The Media’s Reality Distortion Field

The Melbourne Herald Sun has a good piece on the way in which the media is spinning the story on Iraq.

Here’s how it was sold to us. “Weapon hunt fizzles,” declared the Hobart Mercury. “No weapons, no approval for Bush in poll,” gloated the Sydney Morning Herald. “Iraq search finds no WMD stockpile,” said the Age. “US weapons hunt turns up nothing,” added the Northern Territory News.

ABC’s PM program was even surer of another US “setback”: “No evidence of weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq,” it trumpeted.

David Kay saw the same kind of headlines in the United States, and says he’s “amazed” the media thinks his search has failed.

Did journalists actually read his report, which lists startling new evidence of Saddam’s weapons?

Says Kay: “This is information (that), if it had been available last year, would have been headline news.” He’s now certain “we’re going to find remarkable things” in the future, too.

Indeed the media is not thinking with inductive reasoning in which evidence is used to form a conclusion, but by a series of deductive syllogisms based on a skewed view of the evidence. The media did not read Kay’s Report and use it to conclude that the search for weapons of mass destruction has failed – that would be an invalid conclusion from Kay’s own evidence. Rather they started with the conclusion that the situation in Iraq was a failure and selectively used the Kay report as a way of justifying that conclusion. When something happens like an increasingly multinational force in Iraq or improvements to infrastructure, this evidence is glossed over in favor of evidence which reinforces the media’s claims of "quagmire".

Psychologist Irving Janis helped popularize a theory which helps explain the media’s reaction to Iraq. His theory is that of "groupthink" which is "a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members striving for unanimity overrides their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action." (Irving Janis, Victims of Groupthink, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972. pg. 9)

In other words, when you get a group of people together with a similar worldview and ask them to process some information, they will process that information in such a way as to coincide with their worldview.

The theory of groupthink is a tremendously useful model for analyzing public policy decisionmaking. Many articles have been written that apply this model to everything from the Cuban Missle Crisis (Graham Allison’s indispensible Essence of Decision for those who might be interested in foreign-policy decisionmaking theory) to the decisions over the war in Iraq.

The lessons this theory has in understanding the media is that the “media” is largely an incestious group. Despite liberal claims that corporate decision-making has the dominant effect in media coverage, there’s very little evidence to support that. The media is known for running stories on corporate misdeeds, from Dateline NBC rigging Ford trucks to explode to the scientifically invalid scares over Alar on apples and cancer from power lines.

The media can be better examined from a model of populism. From the muckrakers of the early 20th Century to today, journalists have been trained to think of themselves as noble protectors of the Public Good against the evil interests of The Powerful. In other words, you have an attitude that is developed by journalism schools that journalists should not report the news they should create the news.

This effect isn’t even necessarily partisan, although such an outlook is more condusive to liberal ideology than conservatism. This kind of attitude helps explain the media frenzy over Monica Lewinsky in the 1990’s – in short, scandal sells.

This is why the media reporting on Iraq is so unbalanced. You have a group of people who by and large have been instilled with the same worldview through their education. You have a group of people who are predominantly liberal and anti-war. You have a group of people who by and large travel in the same circles, view the same things, and have the same outlook.

Essentially, you have exactly the kind of outlook in which groupthink thrives. The media has made up their minds – Iraq is a failure, and they are not interested in challenging that worldview. The media groupthink is based on the idea that only they know the truth, and the direction of their reporting is geared towards that end.

The media is living under a reality distortion field in which their worldview is the only worldview they see. It doesn’t help that they are all cloistered in the same parts of Baghdad and don’t see the reality of daily life in Iraq. While no one would argue that they shouldn’t cover the setbacks that have happened in Iraq, that is not the totality of the story. Unfortunately for the public, that seems to be the only story the media is willing to cover.

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