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State of the Union (and state of the media)

This year’s State of the Union address provides little evidence that Barack Obama is bent on a radical transformation of America. But it does expose a major limitation of the mainstream media.

Barack Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union address yesterday. You can read it here, and decide for yourself whether it justifies the claims that the president is a sort of anti-Reagan, bent on a comprehensive liberal transformation of America. (Previous posts on this subject here and here.)

It seems to me that Obama’s views are thoroughly mainstream. His most strongly held positions are “liberal”, not in the distinctively American sense of supporting bigger government, but in the ordinary everyday sense: he wants to liberalise immigration, make taxes fairer, support democracy at home and around the world, keep guns away from criminals and do something to overcome the massive externality of carbon pollution.

There is nothing there that suggests to me that he believes government is the primary engine of economic growth, or that the free market is not the best way to run an economy. He even suggested, albeit obliquely, that the military would be asked to bear its share of spending cuts.

Don’t misunderstand me; the speech presupposes a much larger role for the federal government than I think is desirable. I would drastically wind back its involvement in education, industry, infrastructure and the like. But Obama’s views there simply represent the consensus of American politicians for at least two generations – there’s nothing new or radical. And if the government is going to be doing those things, then of course it should try to do them properly.

I think there’s very little in the speech that Ronald Reagan would be uncomfortable with – certainly more open immigration and a fairer tax code were among Reagan’s signature achievements. Yet my friend Tom Switzer is sticking firmly to his view that “Obama is proposing significant reforms and changes that threaten to undo the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s.” Nor is he the only one; also at Fairfax, Nick O’Malley reports that “Obama ignored Republican demands to cut the deficit”, having apparently missed the discussion of that very issue that, by my count, goes for 11 paragraphs.

Which leads one to question why Fairfax, publishing online, doesn’t include a link to the full text of the address itself. It’s not alone in that either; while some have got it (such as the ABC here, or the BBC here), most media outlets completely ignore the ability that technology now gives them to offer readers immediate access to the original source material.

I’m continually struck by how common this is. I included the link to the White House’s text at the start of this post (here it is again, for those who missed it), but I claim no great virtue for this: the whole point of the media is to keep people informed. These days you’ll find that the speeches, reports and academic papers that stories are based on are almost always available online, so it should be a simple matter to include appropriate links.

For that matter, the same applies to press releases. Governments, big corporations, NGOs and research bodies mostly put their press releases on the internet. If you write a story based on the press release – and there’s nothing wrong with doing that, provided it’s done sensibly – why not include a link to the original so the readers can check it out for themselves?

Could it be that media outlets are afraid that readers will discover when they have misrepresented positions or quoted people out of context? Or maybe just that it will be revealed how little value they are adding to the process: given the ability to compare a story with the press release, readers might find there’s no real difference.

They might even decide to just read the source material themselves and cut out the middleperson.

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