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Reflections on Netroots Nation and the mainstream media

NetrootsNationI’ve been remiss in not writing a post wrapping up my trip last week to Netroots Nation in Pittsburgh.

It was the fourth annual conference organized by folks from the blog Daily Kos and it was – as it was when I attended last year – an intellectually-stimulating summit of the nation’s most influential and independent progressive bloggers.

For me the most memorable moment came during the event’s first night, when former President Bill Clinton gave the opening keynote to the gathering about 1,500 mostly appreciative bloggers.

You’ve probably read about how Clinton got heckled mid-speech by a gay rights activist regarding Clinton’s role in the military’s much-maligned ‘don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Watching that testy drama unfold live in front of me was certainly fascinating.

But I think the most moving part of the speech came when Clinton thanked bloggers at Netroots Nation for “dramatically elevating the level of our public discourse” and increasing the base level of knowledge among people who read what we write.

“You hold the seeds of a genuine revolution in our public life, and you do it by mobilizing people and generating emotion, but also by getting people to think,” Clinton said.  “People trust you — even people who read you who don’t agree with you, they believe that you believe what you put down. They don’t believe that you fudge the facts, they believe that you’re being straight with them.”

I found myself thinking about Clinton’s comments this week as I read the results of an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that found that, (from MSNBC), “majorities in the poll believe the plans would give health insurance coverage to illegal immigrants; would lead to a government takeover of the health system; and would use taxpayer dollars to pay for women to have abortions. Forty-five percent think the reform proposals would allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care for the elderly.”

These are all claims that have been debunked by non-partisan fact checkers like factcheck.org.

Opposing healthcare reform as it is currently proposed is one thing. And the poll does go on to note that, (again, from MSNBC),  “a plurality believes Obama’s health plan would worsen the quality of health care, a result that is virtually unchanged from last month’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. What’s more, only four in 10 approve of the president’s handling of the issue, which also is unchanged from July. And a majority — 54 percent — is more concerned that the government will go too far in reforming the nation’s health care system, while 41 percent is more worried that the reform will not do enough to lower costs and cover the uninsured.”

Hmm.  Here’s my take: I think the poll shows that most people don’t know the half the facts about the proposal, but they’re damn sure they don’t like it — especially if it’s misrepresented.

To me these sorry statistics show that the mainstream media – television, newspapers and magazines – from which most people still get their news, after all – are doing a crappy job informing Americans about what this plan is really about.

I’m not exactly sure why they are doing such a bad job – except that is certainly is easier to show or write about explosive town halls where people are screaming and yelling and waving around racist and/or idiotic signs than to actually deal with some of the details of the plan.

And, at least in the case of newspapers, it might be because of the whole antiquated notion that news coverage should be objective – without containing an opinion either way. Or somehow rendered “fair” by using the rhetorical devices:  “on the one hand, this….on the other hand, that.”

But such watered- down coverage ignores the common-sense supposition – seized full-throatedly by Netroots Nation bloggers covering the healthcare debate – that a lie should be called a lie, racist and anti-Semitic signs should be called  exactly what they are and people who threaten violence at town halls should be seen for what they are – domestic terrorists.

It’s a notion I heard Clinton touch on that night as he noted the differences between mainstream media and the many voices in the blogosphere.

“If you have an opinion and you’re taking a side, whether it’s on an issue or in an election, you don’t feel like you have to pretend you’re not,” he said of us writers gathered in Pittsburgh.

So simple! But it’s an idea that continues to evade the mainstream media – particularly newspapers.

I saw this with my own eyes when I picked up the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Saturday to check out coverage of the conference.

On the metro page, there were two identically-sized photos on top of two identically-sized stories. One, about the 1,500 or so bloggers at Netroots Nation, ran with a picture of former presidential candidate andVermont Gov. Howard Dean, who gave a keynote. The other story was about the RightOnline conference,  sponsored by the conservative Americans for Prosperity Foundation, being held in across town at the same time. That story ran with a picture of Republican Pennsylvania Senate candidate Pat Toomey. That convention, which got equal space and placement from a paper owned by ultra-conservative scion Richard Mellon Sciafe, had at most, 600 people (but you didn’t find that out until well after the jump). To me, giving them equal billing is almost akin to lying. But it’s what newspapers do, all too often.

Please join me and my former Albuquerque Journal colleague Denise Tessier as we talk about this – and a lot of other stuff we think is wrong with our hometown newspaper – on Clearly’s sister site, ABQJournalWatch.com. Go check it out!

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