March 16, 2005

No credibility? Big deal.

The New York Times' editorial response to the Bush administration's aggressive distribution of fake news reports strikes me as off-the-mark:

If using pretend news is one of the ways these stations have chosen to save money, it's a false economy. If it represents a political decision to support President Bush, it will eventually backfire. This kind of practice cheapens the real commodity that television stations have to sell during their news hours: their credibility.

Will the television stations really lose that much credibility? I'm inclined to think not.

The 2004 elections demonstrate that the public doesn't put too much independent value on being told the truth. We knew before the election that the Bush administration's arguments for invading Iraq depended upon highly speculative evidence that was sold as "slam-dunk." Dick Cheney repeatedly suggested that 9-11 was much more closely tied to Saddam Hussein than it in fact was. This lack of truth-telling (ok, lying) was not enough damage the president's credibility in any way that mattered.

The same might be said for Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Sure, he lied, but the public doesn't seem to have held it against him.

Maybe, though, politicians and presidents can't be compared with television news stations on the issue of credibility. Dan Rather's faulty report for CBS about Bush's national guard service may have have hurt his credibility far more than any overzealous interpretation of tentative intelligence seems to have hurt Bush -- at least if you believe what what you read in the blogosphere.

I suspect, though, that CBS' credibility won't suffer too much in the long run. FoxNews, after all, continues its crusade against journalistic standards without any public uproar, and certainly without much public rejection. Ultimately, television news is probably no different from politicians. Both have so little credibility left to lose that they need not fear losing any.

What really counts, for both politicians and news organizations, may be whether or not they make the public feel good about themselves. In a consumer culture like ours, where we expect everyone to be a salesman and treat every thing as a product, the only thing that counts is whether the product makes us feel young, pretty, loved, strong, or righteous. We don't expect the real thing, but we do require the feelings.

Bush, Clinton, and FoxNews all seem to be able to do this despite their lack of credibility. Whatever the source of television news stations' success, I don't think the Bush propaganda pieces are going to wipe it out.

Posted by Carey at March 16, 2005 08:00 AM