Lies, damn lies and things I saw on the news

By Kyle Harding, Opinion Editor


Many of us who write for The Easterner aspire to be professional journalists one day, so we spend a lot of time reading or watching news; unfortunately the examples set by many supposedly respectable media organizations are more useful for showing us what not to do.

Gun control has been at the top of the news ever since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December, and I take issue with the way the debate has been framed by the media.

It is not because I think the media has been too one-sided. I am in favor of an individual’s right to own guns, even the ones that politicians have decided are scary. I  also accept that many people in the news media do not share this opinion with me. I could use my column to list the reasons why I believe an armed citizenry is an important part of a free republic. I could write about how I do not believe gun control laws accomplish what their proponents claim they do. I would rather not. If you agree, I am preaching to the choir. If you do not agree, it is doubtful I could change your mind in 800 words.

What bothers me more is the way media commentators have made their arguments.

Last week, MSNBC host Martin Bashir aired a video that purported to show the father of one of the Sandy Hook victims being, as he put it, “heckled” by gun rights advocates at a hearing on gun legislation. The story circulated on social media before it was discovered that the video did not show things as they actually happened. The father was not heckled by anybody; the video was edited in a way to make it seem as though he was being interrupted and shouted down. I am not supportive of the response of the pro-gun people at the hearing, as I think defense of gun rights should be left to people who are smart enough to formulate an argument more compelling than just saying “The Second Amendment.” That does not abdicate MSNBC of a responsibility to tell the truth, nor the other news outlets, such as Reuters and CNN, who reported on the incident without questioning whether or not it was factual.

It is unfair to expect journalists to be completely unbiased. MSNBC is entitled to present news with a viewpoint. What they are not entitled to do is manufacture their own facts to suit that viewpoint. Even though they have now aired the original tape, the truth has been forever altered by MSNBC, because no matter how much a faulty news report is corrected the damage can never be fully undone.

From my point of view, the video would not be good criticism of pro-gun policy even if it showed facts as they were. How does showing the poor behavior, real or made up, of a few people affect the debate? This logical red herring is a subtler form of dishonesty in the media, and one I’ve seen a lot lately. That is the practice of picking out people on the opposite side of the debate from you and rather than arguing policy, pointing out their personal flaws and using that to discredit not only them but their entire political movement.

MSNBC’s doctoring of the video could never change my mind. But it was never intended to change my mind. Its intended purpose was to reassure gun control proponents that they are in the right. They must be in the right, because “look at what dicks those gun people are.” No policy need be debated, that guy on the other side is a jerk, therefore I must be right. It fits perfectly with the beltway media stereotype of gun owners as uncivilized rednecks, people who would verbally attack a father who is grieving for his murdered child. It allows self-righteous liberals to claim the moral high ground as theirs and theirs alone.

I realize it seems as though I am picking on the left. After all, many right-wing Internet outlets have published stories that skip legitimate pro-gun arguments in favor of the same tactic I am criticizing MSNBC for, dredging up the personal indiscretions of anti-gun politicians, pundits and activists. Outside of the gun debate as well, I have seen much of this in the conservative media. However, I see MSNBC’s piece as particularly egregious because of the way the facts were altered.

These news outlets are relying on a shallow form of journalism designed not to shed new light on an issue or persuade people but to validate the opinions of those who already agree with them. It adds nothing to the debate. If traditional media outlets want to remain relevant in this country, they should resist the urge to pander to their base and try publishing content with substance.