L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 317, May 1, 2005
"May Day! May Day!"
There's Good News and There's Bad News
Special to TLE
If you rely on traditional media outlets or government spokesmen to get the news, the chances are good that you're confused. From the government and conservative media, we hear what a a success the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are; from the liberal and libertarian media, we hear of ongoing opposition to our very presence in these countries. From conservative sources, we hear that basic scientific principles such as evolution are in serious question; from the traditionally more liberal academic community, we hear precisely the opposite.
Some of the choices of stories for broadcast or publication may, indeed, be based on bias. Internet news purveyor WorldNetDaily, for example, is literally unable to use the term "gay" without placing it in quotation marks, and frequently references something it calls the "homosexual agenda." It regularly runs features that include stories sympathetic to prayer in the classroom or the teaching of intelligent design under the banner of "brave new schools." But in all fairness, WorldNetDaily has always billed itself as a conservative news source.
Other outlets, however, claim to be fair and unbiased. But their decisions as to priorities or publication at least hint otherwise. Just this week, the disparity in lead stories between the purportedly liberal CNN and the supposedly conservative Fox News networks was interesting. At one time, the lead story on CNN featured Michael Jackson and his ongoing trial on child sexual abuse charges; at precisely the same time, the lead story on Fox News was a guilty plea by Mark Hacking who admitted in a Utah courtroom that he'd killed his wife while she slept. Both CNN and Fox News did tell both stories, but the emphasis was dramatically different.
While decisions such as which story to emphasize at any given time are usually subjective, the known political persuasion of those making the decisions are hard to ignore. It was, in fact, that known bias that caused some to look so hard at a 60 Minutes story about George W. Bush put together by Dan Rather. As it turns out, whether it was Mr. Rather's politics or his dubious ethics that blinded him, he and his team were guilty of using falsified documents at the very center of their tale.
Accusations of media bias are now so all-encompassing that groups have been established to monitor such activity. The Media Research Center claims it's "the leader in documenting, exposing, and neutralizing liberal media bias." At the same time, the Internet also boasts T. Rex's Guide to Conservative Media Bias. The one thing that both groups can probably agree on is that neither seems to be having any trouble finding examples to talk about.
We can blame the media of either persuasion all we like, but we must also be honest enough to note that the government plays its own role in reporting news about current events. Earlier this year, it was brought to light that the Bush administration had actually paid columnists to promote certain of its programs. Needless to say, that didn't go over well with either the public or with some syndicators (sadly, the condemnation of these columnists wasn't universal). More recently, the General Accounting Office reported that the government was itself producing "news" segments and shipping them off to various media outlets for unattributed broadcast.
Media bias is never less than bad news. The Founding Fathers, after all, fully intended for the press to be one of the most importantand incorruptiblechecks on government wrongdoing. But amidst all the bad news are a couple of factors representing some very good news. First, the Internet has enabled individuals to be national and international news sources in and of themselves. While some are at least as biased as the mainstream press they strive to emulate, a host of them are honest. And among the latter are some very talented investigative reporters who, like the more traditional press used to be, never give up once they scent a breath of scandal or wrongdoing on the part of the authorities. Better still is the fact that these individuals consider, among other things, the mainstream press to be fair game for their attention.
It was Matt Drudge who first brought real attention to Monica Lewinsky's infamous stained blue dress, and it was 'bloggers who wouldn't let the 60 Minutes story rest. Conspiracy theorists who wonder about government complicity in the bombing of the Alfred R. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City have long been able to chat and compare notes with like minds via the Internet; now Fox News has indicated it's seeking more information on possible wrongdoing (or at least ineptitude) on the part of the authorities in connection with their investigations of that crime. The media at large took up these huge stories largely because they had to. The Internet started the fire and fanned the flames to such a degree that even the most partisan couldn't ignore the smoke any longer.
Sometimes, no matter the the source, the news is so bad that there is inevitably a backlash. In the case of the government's production of propaganda films in the guise of news stories, parts of the selfsame government are so horrified by this egregious abuse of the public trust that they're speaking out. The Government Accounting Office (GAO) was the government entity that first put together and released the comprehensive report revealing these tyrannical tactics. Now the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has stepped into the fray to tell broadcasters they must identify such tapes as being government-produced if they choose to air them.
If the administration's actions had been less egregiousif there had been fewer instances of such films, for exampleit's entirely possible the entire matter would have blown over. But by virtue of its nonchalant and frequent use of such measures, the government is finding itself condemned by some of its own.
The PATRIOT Act consists of a list of measures any one or two of which might pass muster with the excuse of necessity in the War on Terrorism. But because the Department of Justice took advantage of the hysteria immediately following 9/11 by submitting a virtual laundry list of powers it had long coveted, the law has been controversial virtually since its inception. Because a few cooler heads prevailed long enough to insert some sunset clauses into parts of the law, the DOJ is now in a position of trying to defend a law that many deem indefensible.
In recent weeks, the state of Montana became the fifth to condemn the PATRIOT Act, and hundreds of municipalities have done the same. If the law had been a little more "reasonable" in the first place, many would have agreed to live with some curtailed liberties. It is only the fact that the law is so bad that so many have taken action against it. In other words, it was the bad news that directly resulted in the good news.
Many Americans have ignored the fact that their privacy has been rapidly eroded by both government and private enterprises. They've shrugged and said they have nothing to hide, or they've shaken their heads and attributed massive databases as the price we pay for living in a high tech world. The vast majority also seem to believe that, if a particular database claims to be secure, their information is safe. A few identity thefts here and there haven't really shaken most people much, and even fewer law abiding citizens care about criminals who find their personal informationoften including their DNA in databases.
But now the theft of massive amounts of personal data from database vendors previously considered reputable has shown Americans that their data isn't as safe as they might have naively thought it was. ChoicePoint and LexisNexis lost hundreds of thousands of records from supposedly secure databases, and reports are that some identity thefts have already resulted. Congress is now considering some sort of legislation that might help the victims of such crimes. The caution people are finally having the sense to show, and the lawmakers' attention to a matter long overdue for some action on their part, is almost solely the result of the awful news that so much data was stolen in the first place. If the news hadn't been so bad, the end results wouldn't have been nearly so good.
The MATRIX (Multi-state Anti-Terrorism Information eXchange) database might have fared better given that it was a privately owned database but with only certain government agencies authorized for access. Billed as a terrorism and crime prevention tool, many citizens might have been inclined to agree that any potential abuse of the information contained therein was outweighed by the crime fighting potential it had. But much as it did in the case of the PATRIOT Act, government overreached itself.
Too many people were given access for too many reasons. Every American was almost certainly included, not just those with connections to crimes or terrorism. Datamining was almost a foregone conclusion, effectively eliminating Fourth and Fifth Amendment protections. And the information it contained was incredibly extensive. Although there were still some who were either ignorant or naive enough to think MATRIX was a good idea, many disagreed. Privacy advocacy groups united against the program, and individuals protested loudly. Nowand for much the same reasonsMATRIX has suffered the same fate as that of the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness (TIA) program: The government has stopped funding it.
In what can only be called ironic, the bad news has proved to be good news after all albeit by an indirect route. The news is sometimes so bad that even the most Pollyanna-like populations prove to be dismayed. And the abject failure of the mainstream press to fulfill its mandate as the "fourth estate" has given the Internet both the impetus and the power to make a real and positive difference. Now, however, we must be more watchful than ever. The government isn't always the brightest of beasts on a collective basis, but it has turned its shaggy head toward the Internet more than once in recent months.
There's been talk of applying Campaign Finance Reform to the Internet, thanks to the horrible McCain-Feingold measure that dramatically curtails the free speech of political action groups. Fortunately, that news was bad enough early enough that Congress is already taking some action to protect political 'bloggers from being muzzled by CFR. Talk crops up with some regularity among politicians who consider taxing Internet purchases or even Internet access, but the mandate against it isso farstrong enough to prevent overt action in that regard. And the FCC's crusade to censor the broadcast media has lately extended feelers toward online material. That, too, appears to be at a standstill for the moment.
But whatever you do, don't assume that no news is good news. Sometimes, no news means that the bad news just isn't bad enough for you to take notice or to get too upset. Sometimes the bad news is distributed carefully over time or scope. That makes it not seem quite so bad and so doesn't get your undivided attention or activism. At the moment, most government entities seem to lack the subtlety to take that kind of slow, creeping approach. But even the most stupid or stubborn eventually learn, and its many recent abject failures means the government is likely to take heed sooner rather than later. And that could prove to be very bad news for all of us.