While the boundaries between news and entertainment and politics and business were never airtight, these days they’re practically nonexistent. Journalists are supposed to hold those in power accountable, but it’s hard to do that when corporate interests dictate which stories you’re allowed to pursue – or when you’re more focused on developing your “brand” than on digging for truth.
Citizen Radio producers and hosts Jamie Kilstein and Allison Kilkenny condemn this dynamic in their absorbing new book, #Newsfail: Climate Change, Feminism, Gun Control, and Other Fun Stuff We Talk About Because Nobody Else Will:
You cannot be a news program and be afraid to cover the news and to stand up to bad people and bullies because of concerns over money. You cannot be afraid to criticize the White House or Wall Street because you want to get invited to the Correspondents’ Dinner.
#Newsfail is very much in the spirit of Citizen Radio, which the authors launched because they wanted to create a platform where journalists could “say whatever they want.” To facilitate that, Citizen Radio accepts no corporate sponsors and is instead funded by thousands of small donors. It’s a pure place to operate from, and it enables Kilstein and Kilkenny to explore stories from whatever angles they deem interesting.
Though a corporation (Simon & Schuster) published #Newsfail, the book has the podcast’s same no-holds-barred approach. Part comedy routine, part memoir – and mostly a populist critique – the book takes on everything from sacred progressive cows like Jon Stewart to the media’s demonization of Occupy Wall Street protesters.
The book is particularly effective in its takedown of “false equivalency,” a dynamic familiar to any listener of All Things Considered. Also known as false balance, it’s the practice of giving an equal amount of time to an invalid position for the sake of journalistic “objectivity.”
This is why you find outlets giving space to both climate-change scientists and climate-change deniers, to both Ebola-fighting doctors and professional hate spewers like Rush Limbaugh, who recently claimed that the virus’ appearance in the U.S. is Obama’s way of punishing white people for slavery.
The authors use a handy equation to show how false equivalence works in virtually every right vs. left debate:
Right Debater #1: X = Y
Left Debater #2: X = X
Moderator: I guess we’ll never know!
And it’s that last response – that throw-your-hands-in-the-air copout – that incenses Kilstein and Kilkenny most. Journalists are supposed to slice through the nonsense and the talking points and the jargon straight through to the truth. But all too often they showcase both sides of a so-called debate even when doing so leaves the public confused – and uninformed.
One of the timeliest sections in #Newsfail centers on the fight for real Net Neutrality. The authors note how the open Internet has enabled independent bloggers like Marcy Wheeler and independent media outlets like Citizen Radio and Daily Kos to launch their platforms – and thrive. If the FCC charges forward with Chairman Tom Wheeler’s plan to allow discrimination online, all of that will change.
“[F]or consumers who saw the value of alternative media in exposing the Bush administration’s lies, or highlighting President Obama’s expanding wars in Afghanistan and flying death robots,” the book notes, “Net Neutrality should be a principal concern.”
We couldn’t agree more.
Photo credits: Allison Kilkenny (Kevin Allen Caby) and Jamie Kilstein (Jakub Moser)