5 Myths About…the WaPo's Most Cynical Feature

Sunday, April 25, 2010

by Kindler

The media loves pretending to challenge "the conventional wisdom".  That must explain why the Washington Post Outlook section seems so fond of its regular feature, "5 Myths About [fill in the blank]", in which a designated scholar appears to debunk some pesky myths that deserve to be deflated.  But this feature is not what it seems, and it most certainly is not performing a public service.  Here, in a style that the WaPo might understand, are 5 myths about this ridiculous weekly feature:Myth#1:  The authors of these pieces are objective, disinterested scholars
Horse-hockey!  Today's piece, "5 Myths About Green Energy", was written by Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute.  Here are a few facts you should know about the Manhattan Institute:
- It was founded by Reagan's spymaster William Casey to promote "market-oriented principles", i.e., to give ultraconservative ideology the facade of academic rigor.
- It has included such "scholars" as Charles Murray, notorious for his book The Bell Curve, the thesis of which was basically white racial superiority.  Another alumnus is David Frum, speechwriter for George W. Bush, who was responsible for crafting the most meaningless phrase ever to pass through a pair of presidential lips: "Axis of Evil."
- It has received funding to support tobacco industry positions from RJ Reynolds, Phillip Morris and Lorillard.
- Among its donors are the right wing Scaife and Koch Foundations - the latter known for funding climate denial and similar misinformation in support of its interests in the oil industry.  (See Greenpeace's recent report, "Koch Industries Secretly Funding the Climate Denial Machine.").
Now just imagine you're an oil company and you want to discredit a competing product like - oh, say, "green energy".  If you publish an ad with your corporate logo on it, your bias will be hard to conceal.  But if you pay a right-wing think tank to write an article in a respected newspaper busting the "myth of green energy", you give your talking points that much more credibility.  Such a deal!
kindler :: 5 Myths About…the WaPo's Most Cynical Feature
Myth#2:  These pieces really are about "busting myths", which needs to be doneCow cookies!  These are opinion pieces where the author is presenting one side of the story and suppressing the other side.  That would be fine in the Outlook section if these were simply labeled as opinion pieces.  But this feature is set up to identify the perspective that one opposes as a bunch of "myths", which is, let's face it, a polite word for "lies".  It's one thing to say that your opponents' beliefs are wrong; it's another to say that they are spreading lies.
Yes, of course, sometimes people do spread lies and misinformation (Glenn Beck comes to mind) and need to be called on that.  But to encourage writers, every single week, to label their opponents' viewpoints as mythological is not IMHO conducive to a healthy debate over the issues.
Myth#3:  Readers will recognize these as opinion pieces, so no harm done
Bull burgers!  Don't assume that.  The "5 Myths" label deceptively draws the reader into believing that these are not opinions pieces but fairly objective analyses showing where the conventional wisdom needs to be adjusted.  Readers not aware that the Manhattan Institute is a far right wing institution, for example, may think that it reflects some kind of scholarly consensus that "green energy" really is a phony, untenable enterprise, as opposed to the rising and promising field that it is.  A simple opinion piece attacking green energy would come across and be received much differently.
Myth#4: It's okay as long as it features "myth-busting" by both the right and the left
Hog hocks!  A regular misinformation section in the newspaper is not okay just because it allows both sides to take turns participating.  There will be readers who come away from today's piece thinking that green energy is just a big hoax, without knowing about the author's biases of the flaws of the "5 Myths" approach.  That damage is not fixed just because next week may feature a progressive writer busting certain myths of conservative dogma.
Myth#5: This is a fun and harmless way to make the Outlook section more interesting
Turkey tuchus!  We've already discussed the harm of this deceptive approach.  If the WaPo's opinion editors want to make Outlook more interesting, here's a radical concept: why not feature a wider range of opinions and a broader range of writers than the usual dull, elite, inside-Washington crowd?  How about pulling in some viewpoints from unconventional places like (OMG!) the blogosphere?  How about shaking up the design, making it unpredictable, making it innovative?
You don't need these subtle deceptions like "5 Myths" to attract readers.  To the contrary, why not bring this snoozer of a section down to earth, closer to people, make it more challenging and pathbreaking, with less opportunities for lobbyists to launder the messages they are paid to deliver into opinion pieces?
Now you know, dear WaPo editors, that the value of this particular Outlook feature is purely mythological.  So please bust it off your pages and replace it with more openly expressed opinions - from all sides.