Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

10 October 2012

Has PBS Turned to the Dark Side?

If you want evidence of what lilly-livered go-with-the-moment’s-winner cowards our reporters have become, you need only have watched two hours of television last night. I refer to the supposedly objective study of the very different histories and characters of our two presidential candidates that aired on PBS’ “Frontline” last night. (I decline to provide the show’s title or a link for reasons that will soon become obvious.)

On the surface, the program had the usual indicia of PBS’ heretofore superb brand of television reporting. There were montages of sights and sounds from the relevant years. There were cameos of and quotes from important figures from both parties. There were interviews with nationally unknown people who knew both candidates at a young age, and at various stages throughout their careers.

The program had a veneer of objectivity. It noted successes and failures, good and bad, about both men. I didn’t count, but it appeared to devote equal air time to both. It dug up memories about both that even a political junkie like me had never heard.

But you get the drift early in the first hour. There the show devotes several minutes to a middle-school club that the President joined while a boy in Hawaii. It makes a point telling us that the club’s name is slang for smoking marijuana. Then it tells us (through an interviewee) that, whereas Bill Clinton swore he didn’t inhale, the President, as a young boy, inhaled deeply. The relevance of this bit of hearsay (if true) to anything that matters it doesn’t provide.

The tingling sense of treachery to objective journalism becomes conviction around the end of the first hour. After reviewing the President’s difficulty enacting health-insurance reform (and erroneously calling it “health care”), the show refers to the President’s polarizing “quality.” It implies that the bills’s failure to garner a single Republican vote arose from the President’s lack of political skill or deficient character. It never mentions Messrs Boehner and McConnell swearing to make him fail just days after his inauguration—an oath they picked up from noted paragon of culture Rush Limbaugh.

That’s not all. The narrative goes on to dwell on the later gridlock in Congress, again placing blame on the President’s alleged polarizing “quality” and contrasting it with his desire as candidate to unite red and blue America.

Don’t get me wrong. The show’s bias is not always so obvious. Mostly it’s subtle and smooth as poisoned silk. In fact, it may be the cleverest and most diabolical piece of propaganda I have seen in this campaign, even in my life. As I watched it, I imagined all the great demagogues of human history— Geobbels, Lenin, Stalin, Molotov, McCarthy, Huey Long, and Rove—standing up and cheering.

To recount all the instances of subtle bias would unduly prolong this essay. But every lying meme of the Republican campaign was there. There were images and quotes to “prove” that: (1) the President has failed; (2) his own lack of leadership caused GOP hostility and the stalemate in Congress; (3) he’s a naïve idealist who can’t get along and can’t get anything done; (4) despite his immense wealth, Mitt has encountered much hardship in his life and has always overcome it with hard work, good values, and religious faith; and (5) Mitt’s constant shape-shifting is a necessary evil that will magically produce bipartisanship where the President failed and likely fix our stalled economy.

If you believe all that, I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you. But those are the impressions you will come away with, unless you have a good memory for facts and are unusually hardened to propaganda. If there were a Pulitzer Prize in that field of “journalism,” last night’s PBS show would win it hands down.

I’m not so worried about the show’s immediate political implications. PBS’ audience is a narrow one, most of whom support the President anyway. And this particular show’s audience was even narrower. Few but political junkies like me have the time or patience to sit through two hours of recent history that they think they already know.

What worries me is what this abomination says about the GOP’s well-oiled propaganda machine.

Most Republicans think PBS is controlled by Obama operatives. The truth is a lot simpler: PBS tries harder than most TV producers to stay objective, and it usually succeeds. That’s why Mitt and Rove want to kill it, although its budget is a rounding error in any reasonable measurement of our debt or financial difficulties.

So how do you explain this subtle propaganda piece getting two hours (for what is usually a one-hour show) a bare month before the election?

I can think of only two possible answers. First, Rove and his minions have infiltrated PBS, knew they would probably have only one shot at a hatchet job on the President, and saved their efforts for the most effective time. Second, Mitt’s success in the first debate has made some spineless reporters worry about their jobs in case he wins.

So the rats may be leaving what they see as a sinking ship. Their doing so suggests that journalistic integrity is, like everything else in our country today, for sale. Even on PBS!

This treachery to straight journalism is all the more repulsive in light of Mitt’s recent promise to drop, not cut, PBS. Don’t these cravens realize they’ll be gone with Big Bird anyway if Mitt wins? Maybe some already have secret contracts with Fox.

Now, I think, is the time to go to the mattresses. If the President doesn’t up his game and come alive, we may see a shape-shifting salesman with zero experience in foreign policy, backed by Tea Party crazies, running our country come January. God help us.



  • At Thu Oct 11, 05:23:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Jason said…

    I have a third answer for why PBS would do something like this. Like most of the "impartial" media, they're so acutely aware of accusations of liberal bias that they bend over backward to avoid making one candidate look better than the other, even if that's the only conclusion one can draw from the facts. If PBS didn't pepper their documentaries with right-wing talking points, they would end up painting Obama as an intelligent, principled leader, while showing Mitt Romney as an empty, psychopathic ass. But reporting those truths would draw accusations of bias, and they're afraid of that.

    I often wonder what our politics would look like if the media weren't biased toward creating false equivalence -- if they were "fair" instead of "balanced." Imagine if global warming deniers were given the attention they deserve (about 1% of all coverage, focused mainly on their ties to oil companies). Imagine if the media actually made a big scandal, out of every brazen lie a candidate tells to the public. Where would the Obama-Romney poll numbers be? 70-30? 90-10? I guess that's a moot point. In that sort of media environment, Romney as we know him could not exist. Nobody would make it this far with conscious lying as the core of his strategy. How nice that would be!

  • At Mon Oct 15, 11:05:00 AM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Jason,

    A good insight, well put!

    I think you’re right in general, but I suspect there was more to this particular piece of propaganda than just bending over backwards to seem balanced. I suspect infiltration or outside influence.

    Have you seen it?

    If you haven’t, you will probably have an impression of deliberate slanting when you do. It spends what seem like several minutes on Obama’s high-school boys’ club and its relationship to marijuana, when it might have taken that time to discuss legislative records and attempts at compromise.

    Then, right in the middle, and out of the blue, it mentions Obama’s “polarizing quality.” I nearly feel out of my chair.

    That’s not just trying to be evenhanded and bending over backwards. It’s straight from the most recent ploy in the GOP’s “chutzpah” strategy—blaming Obama for Dubya’s mistakes and GOP obstructionism since the stimulus.

    The GOP itself confirmed the newest lie by having Ryan make it in his closing statement, when Biden couldn’t rebut.

    I'm not much of a conspiracy theorist. But when you see startling things like this happen in different media at the same time, it’s a bit like watching Al Qaeda’s geographically separate but nearly simultaneous suicide bombings.




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