On a recent morning, I was on news duty at the radio station. It was the day after Trump tweeted his directive that transgender soldiers no longer be permitted to serve, and on that day, the Senate was getting ready to vote again on repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
The Associated Press radio wire moved a couple of versions of the same story on transgender soldiers, and it was in the classic Associated Press form. It quoted two military veterans serving in Congress, one a Democrat and one a Republican, expressing contrasting views. The AP’s stories on the healthcare vote were even sketchier—“another vote is expected today as the GOP tries again to repeal Obamacare after recent failed attempts,” basically. That’s true as far as it goes, but it barely qualified as news on that morning. It’s as if the AP reported that the sun had risen in the East.
Thank you for reading this far. I have now arrived at the point I want to make: during the same couple hours that morning, while the AP was reporting in perfunctory fashion on two critically important stories—and repeating the same basic story without additional information in several consecutive hourly updates—the agency moved four different, updated versions of a story about a European soccer league’s corruption scandal.
On any given day, it’s clear that the AP is most comfortable with breaking stories: new developments in a scandal, a carnival accident or bus crash, the government’s release of monthly economic indicators. There was a time when being a well-informed citizen required little more than being up on breaking news. But that time is past. The world is exponentially more complicated than it used to be. Knowing only the headlines means that you know very little about what matters. Complex stories with profound effects on millions of people, such as those involving LGBTQ issues or the healthcare debate, are hard to fit into the AP’s headline-service template—so you end up with binary, he-said/she-said reporting offering a single sentence to two contrasting views, as on the transgender military story, which simplifies the story to the point of distorting it.
Here’s another example of how headlines distort reality: during debate on the healthcare bill in the House of Representatives last spring, it was reported that Republicans were stalling passage of a bill many of them had promised to support. The he-said/she-said template left a listener with the impression that those opposed to the new bill must naturally support the status quo. Therefore, it was big news if Republicans preferred Obamacare to their own party’s bill. But that was not what was happening. The Republicans opposed to their party’s bill were against it not because they preferred Obamacare, but because the new bill didn’t go far enough in demolishing Obamacare and salting the earth where once it stood.
The problem today is that context is perceived as bias. For a news outlet to report that Republicans in Congress want their healthcare bill to be even harder on the poor and the needy, even if it can be proven by quotes from the legislators’ own mouths, would be considered a partisan act. The context problem becomes even more severe when journalists are required to deal with obvious lies. Call something bullshit, even if it irrefutably is, and you commit what is perceived by the liars as a partisan act. So media outlets don’t do it. They report the lie and the truth side-by-side and hope the audience can tell the difference—which, as we know all too well, it often cannot.
What the solution is, I do not know. The AP radio wire and its sketchy, context-free service meets the needs of most member stations quite nicely, since so many want little beyond 60 seconds of headlines and a few sports scores every morning. Which is part of the reason we’re in the trouble we’re in, I guess. People don’t want to know what’s really going on, and if they do, it’s an awful lot of work to find out.