Why the News Media Sucks 1


A lot of people, in and out of the blogosphere, keep asking the same question. Swan left a particularly pungent version in a comment over at Trenches.

What explains the failure of the mainstream media to cover the purge scandal for so long, and so many other scandals? Do you think somebody just set up newspaper editors to cheat on their wives, and threatened to tell if the editors wouldn’t play ball when they come back some day and ask for something?

It’s a nice thought but as usual the real answer is a lot more complicated.

Swan seemed to think his question was off-topic but it wasn’t, really. The post had two legs. The first was a discussion of the sorry state of affairs along the Gulf Coast since Katrina – a situation that has improved only marginally since the first few days after the storm – and explained that Bush has deliberately held up the funding for reconstruction and restoration of public works that the Congress appropriated last year and in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. After 19 months, barely a quarter of those funds have actually reached the Gulf.

That’s bad enough but the second leg is just as bad: I wanted to know why the newspapers and tv weren’t screaming about it.

[W]hy isn’t this as big a scandal as the attorneys? Bigger, since it includes callous treatment of refugees, broken promises, and an undeniably deliberate withholding of aid? People are without power, water, fire protection, schools, sewage, or travelable roads 18 months after the disaster because Bush won’t sign a piece of paper to release the money? Why isn’t this in screaming front-page headlines? Because the vast majority of those affected are poor and black?

So Swan was on-topic after all, and with a question that could stand in for any number of other puzzling media decisions. It is a question that has been asked with increasing frequency over the months since the Democratic takeover, and to which various people have offered suggestive answers. For example, here’s Glenn Greenwald on one element.

Analyzing the dynamic of how the national media works is an extremely complex undertaking and the factors are virtually endless — some of those journalists are genuinely malicious political operatives; others are just politically biased. Large numbers are just careerist sycophants, while others still simply lack critical faculties and/or the initiative to do anything other than recite what they hear. And the socioeconomic transformation of journalists into coddled, rich elites — along with the dependence of journalists on those in power for access and scoops — obviously create a greater identification with the political officials they are supposed to investigate, scrutinize and check.

But one overarching influence affecting the group as a whole is that they have been enmeshed in the culture of national journalism for so long that they are incapable of viewing it critically. In every environment and every profession, broken and corrupt behavior becomes commonplace and then normalized. When that happens, even decent and well-intentioned people can engage in such behavior believing that it’s constructive and proper. And because those rules of behavior are normalized, they actually come to believe that the more they adhere to them, the more appropriately they are acting.

Of course, that only begs the question: “How did that ‘culture of national journalism’ come to take on such an unpleasant set of attributes?” Unfortunately, the definitive answer to that – which includes many of the partial answers that have been put forward lately – goes back a lot further than people seem to realize. To truly understand how we got here, you have to go back to the Great Depression and the advent of radio. Even to understand it just enough to comprehend the media’s actions – or lack of them – in the present day, you have to go back to at least Watergate and Nixon’s subsequent resignation.

It’s complex history with a lot of different pieces to it – genuine right-wing conspiracies, billionaire wingnuts, hippies/yippies/and freaks, Woodward and Bernstein, Ronnie Rayguns, Viet Nam, Walter Cronkite and Babwa Wawa, Hunter Thompson, cable tv and the internet. Various folks have written books about aspects of it, from Joe McGinnis to Joe Conason, but I don’t know of anyone who’s ever put all the pieces together so a reader could see the mosaic as a single, cohesive picture, and if they did, it wouldn’t be pretty. A sizable chunk of the blame, you see, rests with us.

We’ve been gullible, lazy, apathetic, and downright stupid. We’ve reveled in ignorance, made it – in a peculiarly American way – a touchstone of our culture. We’re proud of it, we brag about it, and we make fun of people who aren’t as if they’re diseased or crazy. We love our innocence and optimism, and we have made the humungous cultural mistake of equating them with ignorance. Somehow, we believe, if we learn too much, know too much, our innocence will curdle into cynicism and our optimism into soul-killing pessimism. The world is an ugly place, we say to ourselves, so ignorance is bliss.

And we want bliss. Or at least we want to be happy.

It’s the cry of the child fending off adulthood. It’s Peter Pan refusing to grow up, it’s adolescence pursued into senescence and ignorance is the cut-point: as long as we don’t know anything, we won’t get older. Why were we so vulnerable for so long to the siren song of conservative illusions? To the Reagan fantasy that you can have your cake and still eat it? Why were we so ready to believe that two diametrically opposed realities could co-exist, as if two chairs could occupy the same space in a corner of the living room?

Because we were not – are not – ready to give up the Magical Thinking of childhood or the American Dream of having it all without pain, suffering, loss or hurting anyone else. The conservatives who turned the media into right-wing lapdogs, from Roger Ailes to Lee Atwater to Karl Rove to the Religious Right, have counted on that reluctance, planned for it, built their strategy around it. Without it, all that scheming would have come to nothing and the media would still be what it used to be after WW II: Edward R Murrow Land, a place of facts and at least partly fearless investigations of the mighty. We might even, if diligent enough, have advanced all the way to I F Stone Land.

If their conspiracy succeeded, it was because we wanted it to. If you can’t accept that single truth, you won’t much like the rest of this series.

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