October 13th, 2012
07:08 PM ET

Keller: Media echo chamber worries me

By Jason Miks

GPS Editor Jason Miks speaks with Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times, about media bias and the presidential campaign. Watch Keller on "Fareed Zakaria GPS" this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET.

Both presidential candidates have come in for criticism for playing hard and fast with the truth during the campaign. How bad has this campaign really been, and is the media doing enough to hold the candidates to account?

In the heat of it, we always think it’s the worst election ever, but I’m sure there have been other elections where the misstating of facts and the outright fabrications have been more egregious than they are in this one.

I think by and large this election cycle will be remembered as the coming of age of the fact checker. My newspaper, the New York Times, has done fact checking for several election cycles, but there has been a really big commitment to it this time. The Washington Post has been doing this, and there are websites like PolitiFact that exist only to fact check statements made in the campaign and in the advertisements, and I think that’s a real public service.

It’s a dream that you can get candidates to only speak careful, nuanced truths in a campaign. Even when they’re not abusing the facts, they are putting a questionable spin on them. So the only antidote to that is that someone watches closely and points out when they get it wrong. Social media has been a big contributor to this and has raised the level of skepticism. Sometimes I think it has turned us into a nation of cynics, but it has contributed considerably to the likelihood that if you say something that’s false, you’ll get caught.

Speaking of fact checking, there sometimes seems a temptation in the media when holding either side to account for their statements for them to try too hard to be even-handed, and they end up creating a false equivalence. Is that a fair assessment?

Yes, and it’s a danger that doesn’t just apply to fact checking. There is a potential in journalism in aiming to be impartial, that you develop a misleading impartiality in that you always treat two opposing positions as equal. That didn’t originate in the fact checking business, and it’s something to be on guard against. I think editors and reporters have to watch very closely to make sure we’re not giving one to the other side, whether it deserves it or not in an attempt to be even handed.

But it’s also important that we’re seen as impartial, so you also want to second guess yourself when you’re doing these stories – you need to ask yourself if you are going too easy on one candidate or the other. And you need to ask yourself if you’re just responding to what the talking heads said on the TV after the debate. That said, I read a lot of the fact checking out there and find it quite helpful, and amongst the serious fact checking outfits there’s plenty of nuance and fairness.

The talking heads were scathing about President Obama’s debate performance last week. Did the commentary fairly reflect his performance?

I think Obama had a really, really bad night. But what I think has gotten less attention is that Romney had a really good night. I did a blog post the next day, the headline of which was “Scoring Obama’s debacle”. That tells you what I thought of it. I did watch the talking heads on Fox and MSNBC, and it’s sometimes entertaining to toggle back and forth between the two. In an election year as polarizing as this one it’s interesting to see the two takes, and sometimes it’s from the friction between the two of them that you get a sharper sense in your own mind of what you’ve just watched.

Some argue that the rise of channels such as MSNBC and Fox News creates a troubling echo chamber effect as viewers are only exposed to their own point of view. Does this worry you?

It does. I think the kind of MSNBC/Fox news dichotomy is a symptom of a larger, polarized quality in our public conversation. The same is true on the internet. You can easily put together a diet of news and information that just confirms your prejudices. I don’t think it’s the end of the world, but it does cause me some serious concern because I think it contributes to the kind of gridlock you get in Washington where one party is pandering to one audience that only listens to MSNBC or reads Daily Kos, while another is pandering to an audience that reads Tea Party websites and watches Fox News. I’m something of a centrist, so I find this a little disconcerting.

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soundoff (292 Responses)
  1. nancy

    What would repeal of "Obamacare" mean?
    – Cheaper drugs for seniors in the doughnut hole – REPEALED!
    – Coverage for children with pre-existing conditions – REPEALED!
    – Free access to preventive services – REPEALED!
    – Women won't pay more than men – REPEALED!
    – No lifetime cap on coverage – REPEALED!
    – Protection from insurance company abuses – REPEALED!
    – Being a woman won't be a pre-existing condition – REPEALED!

    October 14, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Reply
    • Jen

      Our country not running itself off a fiscal cliff (you probably won't know what that means) in the next 4 years beats the reasons you listed to a pulp. Obama is in over his head, he wasn't ready for the job, just as Hillary Clinton tried to tell everyone in 2008.
      Give Obama the break he needs, let him go home, wherever THAT is.
      Vote Romney and save the USA from becoming like the EU or Greece! (Nancy, you may not know where those are!)

      October 14, 2012 at 11:30 pm | Reply
  2. Dino

    The facts alone are not enough when you can get away with flip flopping. Flip flopping can evade honesty because it's about what the candidate believes. The best we can do is look at the candidates past record and hold him accountable. If there is any truth to the polls and they shift in favor of a flip flopper its because the undecideds are either too
    misinformed or too forgiving.

    People always complain about dirty politics. We want an honest candidate but if flip flopping wins the election then we reward the flip flopper for playing dirty, we disregard the more honest politician and it's our own fault. We have running diagrams for the electorates per state. Now give us diagrams for fact checking and flip flopping so the swing voters have some place to go in their busy lives to get a quick idea about the candidates.

    October 14, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Reply
    • Jen

      Let me guess Dino, you'd say Romney 'flip-flops' while Obama 'evolves'.
      Obama is in over his head, just like Hillary Clinton said he would be.

      October 15, 2012 at 9:54 am | Reply
  3. chenko777

    Evenhanded and fair with sematical distortions and outright lies?! Impossible. Especially in this world of 'fact checking' by viewers. Sometimes within minutes.

    To be clean and fair to most of the media reporting, faux news is not even on the same playing field of news reporting. They apparently have modeled themselves into an entertainment media.

    I'm living and working in a foreign country, dealing daily with three translations, and the amount of deceptions available within our English language is unbelievable, especially when you factor in the skill level of presentations that our political system now requires.

    October 14, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Reply
    • Jen

      Especially when people like you call out an opposing view 'faux'.
      This is old, childish and beneath the seriousness of this election.
      Glad you're not here.

      October 15, 2012 at 9:56 am | Reply
  4. Sean Woods

    Scott, Geraldo is a life-long Democrat who has only voted Republican since 9/11, and then only because he's hawkish on national security. In every other area – and especially on illegal immigration / amnesty – he's a flaming liberal. He's pro-redistribution, pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage...honestly, where has he every shown a conservative leaning but with war? O'Reilley is certainly not a moderate, but neither is he far or consistently to the right. He's wishy-washy on gun control, left on energy and business regulation (he absolutely lambasted Bush for "allowing" oil companies to make profits when prices got high back then), at best middle-of-the-road on social spending, and he opposes the death penalty. The fact that they pick stories critical of Democrats is the proof that they lean to the right; but they are not hard right like MSNBC is to the left.

    Fekt, the fact that you feel NPR is balanced and unbiased, because supposedly Republicans are just wrong all the time, proves the point about their bias. Just like Scott says about Fox News – NPR picks left-wing-slanted stories...but more importantly they only give the liberal view on those stories most of the time, and when they do get a conservative response in it's with biased questioning and, frankly, moderates actually giving the conservative point of view rather than real conservatives. If you have an actual study that shows the RNC lies 80% of the time and the DNC only lies 40% of the time, I'd love to see it.

    October 14, 2012 at 9:56 pm | Reply
  5. @GKrat

    Fox News talk shows are definitely conservative, but CNN and MSNBC are further left than Fox is right. Watching Blitzer or Matthews or NBC's yes-men to the Prez is laughable. Then the shrill constant whining about the repubs of the MSNBC other shows makes an abcessed tooth seem pleasant. They have no shame in taking a comment, cutting out parts that do not fit their storyline and create absolute fabrications and call it NEWS. I also hate when this is done on conservatve outlets. this only hurts the country as talented and wonderful people want nothing to do with politics and we get stuck with... well uh.. Palin and Joe Biden... sigh...

    November 3, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Reply
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