A Philosopher's Blog

Feeding the Beast

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on April 22, 2013
English: The Pure Speculation Festival Logo

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As a runner who had friends at the Boston Marathon, I followed the news relating to the event with great interest and concern. Like many others, I was struck by the moral and critical defects in some of the coverage.

Not surprisingly, the New York Post led the way in terms of defective coverage. The Post started off by getting the death toll wrong and then proceeded to link a Saudi national to the bombing. The Post then topped it off by putting two innocent people on the cover with a heading (“bag men”) that clearly implied they were involved.

While other folks in the media did not reach the depths explored by the Post, the coverage of the event was widely marked with factual inaccuracies and unfounded speculation.  While it is reasonable to forgive the folks in the media for not having all the facts when a story is evolving, it is also reasonable for the folks to use proper diligence and critical methods to assess the alleged facts before committing to them. It is also reasonable to expect the alleged professionals to be clear when they are just speculating and to restrain such speculation to its proper scope.

I do understand why the media folks often engage in speculation and hasty judgments. News is a for-profit business and they need to keep people watching the news so that they are watching the advertising between the stories. If a media person honestly reports that they do not have the facts and refuses to engage in unfounded speculation, then people will tend to turn to other media sources in the hopes of getting the facts. If these sources do not have the facts, they obviously need to choose between the ethical course of being clear about the lack of facts or engage in  unfounded speculation and unwarranted judgments. Obviously, the speculation and judgments have a better chance of keeping the audience’s attention. After all, if one source reports that the suspects are not known and another claims that a Saudi national is a suspect, people will turn to the sources making the claim about the suspect-even if the claim is completely unfounded.

While this approach does make some sense from a business perspective, it can obviously be rather harmful. In the case of the two innocent people who appeared on the Post’s cover, they have to worry about being harassed or harmed by people who bought what the Post was selling. There is also the concern that such misleading reporting can impeded investigations by leading the public to think that the suspects have been found and hence there is no need to keep looking. There is also the ethical concern regarding making claims when a person knows that they are not properly grounded in evidence.

In addition to the defects, I was also struck by the volume of empty chatter, such as the repeated statements of the very obvious and the vague filler comments. I do get why they talking heads have to do this-they need to stay on the big story to keep people watching, but when they have no actual facts to report and run out of unfounded speculation, they still have time to fill. To fill this time, they typically take the easiest route-empty chatter. Sometimes, as I saw on CNN, they even run out of empty chatter-the image of  John King standing with two people desperately checking their phones for something to say nicely exemplifies this situation.

While the media folks could do the obvious and switch to another story that involves actual facts, that creates the risk of losing the audience. Presumably CNN believed that showing people standing around would keep the audience better than going to another story. There is probably also the concern of backlash-that going to another story might create the impression that the media folks do not care enough about the big story to remain focused on it even when they have not a damn meaningful  thing to say.

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20 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on April 22, 2013 at 9:38 am

    East to pick on the Post, which is a Tabloid only a notch above The National Enquirer. Few people take it seriously.

    Here is NPR in action:

    • WTP said, on April 22, 2013 at 1:34 pm

      His picking on The Post is just a “look-over-there” to distract from this and other leftist media speculation about right-wing fanatics that turned out to be dead wrong. Not to mention the more eggregious of CNN’s coverage last week. But remember, Mike’s a “centrist” so none of this can possibly be true.

    • WTP said, on April 22, 2013 at 1:47 pm

      BTW TJ, curious but does it bother you that you pay taxes to support an institution like NPR that insults those of us who object to paying taxes to support institutions like NPR?

      • T. J. Babson said, on April 22, 2013 at 3:00 pm

        Paying for Obama to live a 1% lifestyle while he criticizes others for aspiring to a 1% lifestyle bothers me more…

        • WTP said, on April 22, 2013 at 9:40 pm

          Yeah, that doesn’t bother me so much. Hypocrisy is everywhere and always has been. For all his faults he is doing a job that he was duly elected to perform. I don’t think he deserves the job, but I could say that about a lot of people in a lot of jobs. It’s a job that someone has to do either way. NPR, OTOH, is supported by money taken from me by implied force, to do a job that plenty of businesses already exist to do, and NPR does it with a political slant that is against the interests of myself and many others who involuntarily support them.

          • biomass2 said, on April 22, 2013 at 10:08 pm

            WTP The chart on this page may help you calculate your contribution to NPR.

            As you say about Obama “He’s elected to do his job.” The representatives who determine how much money goes to various governmental agencies (many of which I’m none to happy with) were elected to do their jobs. We’ve got to get out there and vote for representatives who will vote for the money tht will fund our chosen interests. I’m interested in libraries and food inspection and renewable energy. . .

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 22, 2013 at 3:02 pm

      Folks tend to see their own devil in the shadows.

      • WTP said, on April 22, 2013 at 9:44 pm

        Yes, when leftists do it it’s just humans being human. When conservative or libertarians do it, it’s with malice aforethought. That’s the “centrist” spin, anyway.

        • magus71 said, on May 5, 2013 at 12:07 am

          The Left always reverts to the Phil Hartman, “Caveman Lawyer” personality when it’s wrong, which is often. Remember, the Left gleefully believes that Tea Party types are as dangerous as Islamic radicals. I’d like to ask Obama and Homeland Security “analysts” how many right-wing Christians they’ve targeted for drone strikes. If the answer is zero, then why is that? Certainly if they presented the biggest terror danger to America, we’d have had to kill off a lot more than we have.

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on April 22, 2013 at 10:31 am


  3. biomass2 said, on April 22, 2013 at 10:40 am

    On the subject of the “marathon” marathon coverage: I was SO relieved that the North Korean Threat disappeared.
    Was the threat diffused by our support of the Japanese, our increased presence in the area, Chinese involvement, or the media’s loss of interest in the subject? What’s the latest?

  4. T. J. Babson said, on April 22, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    A meditation on the “progressive” media…


    • biomass2 said, on April 22, 2013 at 9:52 pm

      Funny “To a progressive there is no other point of view.” (around 2 minutes) I think that sentence probably fits conservatives as well as it does progressives.

      For Krauthammer fans on here, something to read about the famous columnist/commentator. Note what is currently comment #11by Hazel Meade. “There are all sorts of people all over the world of journalism, not to mention government, who manage to keep having jobs despite being flagrantly wrong about all sorts of things. Why is Krauthammer special?” Can anyone think of an answer? I can. How about thousands of dead and wounded and billions of dollars committed to a war founded on speculation?


      • T. J. Babson said, on April 22, 2013 at 11:30 pm

        I think conservatives are far more aware of how progressives think than vice versa, because the media is saturated with lefty viewpoints.

        29 of 50 Democratic senators (58%) voted for the Iraq war resolution.

        As far as I know Krauthammer did not have a vote.

        • biomass said, on April 23, 2013 at 8:06 am

          As far as you know? 🙂

          Are the Washington Times, Rush Limbaugh, Fox TV News, and the Wall Street Journal at all indicative of conservative(righty?/wingy?) viewpoints?

          TJ: You really should read the Crooked Timber piece. It’s brief. And it deals with credibility –CK’s in particular– ‘not’ voting positions.

        • biomass2 said, on April 23, 2013 at 9:06 am

          The following is relevant to the subject of Mike’s article and deals with separating the cons from the libs by viewing some of their views on drone strikes—-where did these statements come from??
          1/ “The targeted killing program violates both U.S. and international law,”
          2/ “If the American people accept this blindly and casually, that we now have an accepted practice of the president assassinating people who he thinks are bad guys. I think it’s sad,”
          3/”It was entirely legal. If a citizen takes up arms against his own country, he becomes an enemy of the country. The president was acting entirely within his rights and I fully support the president,”
          4/”. . .we sure ought be mourning the fact that it happened, and that it’s likely to happen routinely from now on.”
          References provided upon request.

          Samir Khan (American) edited and published Inspire magazine where “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom” was published. . Khan and Anwar al Awlaki (American) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anwar_al-Awlaki were killed in drone strikes.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 23, 2013 at 3:53 pm

          I think we need a bit more evidence for such a general claim.

  5. ajmacdonaldjr said, on April 23, 2013 at 10:36 am

    Watch this video, linked below. This isn’t the media giving the public disinformation… this is the Boston Police Commissioner:

    VIDEO – Boston Marathon Explosions: Police Detail Three Blasts in City – http://youtu.be/U23iBENMqq4

    On September 11, 2001 law enforcement sources confirmed to ABC News that a car bomb had exploded outside the State Department:

    VIDEO – ABC NEWS – Car bomb exploded State Department – ABC Live on 9/11 – http://youtu.be/D290n9pvUsE

    See: Media Information-Disinformation Wars – http://wp.me/pPnn7-2dD

  6. T. J. Babson said, on May 1, 2013 at 8:04 am

    No problem here.

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