Why Joe the Plumber and the increased democratisation of the media can only signal a further decline in journalistic objectivity.
We in the media have, to use the obvious pun, plumbed new depths. While distillation of the news to fit the location or political inclination of the audience is hardly a new phenomenon, accelerated in the past 15 years by the rise of conservative talk radio and the infamous idiocy of Fox News, the recruitment of Joe the Plumber to report from Southern Israel during that country’s bombardment of Gaza offers a further refinement of the trend – world events presented through the filter of everyman ignorance. Bias in the media is no longer a matter of partisan affiliation but academic faculty.
Joe Wurzelbacher was, of course, the blue-collar middle American – regular, representative and conspicuously unintellectual – who confronted Barack Obama’s tax plans on his lawn during a campaign stop. With the tide of popular opinion swinging inexorably towards Obama, Wurzelbacher’s down-home, go-get-’em street corner democracy became a beacon of hope for the reactionary right; his name, if not always his bar-room-brawling face, was rarely out of the debates and stump speeches as the election date neared. Alongside the twitching imbecility of Sarah Palin, the wholesomeness of uninformed American insularity was the Republican Party’s sole remaining strategy.
It failed, and failed abysmally. But neither Palin nor Wurzelbacher appear to be any less in demand as a result. And after more run-outs on Fox – apparently Joe’s qualified to run the rule over the intricacies of the financial bailout and Obama’s CIA chief pick – the man was suddenly being flown by an outfit called Pajamas TV to Israel to cover the conflict from the town of Sderot.
Pajamas TV is a right-wing blog whose mission statement includes “exposing both bias and deception by the typically liberal Main Stream Media”. And as Roger Simon, one of their contributors, argued that as the American press – yes, the American press – was obviously an extension of Hamas, only Joe the (previously passportless) Plumber could redress this grievous imbalance for the fact hungry nation.
Leaving aside the issue that a news organisation can instruct a reporter as to the conclusions he must come to before he even arrives at his assignment, the use of someone who is neither well-versed nor remotely impartial to cover such a conflict underlines two new trends in news consumption:
Firstly, that people are less interested in being informed than they are in having existing prejudices confirmed and, secondly, that complex issues must now be boiled down to a simplistic bad-versus-good narrative by a guy you might want to sip a beer with – just so the nation can be saved from the grip of people who have a vague idea as to what they’re talking about.
He uses of the word “terrorist” every 12 seconds, avoids grammar and generally phrases questions so they induce gleeful nods from his interviewees, mostly militant rabbis and evicted Gaza settlers.
But it was off camera that he really made his mark, launching a tirade against a flock of Israeli journalists who, in his words, “should be ashamed of themselves” for reporting the mounting Palestinian civilian death toll.
He then went on to say that journalists shouldn’t even be in a war zone at all, lest they quibble over the nature of the onward march of goodness – an odd position for a newly-hired war correspondent to take.
Not that piercing truth was on the minds of the Pajamas TV web community, of course. When this columnist argued that the complexities of the Middle East deserve a more learned correspondent than someone who stated, in October, that “a vote for Obama is a vote for the death of Israel” – without actually being able to say why – the seething began. “Let me tell you,” said Michael Toledo, “that Joe the Plumber is the guy many of us have waited for. He speaks his mind, and he’s not afraid to go head to head with some of the nastiest reporters in the world… When is he running for Congress?”
And someone called Cynthia saw Joe as the moron’s messiah: “He is a guy whose opinion has not been shaped by being in New York City and Washington politics. He is more like one of us than anyone who writes or reads the New York Times.”
Is this really the news landscape of the future? Papers and networks outbidding each other in the drive to provide a version of events that not only their readers might want to hear, but in a monosyllable, smiley-studded, texting language they can be bothered to understand? Joe the Plumber might have already had his 15 minutes, but the trend of segmented, audience-centred news looks set to be around a little longer. In the internet age, “telling it like it is” really means “telling me what I want to hear”. And that is neither news nor journalism.