Sunday, October 26, 2008

In the tank: Blind Cheerleaders

It's probably best if we all just keep both feet planted firmly.
(Courtesy of Archives of Ontario)

This past week, the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that since the party conventions, the media has "not so much cast Barack Obama in a favorable light as it has portrayed John McCain in a substantially negative one." Such studies tend to beg the question, are they in the tank? But by extension, I am asking, what's it mean to be in the tank? Does it implicate the MSM as biased and blinded? And do we even care?

Juliet Lapidos of Slate provided "An unbiased etymology," in which she suggests the that the phrase stems from the 19th century term for swimming pools. "Americans called swimming pools 'tanks' and thus 'go into the tanks' was synonymous with 'to dive.'" This term carried itself into boxing, where William Safire believes "the metaphor evoked a picture of diving to the ring's canvas-covered floor--as if into a pool--to feign loss of consciousness." And thus, as implications of lost consciousness and rolling over abound--the extension to politics does not feel like a stretch.

Today, in the tank gives the impression of being "lovingly enthralled; foolishly enraptured; passionately bedazzled." Further implications entail being "self-interestedly involved; surreptitiously supportive" and times, "corruptly influenced." Bedazzling is something that should be left to magicians, and corruptly influenced bias is far from journalistic soundness.  

But when it comes to political coverage, it seems readers and journalists alike are quick to jump in the tank and the repercussions are large.  

Breaking down the P.E.J.'s report, the project's director Mark Jurkowitz says that "he simple message of our report is that: Winning begets winning coverage." As interest grows (as it does with each day closer to November 4), angles of coverage become contagious as they get dropped into the tank--er, echo chamber.

In the day of the Web and 24-hour news cycles, the amount of information available is immense. Punditry and reportage run the gauntlet of biases, and there is something out there for everyone. It seems, however, that rather than expanding minds, this information has been used to further dive into which ever tank you fall in. Callie Crossley, a media critic at WGBH Boston, suggests that " when people use the Web, as they've been using it in this election and it's been shown over and over, they tend to go to sites which reflect what they already believe."
Success seems to be begetting success, and when the media joins Obama in his tank, viewers and readers are quick to join. Conversely, some see McCain's denial of this as his downfall . But looking back at the original meaning of the term--taking a dive and going in the tank painted similar pictures of self-sabatoge as stock markets and boxers alike tank. This negative connotation, however, doesn't ring true as loudly as it used to, as it now lends itself to "working on someone's behalf." Perhaps, though, as we all follow suit, we should remain wary of in the tank's origins.  Otherwise, choosing sides may simply induce a case of the blind leading the blind.

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