(Everything below is expressed in its maximal form, as per my normal modus operandi. Readers may want to trim certain passages in accordance with their own tastes.)
Everyone talks about the media, but no one has been able to do anything about it. I share the common opinion that the disaster of contemporary American politics is in large part the result of the corruption and dishonesty of the media, and I also believe that this corruption is deep-rooted and unlikely to change, and that as a result we are between a rock and a hard place somewhere up shit creek. Eight years ago I thought that the internet would change things, but that hasn’t seemed to have happened. A lot of us are now better-informed than the media want us to be. But there are not enough of us and we remain a powerless minority, even (it has turned out) within the Democratic Party.
I am not trying to replace the libraries of media criticism that already exist, but merely to sum up my understanding of the situation in a few snappy phrases.
Before recently, the broadcast media had no memory. That’s one thing that the internet was able to partly change, but only for a minority. Most listeners don’t remember on Friday what Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh said on Monday, and Bill and Rush rely on that. They are able to disappear their outrageous statements and mistakes and start over again fresh every morning. And when you catch them on tape lying or being stupid, they get angry and accuse you of stalking them. They think that that should be against the rules.
Somewhere far above our heads it has been decided, probably by Cokie Roberts, which topics are OK to talk about and which aren’t, which policies can be questioned and which can’t, and so on. (For example, the war on drugs is off limits.) Whether from opportunism, incuriosity, or sincere conviction, most people in the media accept this frame unquestioningly, and the ones who don’t, however talented, find their careers ended.
Under the Czars and under Communism writers learned to make their points indirectly in order to get past the censors, writing stories whose meaning was evident only to the well-informed. In the same way, media people who are uncomfortable with the Overton Window they find in place figure out veiled, indirect ways of suggesting to the informed reader that the official story is wrong. When criticized, they will justify themselves by pointing to the little reservations and occasional ironic digs they made here and there. However, they will never flatly say that the official story is not merely uncertain or not universally accepted, but flatly wrong and dishonest – even though this is often the case.
Aesopian language fails to communicate the truth to the average reader and is thus bad journalism, but it is flattering to the discerning reader. Those who get the point are able to congratulate themselves on being smarter than the lumpish and ignorant masses, and since a major Democratic demographic is intensely invested in its own intellectual superiority, many Democrats (the lumpen intelligentsia) do not see any problem with Aesopian writing.
RESONANCE / TRACTION / LEGS
Stories which Cokie Roberts have decided are worth covering have traction; other stories don’t. And as she herself has pointed out, the truth of the story is unimportant if “it’s out there”.
The zampolit was a kind of commissar which the Communist Party placed in organizations of every sort (universities, media, even the army) to make sure that they did not violate the party line. They may be compared to the mobsters who kept an eye on Mafia-controlled unions. While the zampolits were formally mid-level bureaucrats in the organizations they were assigned to, in fact they did not report to their nominal superiors, but to their party bosses.
In the same way, decades of pressure have forced the less conservative media outlets to hire a large number of Republican operatives who, to all appearances, still are functioning as Republicans. George Will, Pat Buchanan, William Safire, David Gergen, Michael Gerson, and others were hired with more experience as political operatives than as journalists. Guys like this can’t be fired.
Yeah, yeah, Chris Matthews, Susan Estrich, George Stephanopolous. What a lame bunch of weenies.
I suspect that most journalists do not begin their careers as cynical, inane, timid, centrist, and incurious as they end up becoming, and that few of them notice their own process of degradation. It’s also highly unlikely that they are given direct orders to become cynical, inane, timid, centrist, and incurious. But by watching the bosses hands – hirings, firings, promotions, awards, and subtler things like words of praise – they figure out what’s wanted. And what’s wanted is what you see.
“Can’t argue with success”. Professionalism has been redefined as whatever pleases the boss and whatever advances the career. Anyone who objects just doesn’t understand the business. Things that to unschooled outsiders seem dishonest, inane, and shabby are actually the austere demands of the trade. A layman wouldn’t presume to tell a surgeon how to do his work; why would he think that he has the right to tell journalists how to do theirs? They’re not paid the big bucks for nothing.
One of the problems liberal arts graduates have is that if your skills are primarily verbal, you end up being sucked into professions where language is used purely instrumentally, in order to get certain results out of people, and where artistic considerations and truth are completely subordinated to effectiveness. Law, public relations, electioneering, and advertising are examples. Opinion people in all of the media seem to have joined this category, and to a considerable extent, even the news people. In particular, news people seem completely willing to accept egregiously false official statements instrumentally intended to mislead the public at face value.
Professionalism is theoretically a good thing, but one thing it means is that the profession declares the right to set its own standards without outside input. This kind of imperviousness can lead to problems. The kind of stenographic reporting, brain-dead neutrality and mindless balance (“shape of the earth: opinions differ”) we see in contemporary journalism has been justified by Michael Mark Halperin, Chuck Todd, and others as a high-minded kind of professionalism which ignorant, biased laypersons like Brad DeLong and Glenn Greenwald just are not able to understand
Criminal organizations preferentially hire mediocre, compromised people and pay them better than they think they deserve, because that way their loyalty can be assured. That’s the principle of wingnut welfare, and while many and perhaps most successful journalists are proud and ambitious, a certain proportion of them (e.g. Jonah Goldberg and Megan McArdle) have to be fully aware that they are paid for their loyalties rather than for their talent. But they also know that they have muscle behind them, which accounts for their incredible brass whenever they’re caught in egregious order-of-magnitude errors. They’re invulnerable.
WRITE MY STORY FOR ME
There’s a generalist mystique in journalism, so that no attempt is made to get someone who understands economics and finance to cover the finance stories. People in the business are surprised that anyone could be surprised at this. As a result, complicated stories are covered on a “he said, she said” basis, and worse than that, many outlets end up subcontracting their stories to think tanks. Since liberals and Democrats have not bothered to learn the think tank game, this creates a rightward trend in news coverage.
They say that newspapers used to be a gentlemanly enterprise and a form of public service, and even the yellow journalists like Hearst and Pulitzer at least had control of their organizations and had ideas of their own. Nowadays most newspapers are public and under the thumb of finance, so that the financial bottom line is the only bottom line. Not only do they have to cut costs in the face of heavy competition for advertising, but they have to make finance happy. And often they’re part of larger organizations with wide interests, so that the editorial page of the newspaper might end up being put at the service of interests unrelated to those of the newspaper itself.
There’s an additional problem with family owned newspapers. As the heirs icrease in number, some of them are going to want to cash out. Furthermore, with every transition of generations the possibility of an inheritance tax pops up, and big newspapers are some of the few family held businesses large enough to make this is a real threat. One effect of the Republican Party’s constant talk about the “death tax” is to make it very tempting for family-owned newspapers to support the Republicans. (The publisher of one Seattle newspaper said as much.)
MARKET TRUTH: THE PRODUCTION OF ERROR
In a pure market media system you get as much truth as you pay for. From the free media you get little and sometimes less than none (disinformation). For the free media (and cheap media such as newspapers) the reader is not the consumer, but the product. The consumers are the advertisers, and what they pay for is the attention of the reader, and what they give the reader is instrumental to selling them stuff. And as for the programming and writing, advertisers want it to draw in the reader, but there are certain kinds of truths that they don’t want to see. (If you want reality, The Financial Times is only $348 /year.)
DOUBT AS GOAL
While one goal of conservative hackery in the media is the transmission of conservative ideas, for them cynicism and doubt are second best. (Different channels are used to nail down the loyalists and to confuse the undecided). “The Democrats are just as bad” is enough; low turnout helps the Republicans. Of course, there’s every reason to be cynical in one sense of the word, but “They’re all crooks” can’t lead to anything, especially when it’s not accompanied by any real political point of view at all. (By now I think that “Question Authority” and knee-jerk suspicion do more harm than good. In order to know what’s happening, you have to have an actual point of view and people who are like yourself and whom you trust.
Things are the way because management wants it that way. I’ve had the darnedest time convincing people that the Times and the Post are the way they are (lame, neocon, deficit hawkish) because Donald Graham (recently replaced by Talking Heads niece Weymouth) and Arthur Sulzberger want it that way, and that they are going to stay that. There’s no use complaining about incompetence or lack of professionalism or anything else; the decision has been made and it’s not going to change.
The same is even more true with the rest of the media. From the same people, over and over again, every morning for about eight years now I’ve been seeing expressions of surprise and dismay about the wretched state of the media. Get used to it. We already know that.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
I haven’t got the least godd*mn idea.