Appalling Spread of False Information Requires Stronger Media Accountability

"A free press is supposed to function as our democracy's immune system against . . . gross errors of fact and understanding," wrote Al Gore in his book, The Assault on Reason. But it doesn't - as Gore explains -- and that is what makes the mass media one of the most important obstacles to social and economic progress in the 21st century.

How the media treats repeated falsehoods is a key issue. For example, when the New York Times reports on the allegation -- spread by his enemies -- that presidential candidate Barack Obama is a Muslim, there is a sentence that follows immediately: "In fact, he is a Christian. . ."

The media didn't do this kind of "immune system" work when it reported on the run-up to the Iraq war. As a result, more than 70 percent of Americans were convinced that Saddam Hussein was involved in the massacre of September 11. More than 4,000 Americans and over one million Iraqis have been killed in the violence that perhaps could have been averted with better journalism.

A 2008 study by the Center for Public Integrity, "The War Card: Orchestrated Deception on the Path to War," documents 935 false statements by President Bush and seven top officials of his administration. The report notes that "much of the wall-to-wall media coverage provided additional, 'independent' validation of the Bush administration's false statements about Iraq."

Filmmaker Michael Moore told CNN's Wolf Blitzer, "We're in the 5th year of this war because you, and CNN… didn't do your jobs back then and now here we are in this mess."

The mass media fails us on many issues other than war and peace. Most Americans under 50 think they are never going to see their Social Security benefits. In fact, the probability that they won't get their Social Security benefits is about the same as the chance that there won't be a U.S. government when they retire - pretty close to zero. The media could correct this widespread false belief by merely inserting a few undisputed facts about Social Security when reporting false statements from politicians and interest groups. For example: "Social Security is more financially sound than it has been throughout most of its 71-year history"; or "Social Security's projected shortfall over the next 75 years is less (as a percent of national income) than what was fixed in each of the following decades: 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s."

Millions of Americans are now "under water" on their homes -- that is, they owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. The rate of mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures is breaking records, and has much further to go. Many of these personal financial tragedies could have been avoided had the media reported on the obvious risks of buying a house while a record bubble in house prices was ballooning. Instead, the number one media source on the housing market was David Lereah, then chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, and author of the book Why the Real Estate Boom Will Not Bust and How You Can Profit From It. Reporting on the stock market bubble of the late 90s was even worse.

Of course the media is not monolithic, and the TV media -- the main object of Gore's criticism -- tends to be worse than the print media. And some reporters break with current trends. In 2006 the New York Times used the Center for Economic and Policy Research (where I am Co-Director) as its most cited source on the housing market, and therefore was able to see the housing bubble before it broke. But it is surprising how uniform the major media is on many issues, given that there are competing news organizations. A herd mentality often prevails: journalists know that they will almost never get in trouble for reporting something that is wrong when everyone else is also saying it; but they do take a risk when they report something different, even if it is true.

Here in Washington, when one raises the issue of media responsibility, a common response - from policy analysts, political operatives, and journalists - is that the problem is with the American people, that they are just stupid. Interestingly, however, when one strays a bit from their own area of expertise or concentration, it appears that these professionals also believe a number of falsehoods on important issues -- apparently from having heard these things repeated in the media.

Of course the best counterweight to the media's transgressions is an informed and active citizenry. Part of the reason that the media treats Barack Obama more fairly than it treats Social Security is that Obama has millions of active supporters who would raise hell if the media were to engage in serious abuses of him or his candidacy.

Over the long run, we will need to subject the privately owned mass media to more competition. This will come increasingly from the Internet, but real competition will also require an expanded and better quality public media sector. But until this competition gets a lot bigger, it will be up to the citizenry to hold our highly concentrated media accountable as best we can.

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