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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Media and Pavlov

Ivan Pavlov was a turn of the last century scientist that discovered what is known as classical conditioning through experiments in mice. Through a system of rewards and punishments he was able to train mice either to eat or stay away from cheese left in their cages. These experiments lead to all sorts of breakthroughs in theories on affecting behavior through punishment and reward.

One of the things that struck me about the movie Good Night and Good Luck was one of the side plots in which a fellow newsman wound up committing suicide because he couldn't stand the pressure of being seen as not objective. During Murrow's time, objectivity was seen as so tantamount that a reputation as biased spelled the end of any news career. In fact, Murrow's insistence on giving his opinion was one of several things that made him so revolutionary. Yet, it is amazing how much the news business placed a premium on objectivity at that time. If you compare the news business then to Pavlov, the insistence through threat of black balling on objectivity was the punishment that created classical conditioning of journalists that adhered so strictly to objectivity.

The sort of objectivity that was demanded back in the day of Murrow has all but disappeared today. The campaign season has brought about all sorts of new examples so called hard news journalists totally losing any hint of objectivity whether it be subtly or blatantly. The news media was so smitten with Barack Obama for instance that it took an SNL skit to put them in their place. Yesterday's coverage of the Reverend Wright speech brought all new examples. Soledad O'Brien must feel rather embarrassed today now that Obama has nearly totally disassociated from the pastor she said hit a "home run" with his speech.

Lee Cowan actually proclaimed that his "knee quakes" when he hears Obama speak. Chris Mathews also echoed such sentiments. Mary Mitchell, of the Sun Times, started one column like this...

Black People Get It, White People Don't Know Let's Move On

Of course, this campaign season is only the latest example. Iraq suddenly faded from the headlines at the exact same time that things turned around and violence diminished. The media spent the better part of a month promoting the station Air America nearly non stop when it first got on the air. No broadcasting enterprise had ever before received such overwhelming coverage, and of course their demise is nearly non existent in the media. I could go on for days of example of bias, subtle and obvious.

So, what is the cause of all of this bias? I think it has much to do with Pavlov. Unlike in Murrow's days, objectivity is no longer treated with such esteem as it was in Murrow's days. Had Cowan made such a statement then he would have immediately been reassigned to the obituaries if not black balled from the business entirely. O'Brien would have wound up working the overnight shift after her statement in Murrow's days.

The simple fact of the matter is that the lack of objectivity is no longer punished with the same draconian measures that it was in Murrow's days. Rather than zapping the reporter with the proverbial electric shock when they show bias, they are instead given a treat. The business is teaching its journalists the exact opposite lesson everytime the fall out of line of what they taught them in Murrow's days.

The question is what changed. The blame certainly can't fall on the readers. The lack of objectivity has been met with precipitous drops in circulation, readership, and viewership. Certainly, the public is performing its function in the Pavlov theory. They are in fact punishing severly the lack of objectivity the media is showing. The problem is that reporters don't have their pay based on circulation or viewership normally and thus they don't feel their punishment.

The market has also certainly punished the lack of objectivity. Blogs, Fox News, and other new media like have all risen much because of the failure of the MSM to stay objective. There is no doubt that there is at least some correlation between the extreme fragmenting of the market and the loss of objectivity. Little Green Footballs, for instance, rose to prominence because they lead the charge in breaking the fake documents in the story over Bush's supposed lack of Vietnam service. Had the MSM done their job, LGF would have never gotten off the ground. Fox News has filled the space left by the rest of the MSM which has tilted so far left, that conservatives viewership had nowhere else to turn. Certainly, the market has fragmented at least in part because the objectivity that Murrow's day had has faded. Thus, you can't blame the market either for not doing their Pavlov duty.

That only leaves the editors and here we have the culprit. I mentioned earlier the racist column by Mary Mitchell. There is no way any editor would have ever allowed such garbage to reach the pages of any legitimate newspaper back in Murrow's day. Likely, Mitchell wouldn't have been employed after submitting that sort of a column. In fact, all of the examples I mentioned would have been stopped by any reasonabl editor back in the day when editors actually did their job. There was a time when management in news actually managed. Now, managers allow their reporters to run free. Arthur Salzberger defended his reporters after the hit piece with flimsy evidence about McCain and the lobbyist. Brian Williams called Cowan courageous after he admitted that he was smitten with the candidate he was covering.

Can you really blame reporters for losing all objectivity when their management rewards that sort of behavior? In fact, it is text book Pavlov theory. Rather than punishing harshly any hint of lack of objetivity, it is usually rewarded or overlooked. The reporters and other journalists are not really all that different than mice in that case. The reason there was such strict standards of objectivity in Murrow's day was because management demanded it in draconian manner. The reason there is none now is because management could care less if there is or not. The total lack of journalistic standards can be laid at the feet of management that refuses to demand that there be any.

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