Morning Edition today decided that opposition to Obamacare would make a good hook for an excursion into the psychology and biology of fear and political scare tactics. The scientific gloss here is so banal—did you know people who are frightened find it difficult to think rationally, and tend to pass scare stories on to others?—that it seems fairly transparently pretextual, a way of padding out three minutes worth of “Republicans are scaremongering!” Of course, Republicans are scaremongering. But I don’t remember parallel stories when Democrats were joining in the fun (the run up to the invasion of Iraq) or leading the charge (the failed Social Security reform).
More broadly, while I’m usually pretty impatient with conservative whining about liberal media bias in general, and about NPR—the only non-text news source I consume with any frequency—in particular, it does like they’ve been unusually brazen in recent months about shedding any pretense of impartiality. Steve Inskeep has probably been the worst offender. This question, from a recent interview with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), is just one of several instances lately where he’s required me to pick my jaw up off the floor:
MR. INSKEEP: There’s a Republican consultant, Alex Castellanos, who put out a much-publicized memo urging Republicans to use different language and to say that Democrats are plotting to drive up costs and do a government monopoly of health care. Do you believe the Democrats you’re negotiating with are secretly plotting to drive up costs and do a government monopoly of health care?
The actual Castellanos memo doesn’t seem to contain any allusions to secret plots, though it does, unsurprisingly, assert the standard Republican view that Obamacare will have the effect of driving up costs. But getting Grassley to disavow that paranoid notion reinforces the frame that everyone to his right, from Senate colleagues to the barking loon on the street with the hand-lettered “Obama is a Nazi” sign, is catching the 3:15 Conspiracy Express to Crazytown.
Update: A visiting friend to whom I mentioned this replied with a sarcastic “Fair and Balanced!”—which got me thinking about the effect of that slogan. Fox News was always too overtly, proudly conservative for even its fans to take the claim literally, and I always read it as a winking jab at other media outlets—lampooning journalistic pretensions to objectivity while implying that those supposedly even-handed venues were nothing of the sort, an unfairness Fox would correct. My friend’s reaction gives a hint at how successful it may have been at making objectivity into a punchline. Just as we can no longer declare ourselves “shocked” with a straight face—we automatically supply Claude Raines’ second “shocked!” —a journalist’s claim to provide “balanced” coverage seems sure to provoke a guffaw. I can’t decide whether I think this is a healthy development or a sign of the end times. Pusillanimous he-said-she-said buck passing deserves all the scorn it gets, but I’m less eager than some to toss the very idea of objectivity as an aspiration for journos.