The Sad Demise of the Fourth Estate

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            Students of logic and language agree that facts must not be confused with opinions.  A fact is based on direct evidence, actual experience, observation, inferences derived from direct observation. A fact is a statement that can be shown to be true or can be proved - as, for example, in the statement "The polio virus causes polio," as has been shown by clinical tests and medical observations. A fact may also refer to an event that actually occurred - e.g., the Mayflower landed in Plymouth in 1620, or the name Boston is a linguistic corruption of the original name for the town in England that was named after its patron saint, Botolph.


         By contrast, an opinion is a statement of belief or feeling. An opinion expresses someone's belief, feeling, view, idea, or judgment about something or someone. Opinions express how a person feels about something; they do not have to be based upon logic and may be entirely subjective matters of opinion - i.e. paisley ties should not be worn with polka-dot shirts.

            When supported by evidence - facts - opinions may be deemed credible; when facts are disregarded, or are contrary to the facts, opinions must be dismissed are incredible and nonsensical.

            Despite these important distinctions, ill-informed opinions continue to drive policy-making in the United States and elsewhere, such as the recent Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. To cite but one example, almost all economists agree that government austerity measures during a time of economic travail, such as during a severe recession and its aftermath, exacerbates the plight of the unemployed, the underemployed and middle class employees who have seen their wages stagnate or erode.

            This was a lesson that the Tory government blithely ignored in the aftermath of the Great Recession as its chose to embark on a ill-advised and counter- productive program to drastically reduce government spending and to balance its budget on the backs of the U.K.'s most vulnerable citizens. That effort was,by and large, with a few notable exceptions such as the Guardian newspaper and the Economist magazine, enthusiastically endorsed by the British tabloid media. The effects of that policy, coupled with xenophobia also spread by the tabloid papers, undoubtedly contributed to the chaos and loss of confidence that has now engulfed Britain's political and economic institutions.

           Here in the United Sates, despite all of the same objective evidence to the contrary, advocates for government minimalism have persisted in their monomaniacal efforts to commit the federal government to extreme austerity measures. Every effort by the Obama administration to increase demand by investing in infrastructure and thus creating jobs has been resisted by the GOPs' lilliputian caucus and its business enablers who are unable to comprehend the difference between a static family budget, based upon fixed income, and the U.S. treasury which, unlike families, has the capacity to increase revenue through licenses, taxes, leases and bonds.  Because of their collective obdurance, these minimalists have prolonged the current era of stagnant wages and weak growth by their refusal to support proven macro-economic stimulus measures that would increase demand for goods and services through pubic investment.


            A second case in point is provided by the shared consensus of consensus of the current GOP leadership, including Donald Trump, Paul Ran and Mitch McConnell, on the issue of the issue of climate change. In the aftermath of the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma in May of 2013, President Obama immediately signed a disaster declaration for that state. The Office of the Press Secretary stated that "The President today declared a major disaster exists in the State of Oklahoma and ordered Federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts in the area affected by severe storms and tornadoes beginning on May 18, 2013, and continuing" and that "The President's action makes federal funding available to affected individuals in the counties of Cleveland, Lincoln, McClain, Oklahoma, and Pedatum."

            The President announced that he was instructing his disaster response team to get tornado victims in Oklahoma everything they need "right away." The President described the devastation that destroyed the Oklahoma City suburbs as, "one of the most destructive tornadoes in history." The president also offered his prayers and emphasized that there was a long road of recovery ahead. But he said the victims wouldn't travel alone and they would have all the resources that they needed.

            The President's concern for the victims of Oklahoma's tornadoes stood in stark contrast to the appalling hypocrisy and lack of compassion shown by Oklahoma's two U.S. Senators toward the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Senators James Inhofe and Tom Coburn, both Republicans, claim to be fiscal conservatives who have repeatedly voted against funding disaster aid for other parts of the country (yet they have willingly accepted federal disaster aid in the form of transfer payments from the more prosperous, more enlightened blue states). They also have opposed increased funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which administers federal disaster relief.  

            Inhofe, the former chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, has publicly stated that he does not believe that human activities cause climate change. Inhofe, who is not one to be confused by any set of facts, regularly repeats his denial that human activity contributes to climate change and he describes that claim as a hoax. Inhofe insists that the possibility that humans are influencing climate change is impossible because "God's still up there" and that it is "outrageous" and arrogant for people to believe human beings are "able to change what He is doing in the climate."

            For decades now, the Republican media consultants, as chronicled by Roy Brock in The Republican Noise Machine, have sought to persuade ordinary Americans that the print and electronic media throughout the United States is dominated by liberals. For that reason, all news reports that propose to discuss the scientific basis of evolution, the existence of climate change, economic inequality or which suggest that the current political system is dysfunctional should be dismissed as evidence of liberal bias. The purpose of this consistent propaganda effort has been to inculcate a worldview that denies that there is any such thing as "objective reality" or fact-based information. In a world in which all information has been reduced to that which one believes, one's subjective understanding of reality is as valid as anyone else's, and that the opinions of the ignoramus or village idiot are entitled to the same weight as the research of the scholar.   


            On an individual level, it is a sad fact that too many of American citizens lack the basic skills in reading, writing and comprehension to use language to communicate effectively or coherently. Few can read a newspaper such as The New York Times with good comprehension; fewer still read any newspapers or books at all.

            By almost every indicator - whether measured by linguistic, scientific, historic, economic, geographic or legal literacy - Americans, as a people, fare poorly. We have become a "sound-bite" culture. The consequence of this pervasive illiteracy is that many American citizens cannot distinguish between a fact or an opinion, or distinguish myth from reality. In addition, the illiteracy of the American population creates a docile and easily manipulated public. At the political level, the inability to understand and to use language properly has created a vacuum into which slogans and cant have become substitutes for serious public discussion or analysis of issues.

            When language is used imprecisely - or in a slovenly or cavalier manner - the underlying quality of thought is similarly compromised. The link between language and thought is explored in George Orwell's profound novel, 1984. In that seminal book, the central character, Winston Smith, works in the Ministry of Truth. His job is to help to create for the omnipresent tyranny which governs Oceana a new language, Newspeak. Newspeak is the ultimate language of control: Each year in the Ministry of Truth, thousands of words are eliminated. In addition, antonyms are collapsed into synonyms. Hence, "Freedom is slavery, "Ignorance is strength, "War is peace." As Orwell reminds us in the appendix to that novel, when one loses the capacity to use words correctly, one loses the capacity to think; when one loses the capacity to think, the ability to rebel or to imagine alternatives to the status quo is irrevocably extinguished.

            The misuse of words impairs our ability to reason and to understand social reality. The deceptive or imprecise use of words denotes fallacious or imprecise thinking. When words are used as epithets for the purposes of ad hominem attacks, the intent of the author of the words is to elicit an emotional reaction and to thus foreclose the possibility of serious reflection or consideration by appealing to the listener's prejudices. Thus, during the past six decades as we have seen, the word "liberal" and a panoply of related synonyms such as "tax and spend," "death tax" and "government mandates" have been used by various politicians and media outlets to convey something sinister, while slogans such as "free enterprise," "individual rights" and the "American way" have been invoked to convey something wonderful and patriotic.

            The calculated use of these words has been to persuade citizens to acquiesce to the roll-back of government regulation and programs in the public interest, and to thwart efforts to regulate heretofore unregulated entities such as hedge funds and financial instruments such as collateralized securities and debt obligations. By 2008, under the political cover provided by this linguistic subterfuge, the unrestrained pursuit of self-aggrandizement precipitated a severe and prolonged fiscal crisis in the United States and throughout the world, the effects of which continue to cripple the U.S. economy to the present.


            This concerted campaign to roll back the modest government regulation introduced during the New Deal--which was designed to preserve market capitalism while attempting to insulate the public against its worst excesses--has been aided and abetted by the print and electronic media which, heavily dependent upon corporate investment and advertising, uncritically toe the party line. Given the decline of the print media, the broadcast media especially have been effective surrogates that promote a partisan political agenda.

            Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the Fox Television Network, which claims to present "fair and balanced news," has spewed a stream of political propaganda and invective across the airwaves against those they depict as the enemies of American values. Besides the Fox Network, thousands of radio outlets across the United States routinely promote the partisan rhetoric of right-wing talk show hosts. They stridently espouse "traditional" American values of gun ownership, militarism, jingoism, and eighteenth century notions of rugged individualism punctuated with appeals to pure avarice--"I've got mine, screw you."

            While Fox and its right-wing friends may be the most obvious cases in point, the talking heads and presenters on the other twenty-four hour cable networks are equally culpable. Pleasant, vacuous, uninformed "presenters," many of whom lack journalistic credentials and have gotten their jobs as a result of nepotism or inside connections, are all too often unable to ask insightful questions or are too timid to challenge nonsensical remarks. Hence, for example, equal weight is given on almost all of the cable shows to the opinions of consultants, spokesmen, surrogates and propagandists without any effort to separate the wheat from the chaff or to even suggest that not all opinions should be given value given the lack of factual support.

            A similar problem exists in the print media. Aside from some serious efforts to discuss serious public-policy issues in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today,, the print media in most cities across the United States remain largely dominated by "Rotary Club Republicans" and business-friendly interests who unwilling to offend conventional wisdom.

John Adams sagely observed, "Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right ... and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied king of knowledge. I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers."

           There is plenty of blame to apportion in the current malaise, but when the history of this era is written it will also be clear that the citizens of the United States, as well as those in many of the other Western democracies, have been ill-served by their media. Instead of serious journalists committed to educating a public and creating an informed citizenry, the news media has been reduced to a "food fight" in which shrill, barely literate, uninformed propagandists have been permitted to hock "snake oil" nostrums without challenge or criticism. Our public square has been impoverished as a consequence.


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