Friday, December 29, 2017

John Lennon – "Gimme Some Truth" (1971)

All I want is the truth
Just give me some truth

Leonard Downie, Jr., at the Washington Post for 44 years.  He was the paper’s Executive Editor when he retired in 2008.  

Downie was so concerned about avoiding bias or the appearance of bias in the Post’s political reporting  that he refrained from voting while he was a Post editor.  

Leonard Downie, Jr.
After he announced his retirement, a Post reader asked him if he planned to start voting.  This was his response:

I’ll have to think about that since I didn’t just stop voting [when I was the Executive Editor], I stopped having even private opinions about politicians or issues so that I would have a completely open mind in supervising our coverage.  It may be hard to change.

That may sound a little extreme, but you have to admire Downie’s integrity.  

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I wonder if there is anyone in the media today who follows Len Downie’s example.

Frankly, I’d be happy if everyone just followed George Orwell’s example.

In his new book, Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, author Thomas Ricks said something about George Orwell that distinguishes him from most current-day journalists:

Instead of shaping facts to fit his opinions, [Orwell] was willing to let facts change his opinions.

Let’s face it.  You can't say the same about most newspapers and television networks today.

George Orwell
Instead of weighing all the facts and coming to the appropriate conclusions based on those facts, “agenda journalists” start with a predetermined point of view and downplay any evidence that calls the validity of that point of view into question.

“The general modus operandi is simple,” according to one critic.  “[J]ump to premature conclusions, accept orchestrated events as [coinciding with reality] and interpretation as fact, ignore confuting or problematic data, and suppress or damp down countervailing intel when the truth eventually emerges.”  

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The recently enacted “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” will reduce federal income taxes for the vast majority of taxpayers.  In fact, the left-leaning Tax Policy Center has estimated that only 5% of Americans will pay more in taxes in 2018 than they would have if the new law had not been passed. 

But a number of polls show that most Americans believe that their taxes will go up – not down – as a result of the new legislation.

For example, a New York Times survey found that only 32% of respondents believed they would get a tax cut in 2018.

How are we to explain this discrepancy between what reality actually is and what Americans believe reality to be?

Could it be the result of the consistently negative reporting about the tax legislation in most of the mainstream media?    

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Earlier this year, Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy reported that 60% of the news coverage of President Clinton’s first 100 days in office were negative, while 40% were positive.

The numbers were almost identical for Clinton’s successor, President Bush – 57% negative, 43% positive.

The press was much nicer to President Obama – only 41% of the stories about his first 100 days in office were negative, while 59% were positive.

President Trump got slammed in 80% of the news stories about his first 100 days.  Only 20% were positive. 

But CNN, NBC, and CBS were negative more than 90% of the time.

Even the Wall Street Journal – which some people believe is a right-wing paper – was negative 70% of the time.

Only Fox News had balanced coverage.  It was negative 52% of the time and positive 48% of the time.

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Some of you will say that those numbers simply reflect reality – that Trump richly deserves every negative story that’s been published about him.

But consider this: according to the Center for Public Integrity, journalists contributed almost 25 times more money to Hillary Clinton’s campaign than Donald Trump’s campaign.  

Journalists as a group clearly feel tremendous fear and loathing for President Trump.  Most of the ones I know don’t apologize for feeling that way – they think he’s earned every bit of that fear and loathing.

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In the 19th and early 20th centuries, most American newspapers were partisan publications.

Party newspapers didn’t apologize for what we call “fake news” today.  “The power of the press,” in the words of one antebellum journalist, “consists not in its logic or eloquence, but in its ability to manufacture facts, or to give coloring to facts that have occurred.”  

Political parties directly or indirectly subsidized newspapers.  In some instances, the relationships between party and publisher were unknown to readers.

Professor James Baughman
As the revered University of Wisconsin journalism professor James Baughman told the Center for Journalism Ethics in 2011, “by the 1950s most newspapers, large and small, as well as the broadcast networks, tried to present the news objectively. . . . [O]ur national news culture, whether print or broadcast, preferred the middle ground.”

But that changed in the 1970s and 1980s.  According to Baughman, 

Reporters were encouraged to add analysis into their stories.  Such analytical reporting more often than not, I think, had a liberal centrist slant.  Not hard liberal.  Not Rachel Maddow liberal.  Maybe “neo-liberal.”

Look at the The New York Times in 1960 vs. 2010.  The reportage is more interpretive.  This is not a problem for me, but it is an issue for my more conservative friends (and I have them).  The more analytical journalism could be off-putting for those on the fringes, left and especially on the right.  One reader’s analysis is another reader’s opinion.  Sixty percent of those surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2009 believed reporting was politically biased.

There is a related problem that editors note and I encountered when I gave public service talks as director of the journalism school . . . a lot of people can’t distinguish the editorial page from the rest of the paper.  Some assume the worst, that the editorial views of the newspaper inform the rest of the paper.

All too often, that assumption is justified.

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Most of us are far from being experts when it comes to tax reform, immigration policy, and the other political issues of the day.  We rely on newspapers and network news programs to present the facts relevant to those issues so we can make an informed decision concerning which side is right and which side is wrong.

At least that’s the way it used to work.  Nowadays, it’s more likely that we turn to a news source that tells us what we want to hear.  

Occasionally, I’ll come across a story in the Washington Post or another news source that’s on a topic that I actually know quite a bit about.  Almost without exception, those stories are a disappointment.   At best, they are naive or simplistic.  At worst, they are poorly-disguised advocacy pieces that reflect the author’s biases.

That makes me wonder whether the articles on topics that I don’t know anything about are equally flawed. 

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In many cases, you don’t have to know anything about the subject of a newspaper story to know that its  conclusions aren’t worthy of being taken seriously.

For example, the author of the article may base his or her conclusions on anecdotal evidence that is inherently unreliable.  You have to wonder whether that author is too lazy to dig deeper into the facts, or is simply unaware that his or her arguments are illogical, inconsistent, or otherwise flawed.

A good example of this kind of “reporting” is a recent story about a large Utah family that ran on the Washington Post’s front page.  That article clearly implied that the new tax reform legislation would hurt that family, even though it is almost certain that the new law will help them.

The Post article pays lip service to objectivity by acknowledging that “[i]ndependent analysts say most families should get a tax cut” as a result of the new law, but undercuts that statement with quotes from the husband and wife who are the subject of the article.

We just don’t want to have less money than we had before,” says the wife.  In fact, her family won’t have less money – unless there is something very atypical about them.  And if her family is that atypical, why is the Post focusing on them rather than on families that are more representative of all American families?

It doesn’t feel like it’s for the middle class,” the husband says.  “It doesn’t feel genuine to me,” the wife chimes in.  Why should what the legislation “feels like” to one apparently ill-informed couple matter?  

It seems like it might be worse for us,” the husband says.  What are we to make of this statement?  We are reading this article in hopes of learning something about the effects the new tax law will have on Americans generally – and on our family in particular.  Instead, we’re told that one man has concluded that it “seems like” the new law “might” make his family’s situation worse.  SO WHAT??? 

Imagine if that Post reporter was assigned to write a story about a new cancer treatment.  Would he feature one cancer patient who said “It doesn’t feel like this treatment is for me,” or “It seems like I might be worse off” by undergoing that treatment?  Hopefully not.

I’m guessing that it’s news coverage like this story – which should embarrass the powers-that-be at the Post – that is responsible for the divergence between the very large number of Americans who will benefit from the new tax-reform law, and the relatively small number who believe they will benefit from that law.

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I think every Post story about the new tax bill has stated – usually in the headline, subhead, or initial paragraph – that it will primarily help the wealthy.  

The implication is that this is a bad thing – few of us see ourselves as wealthy, after all.  

The new tax law cuts tax rates across the board – almost all taxpayers will benefit.  But the wealthy will benefit more than the poor or middle-class for one simple reason: THE WEALTHY PAY A LOT MORE IN TAXES.

The top-earning 1% of Americans paid roughly 46% of all individual federal income taxes in 2014.  (They earned only 17% of all the income earned by individuals that year.)  

Roughly 45% of Americans pay NO federal income tax.  (That percentage will go up as a result of the new tax law.)  By definition, people who pay zero income tax will not be directly benefitted by a reduction in federal income tax rates.  

Saying that the tax-reform bill primarily benefits the wealthy is about as meaningful as saying that a  law-enforcement initiative against car-theft rings primarily benefit the wealthy.  

But given that the wealthy own more cars, and more expensive cars, any police efforts aimed at car thieves do benefit the wealthy more.    

But would the Washington Post lead off a story about such a law-enforcement effort with a statement that it will primarily benefit the wealthy?  Of course not.

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I don’t agree with the Washington Post when it comes to the tax-reform law.  I happen to think that the new tax legislation is a good thing for the country as a whole.  

But maybe the Post is right.  I’m willing to admit that’s a possibility.  

What I’m not willing to admit is that the Post ever truly had an open mind on the subject.  I would say that nine of out ten stories about the new tax law that have appeared in the Post over the past several weeks represent agenda journalism – not impartial, George Orwell-style reporting.  

I’m not a conspiracy-theory kind of guy, and I’m usually very skeptical of those who make broad generalizations – including those who assert that the mainstream media has a liberal agenda.  

But after reading what the Post has had to say about the new tax law, I have no choice but to conclude that the newspaper has its thumb on the scale.  Rather than keeping an open mind and considering all the relevant facts before coming to a conclusion about that law, the Post let its political point of view drive its “reporting.”

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John Lennon wrote a lot of terrible songs, but “Gimme Some Truth” is not one of them.  In fact, it may be the best song ever released by Lennon as a solo artist.

“Gimme Some Truth” has some things in common with rap songs – Lennon speaks the lyrics more than he sings them, and he hangs a lot of words on a very simple musical framework.  There’s a lot of repetition – “Gimme Some Truth” would be very short if the repetition was eliminated.  (Of course, that’s the case with a lot of Beatles songs.)

Here’s “Gimme Some Truth”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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