prevent colds. Under the law, advertisers must have proof to back up express and implied claims that consumers take from an ad.


          The FTC looks at what the ad does not say - that is, if the failure to include information leaves consumers with a misimpression about the product. For example, if a company advertised a collection of books, the ad would be deceptive if it did not disclose that consumers actually would receive abridged versions of the books.


          The FTC looks at whether the claim would be "material" - that is, important to a consumer's decision to buy or use the product. Examples of material claims are representations about a product's performance, features, safety, price, or effectiveness.


          The FTC looks at whether the advertiser has sufficient evidence to support the claims in the ad. The law requires that advertisers have proof before the ad runs.

Now I ask you. Why can’t we have a “Truth in Political Advertising” law. You can use the same principles for evaluation and enforcement.

Could you get it through congress? I doubt it. Congress will want to maintain the right to lie.


          It seems to be a fundamental right of elected officials, although it is certainly not in the bill of rights.

What kind of evidence must a company have to support the claims in its ads?

Before a company runs an ad, it has to have a "reasonable basis" for the claims. A "reasonable basis" means objective evidence that supports the claim. The kind of evidence depends on the claim. At a minimum, an advertiser must have the level of evidence that it says it has.


          What a shocking, onerous requirement. You have to have what you say you have.

For example, the statement "Two out of three doctors recommend ABC Pain Reliever" must be supported by a reliable survey to that effect.


          This, of course, is too reasonable, too sensible to ever get past congress.

Are letters from satisfied customers sufficient to substantiate a claim?

No. Statements from satisfied customers usually are not sufficient to support a health or safety claim or any other claim that requires objective evaluation.

The FTC can require corrective advertising, disclosures and other informational remedies. Advertisers have been required to take out new ads to correct the misinformation conveyed in the original ad, notify purchasers about deceptive claims in ads, include specific disclosures in future ads, or provide other information to consumers.


          That would work in politics. Make them come back and tell the truth.


          A federal watchdog could require immediate ads retracting the misleading ad.

          Or the offender should have to pay for a competitors ad to set the record straight.


          The media should help with this, but they are like a watchdog that has an affection for a burgler. They have long since taken sides.


          What’s funny about that is that both political extremes think the media are in the pocket of the other side.


                      And the media have only themselves to blame.


          The republic is in serious danger because our watchdogs are asleep at the switch, or they have taken sides.


          Politicians fear the loss of power more than anything. And the people to blame are those who grant power to politicians who won’t talk straight.


                      And the media should, but probably never will, hold the political class to account for telling the truth.

Is this situation really new, or is there a parallel in history?


          The media were different in ancient times, but need of the people for information was the same.


          Where, for example, did the people of the Bible get their news?


          at the city gates.


          The gates of a city were the place where business was conducted, news was distributed, the elders of a city heard Criminal and civil cases and judgments handed down, Even speeches were delivered here.


                      It was something like the county courthouse steps in your county.

But who were the players at this scene?






If you want to understand the roles,


          Princes would correspond to our Senators and Representatives.


          Priests were mediators between God and man. They performed rites of state, they were educators, the administrators of the civic religion. They handed down the word of God, and perhaps served as something close to our supreme court.


          Elders were local administrators and judges. They heard cases and disposed of them.

          Prophets were in two classes: (1) seers and visionaries. (2) Speakers, preachers. They would correspond to the pundits of today.


          In a very real way, the prophets were the news media, and served as the interpreters of the news of the day.

This is all very natural, because it serves the needs of a civil society.


The people have to know what’s happening, and what it means.

What happens to a people when the system becomes corrupt?

(Zephaniah 3:1-5 NIV) Woe to the city of oppressors, rebellious and defiled! {2} She obeys no one, she accepts no correction. She does not trust in the LORD, she does not draw near to her God.


          what does it take to say this of an entire city? Surely there were good people there?


          Notice the condition of the leadership.

{3} Her officials [KJV, princes] are roaring lions, her rulers [judges] are evening wolves, who leave nothing for the morning. {4} Her prophets [ newsmen, perhaps preachers] are arrogant; they are treacherous men. Her priests [supreme court] profane the sanctuary and do violence to the law.


          The picture is one of a system gone wrong. It isn’t one or two wrongdoers, this has pervaded the entire leadership of the country.

{5} The LORD within her is righteous; he does no wrong. Morning by morning he dispenses his justice, and every new day he does not fail, yet the unrighteous know no shame.

(Isaiah 59 NIV) Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. {2} But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. {3} For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt. Your lips have spoken lies, and your tongue mutters wicked things. {4} No one calls for justice; no one pleads his case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments and speak lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil. {5} They hatch the eggs of vipers and spin a spider's web. Whoever eats their eggs will die, and when one is broken, an adder is hatched. {6} Their cobwebs are useless for clothing; they cannot cover themselves with what they make. Their deeds are evil deeds, and acts of violence are in their hands. {7} Their feet rush into sin; they are swift to shed innocent blood. Their thoughts are evil thoughts; ruin and destruction mark their ways. {8} The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths. They have turned them into crooked roads; no one who walks in them will know peace. {9} So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. {10} Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like men without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong, we are like the dead. {11} We all growl like bears; we moan mournfully like doves. We look for justice, but find none; for deliverance, but it is far away. {12} For our offenses are many in your sight, and our sins testify against us. Our offenses are ever with us, and we acknowledge our iniquities: {13} rebellion and treachery against the LORD, turning our backs on our God, fomenting oppression and revolt, uttering lies our hearts have conceived. {14} So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. {15} Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey. The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice. {16} He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. {17} He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak. {18} According to what they have done, so will he repay wrath to his enemies and retribution to his foes; he will repay the islands their due. {19} From the west, men will fear the name of the LORD, and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory. For he will come like a pent-up flood that the breath of the LORD drives along. {20} "The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins," declares the LORD. {21} "As for me, this is my covenant with them," says the LORD. "My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and forever," says the LORD.

(Jeremiah 23:9-16 NIV) Concerning the prophets: My heart is broken within me; all my bones tremble. I am like a drunken man, like a man overcome by wine, because of the LORD and his holy words. {10} The land is full of adulterers; because of the curse the land lies parched and the pastures in the desert are withered. The prophets follow an evil course and use their power unjustly. {11} "Both prophet and priest are godless; even in my temple I find their wickedness," declares the LORD. {12} "Therefore their path will become slippery; they will be banished to darkness and there they will fall. I will bring disaster on them in the year they are punished," declares the LORD. {13} "Among the prophets of Samaria I saw this repulsive thing: They prophesied by Baal and led my people Israel astray. {14} And among the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen something horrible: They commit adultery and live a lie. They strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from his wickedness. They are all like Sodom to me; the people of Jerusalem are like Gomorrah." {15} Therefore, this is what the LORD Almighty says concerning the prophets: "I will make them eat bitter food and drink poisoned water, because from the prophets of Jerusalem ungodliness has spread throughout the land." {16} This is what the LORD Almighty says: "Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD.


          And, of course, injury to the Republic.


          In the prophets, speaking and writing out of a theocratic monarchy, the prophets were the town criers, the priests were the judges.


          Lying had become a way of life for some of these people and they were destroying the liberty and safety of the people.

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