Press corps gets airbrushed away: Has our political system “been so degraded by misinformation and disinformation that it can no longer function?”
That’s the question with which Paul Krugman started yesterday’s column. Plainly, we’d say the answer is yes.
We'd say our system has been disabled that way for a rather long time.
In our view, misinformation and disinformation were thoroughly clogging the system at least by the start of the Clinton-Gore years. By the end of those years, the disinformation drowned us. In that sense, Krugman was raising a very good question. If anything, he was raising this question a bit late in the game.
Krugman started his column with a very important question. But we found his column troubling because of a rather dramatic bit of airbrushing.
This is the way Krugman’s column began. Can you see who’s missing?
KRUGMAN (8/16/13): We all know how democracy is supposed to work. Politicians are supposed to campaign on the issues, and an informed public is supposed to cast its votes based on those issues, with some allowance for the politicians’ perceived character and competence.As he continues, Krugman correctly suggests that our system has been degraded by misinformation to the point of breakdown. But can you see who’s been airbrushed out of the tableau he’s painting?
We also all know that the reality falls far short of the ideal. Voters are often misinformed, and politicians aren’t reliably truthful. Still, we like to imagine that voters generally get it right in the end, and that politicians are eventually held accountable for what they do.
But is even this modified, more realistic vision of democracy in action still relevant? Or has our political system been so degraded by misinformation and disinformation that it can no longer function?
In the passage we have posted, Krugman portrays a troubling dance between politicians and voters. Not a word is included about a third group—our badly degraded press corps.
Remarkably, the press corps doesn’t exist in this column. It’s airbrushing all the way down!
The passage which follows is about as close as Krugman gets to talking about the press corps. He has already noted the fact that many voters believe, incorrectly, that the federal deficit has been growing in the past several years:
KRUGMAN: Republicans made a lot of political hay over a supposedly runaway deficit early in the Obama administration, and they have maintained the same rhetoric even as the deficit has plunged. Thus Eric Cantor, the second-ranking Republican in the House, declared on Fox News that we have a “growing deficit,” while Senator Rand Paul told Bloomberg Businessweek that we’re running “a trillion-dollar deficit every year.”Krugman notes Cantor making a misstatement. Weirdly, he asks if we don’t have “umpires” to address this sort of thing.
Do people like Mr. Cantor or Mr. Paul know that what they’re saying isn’t true? Do they care? Probably not. In Stephen Colbert’s famous formulation, claims about runaway deficits may not be true, but they have truthiness, and that’s all that matters.
Still, aren’t there umpires for this sort of thing—trusted, nonpartisan authorities who can and will call out purveyors of falsehood? Once upon a time, I think, there were. But these days the partisan divide runs very deep, and even those who try to play umpire seem afraid to call out falsehood. Incredibly, the fact-checking site PolitiFact rated Mr. Cantor’s flatly false statement as “half true.”
We once had umpires, Krugman says. But today, even they seem afraid.
If your child is in eighth grade, she may have a civics text which addresses this very issue. But almost surely, her civics textbook doesn’t talk about “umpires,” except perhaps in a secondary reference.
Almost surely, her civics text skips the euphemism. It uses the real term: “press corps.”
Traditionally, the press corps is supposed to address misstatements by politicians! This is a very basic part of the way our system is supposed to work.
Traditionally, even eighth graders have been entrusted with this basic knowledge. America’s press corps, the so-called “fourth estate,” has always played a key role in their civics texts.
Yesterday, Krugman wiped this group off the face of the earth. Below, you see the only time the press corps was cited by name:
KRUGMAN (continuing directly): Now, Washington still does have some “wise men,” people who are treated with special deference by the news media. But when it comes to the issue of the deficit, the supposed wise men turn out to be part of the problem. People like Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, the co-chairmen of President Obama’s deficit commission, did a lot to feed public anxiety about the deficit when it was high. Their report was ominously titled “The Moment of Truth.” So have they changed their tune as the deficit has come down? No—so it’s no surprise that the narrative of runaway deficits remains even though the budget reality has completely changed.Krugman does note that “the news media” treat certain people with deference. But that is his only direct references to the media or the press corps. Just like that, he returns to euphemism in that passage, which closes his column. This time, he refers to “watchdogs” who don't want to bark.
Put it all together, and it’s a discouraging picture. We have an ill-informed or misinformed electorate, politicians who gleefully add to the misinformation and watchdogs who are afraid to bark. And to the extent that there are widely respected, not-too-partisan players, they seem to be fostering, not fixing, the public’s false impressions.
So what should we be doing? Keep pounding away at the truth, I guess, and hope it breaks through. But it’s hard not to wonder how this system is supposed to work.
What ever happened to the familiar old moniker, “journalists?”
Go ahead—read Krugman’s whole column. We have complained, for years, about his failure to name the names of major journalists who have performed extremely poorly.
This column goes much farther. Go ahead—read it in full. The airbrushing here is so vast that it comes uncomfortably close to creating its own act of disinformation. Krugman is telling a three-part story, but he’s mentioning only two parts.
No one makes Krugman, or anyone else, write about this topic. But if you raise the question he raises, you simply can’t airbrush the press corps away. For decades, they have played a leading role in the process which is under review. They’ve done so for at least twenty years.
In comments, many of Krugman’s readers speak with great frankness about the press corps’ role in the mess this column is describing. They speak of “reporters” and “the press.” They even name scribes by name!
The commenters are more frank than the columnist. On the down side, none of them seem to have noticed the way Krugman airbrushed this sector.
This column comes quite close to being deceptive. As a matter of fact, we’d say it goes over that line.
Go ahead—read it again! This is an act of vast airbrushing. It’s an example of the problem Krugman is talking about.
For whom do those umpires work: For the record, the “umpires” known as Politifact are part of the mainstream press corps.
The site is run by the Tampa Bay Times. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009, exactly ten years after Maureen Dowd was sadly handed her prize.
The breakdown of the mainstream press corps has been a giant problem for decades. Another huge problem: the way the guild will airbrush this problem away.