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Protesters and the Media

August 5, 2009

Marc Ambinder writes:

“I’ve gotten some heat from a few progressive websites about a CBS Evening News piece on the angry weekend protests at constituent meetings in Pennsylvania, Texas and elsewhere. Speaking for myself here, and not for CBS, I think the piece is exactly on point. Correspondent Wyatt Andrews noted that conservative websites had organized some of the crowds, but also that the anger reflected in some of the barbed questioning reflects a reality: there is anxiety in the nation about health care reform.”

It is, of course, impossible to determine precisely the extent to which conservative media outlets manufacture, rather than merely organize, popular protests. In its very ambiguity, the protest plays directly into the hands of political pundits, right and left. On the liberal side, the involvement of FreedomWorks is alone enough to discredit both the protestors and the media outlets that cover them – Jane Hamsher goes so far as to accuse two New York Times reporters of “helping pass off blatant propaganda as news.” Conservatives, meanwhile, will tend to accept the coverage uncritically, confirming as it does what they already know (or think they know) to be true: that America is, as Dick Cheney has asserted, a center-right country.

To his credit, Ambinder recognizes that political influence runs in both directions: top down, and bottom up. Still, the ongoing debate over media bias raises broader concerns. Even supposing, as Ambinder does, that the protests reflect popular anxiety over higher taxes and governmental intervention, why is this significant and worthy of news coverage? In one sense, it is clear that network television is ratings-driven, with the result that conflict and scandal are obvious choices for reporting. This is the unspoken justification for most of what passes as journalism on TV news: an appeal to the bottom line. Yet Ambinder wants to defend the CBS Evening News piece on the grounds that it “reflects a reality” in the nation. Clearly, there are many, many “realities” surrounding US politics. So why report this one?

A greater concern of mine is that the CBS coverage and the debate surrounding it tend to detract from the real issues at stake. FreedomWorks aside, what arguments are the protesters making about health care reform, and how do they square up with the facts? That is what I, at least, would like to know.

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