Why the News Media Sucks 4: Shoot the Messenger (2)


At the Chicago Tribune blog, The Swamp (what is it with this name? TIME Mag’s blog is called Swampland, fairly revealing, not to mention unflattering, names for blogs staffed by professional journalists), Frank James writes of Bill Moyers “Buying the War” documentary:

Bill Moyers’s PBS program “Buying the War” which was broadcast this week was the latest in a line of examinations of the mainstream media’s complicity in spreading what amounted to Bush Administration propaganda.

Its thesis was that too many journalists at big news outlets uncritically bought the White House spin, communicating it to the American people who accepted it as truth.

It’s indisputably true, especially with hindsight’s clarity, that many journalists too readily accepted the White House’s version of the potential Iraqi threat, that there wasn’t enough skepticism. Journalists certainly should take responsibility for this, learn from it and vow not to repeat the same mistakes.

The problem with Moyers’s take and so many other criticisms of the media’s role in the run-up to war is that they excuse a major player in what happened–the American people.

After pointing to a few of the major media stories that expressed doubts and still made it to the front page – and he admits there weren’t that many – he concludes:

The stories that aired such skepticism about the administration’s case, however, were running against a very strong tide — the public’s desire to retaliate for 9/11 however. And as we all know, revenge often trumps reason.

Then, in a country where more people probably know who Sanjaya is than the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and who are untroubled by that fact, it isn’t surprising that more of an effort wasn’t made by many Americans to explore more deeply the arguments for and against going to war.

So, yes, while we in the media did make the mistakes Moyers pointed to, the fault also lies not just with our media stars but in ourselves as American citizens.

His point isn’t terribly clear (he doesn’t write all that well, actually) but I take him to mean that the papers didn’t do a better job of covering the deceptions that led us into war because a majority of us, bent on “revenge”, didn’t want to hear about it. In response, commenter perlewhite wrote:

Yes, Frank, most of the American public are compliant sheep, content to be led by the nose by those we believe have our best interests at heart – out elected officials and the news media we assume will do it’s job as a watchdog. Yes, we also dropped the ball on this one, according to your view. But tell me, Frank, short of storming the White House ala the French Revolution, just how was the American public supposed to stop this lie-based juggernaut???

What I think James is trying to say is that being an American means being a citizen and it’s a citizen’s duty to demand truth instead of pillow-talk. If we refuse, then we have to shoulder a share of the blame for whatever follows our dereliction of that duty. I’ve said the same thing many times.

But perlewhite has put his/her finger directly on the key question arising from James’ post: even assuming we, as citizens, had done the work, seen through the Bush Administration’s avalanche of lies and propaganda, resisted the drumbeat of justifications and cult-like sycophancy exuding like pus from 95% of the nation’s press, and reached the conclusion that the invasion was a mistake and shouldn’t happen, what could we then have done to stop it?

The obvious answer is “demonstrations”. We could have gone into the streets, as was done during the Viet Nam War, and protested vehemently, proving that as citizens we were dead set against the invasion. It worked in the 60’s, didn’t it?

And therein lies the problem. We did march in the streets. Some of the biggest public anti-war demonstrations of all time occurred here and elsewhere in the world right before the invasion. Hundreds of thousands of people showed up, dwarfing the numbers of all the demonstrations between 1966 and 1969 combined.

The press all but ignored them.

I mention all this because whether James and perlewhite know it or not, both their perspectives come straight out of the 60’s legacy of social disruption over the war and the 70’s destruction of the illusion of presidential integrity. In both cases, the press played a central role, and the blowback was severe.

Shoot the Messenger

As I pointed out in the previous installment, the US press eventually rose to the challenges of Viet Nam and Watergate by reporting on them without fear or favor. I also hinted that they paid a price for their honesty: we grew to hate them.

James is reflecting back on that truth when he accuses the American public of complicity over Iraq. Letters poured into television networks and regional and local papers protesting their reportage of the US failure in Viet Nam, and FM radio talk shows – still in their infancy then and hosted mostly by libertarians for some reason – were loaded with callers blasting the news media for bias and defeatism. In those days, this wasn’t a calculated response instigated, managed and co-ordinated by right-wing political operatives the way it is now. The RWNM didn’t yet exist, nor did the plethora of right-wing think-tanks that drive and feed it. In fact, it was the outpouring of criticism from what Nixon used to call the “Silent Majority” that was the impetus for the creation of places like the Heritage Foundation.

No, it was the genuine emotional response of people in pain, people who were seeing their beliefs shattered by unpleasant facts every day on tv and in the papers. Out of the chaos of the social re-alignment in the 60’s came a virulent reactionary movement that saw cherished traditions of the past being, as they put it over and over again, wantonly and thoughtlessly destroyed by a callow, shallow youth culture which offered nothing stable to replace what was being lost.

It was the press who reported the debacle of the war, the anarchy in the streets, the lies and machinations of a once-trusted govt, and it was the press who got the blame.

There’s nothing new about this “shoot the messenger” mentality. It’s a normal, predictable, even universal reaction to bad news, but it came as a great shock to a great many members of the press. They expected to be honored for their work – and some of them were – but most found themselves vilified by people who saw them, not LBJ or Nixon, as the Enemy. People felt pounded by the press, beat about the head and shoulders with the blunt instrument of incessant bad news, and instead of blaming those who had created that news and made the reporting of it necessary – the govt that lied, the military that failed utterly to understand the nature of its enemy – they blamed the news itself and the ones who brought it to them.

It was then – the late 60’s and early 70’s – when for the first time in several generations newspaper readership began to decline markedly. There had been a slow decline since the height of readership in the Roaring 20’s when every major city had at least two dailies and big cities had more. NYC once had 5 dailies that put two editions per day on the street (there were even more if you count the specialist dailies – foreign language papers, for instance) and two that put out three editions per day. By the post-war period, attrition had reduced most dailies to a single edition; only in the big cities did you still get two – a morning and an evening.

The decline of newspaper circulation seemed to follow closely behind the rise first of radio and then, in the 50’s, television, and that’s what it was blamed on. But in the late 60’s, that slow dance of deterioration suddenly morphed into a rout. Newspapers began hemorrhaging money as circulations fell, and for a while people talked about the “death of the dailies”. Most pundits and editors continued to blame tv news but circulation managers and ad reps had a different take. They were the ones actually listening to the chorus of angry readers canceling their subscriptions and timid corporate clients pulling their ads, and what they were hearing was a single theme: “There’s nothing but bad news in the paper. Where’s the good news? You guys are tearing down our president, tearing down our country, all the time. Why don’t you ever say anything good about it?”

At that point, tentatively, gingerly, like a little boy sticking his toe in the cold water of a springtime lake, the concept of Good News Sections was born. At first they didn’t make much headway against the ghastly images of war and the determination of the Murrow Generation of journalists who had recently found their calling again, and after the war’s end, things quieted down and the neverending criticism more or less ended – for a while.

But then Nixon was re-elected and two Washington Post reporters stumbled onto the story of a break-in at DNC Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel.

(Watercolor of Sen Sam Ervin by Ann Martin)

Watergate, Impeachment, and the Resignation of Richard Nixon

Along with a lot of other people, I was an early follower of the Watergate break-in story, and like a lot of other people, I wondered why it was taking so long for the rest of the mainstream press to catch on. For months the Post was alone, out on a limb with a story that, if true, proved that the autocrats in the Nixon White House had ordered the CIA to carry out a blatantly criminal act – burglary – against the opposition party. The election came and went and still virtually no other paper picked up on it.

In retrospect, their reluctance is easier to understand. They’d just been through a period when public distaste for them had punched big holes in their revenue streams forcing cutbacks and some mergers in order to maintain their profit margins. If the story was true and they reported it and even more of the public turned against them, it could very well be curtains for them financially. Nixon had just won an overwhelming victory against a weak Democratic challenger – McGovern won only a single state and it wasn’t even his – and his popularity was higher than it had ever been (or would be again). Attacking their president ran the risk of alienating even more readers and watching the paper’s profits fall still further. They needed cover to justify taking such a risk.

Eventually, they got it from the Congress. Sen Sam Ervin decided to hold hearings on the Watergate affair, a wonderful excuse – hell, a demand – to start covering the story. Nobody could reasonably expect the press to ignore Congressional Hearings. Added to that excuse was a brand new “competitor” that actually added to their audience by providing its own.

NPR, a baby radio network and non-profit to boot, largely funded with public money, decided to carry the hearings live. Its sister tv network, PBS, followed soon after, broadcasting gavel-to-gavel coverage every day. As the cover-up unraveled, viewers saw or heard – live and uncut – dramatic testimony just as it unfolded in the hearing room. As the hearings went on, the revelations grew more damning: Haldeman, Erlichman, Richard Helms, undisclosed tape recordings and hidden cameras, John Dean testifying that he told Nixon “there is a cancer on the presidency”. We were watching a criminal conspiracy at the very top levels of the govt we had elected so convincingly as it was unmasked on our tv sets. No matter which side you were on, this was clearly a monumental democratic crisis, and everybody watched, read, listened to every new wrinkle each new day brought.

For the first time since the Second World War, reporters basked in the sun of heroism. They were Fourth Estate icons, living proof of the press’ value as a democracy’s primary check on the secret and illegal accumulation and use of power by its leaders. After Watergate, journalism schools were swamped with applications from kids who wanted to be reporters “just like Woodward and Bernstein”.

Even politicians found their reputations enhanced. The members of Ervin’s panel became stars for a time. Howard Baker’s repeated question – “What did the president know and when did he know it?” – entered the American lexicon, and Sam’s craggy countenance was as well known as Bogart’s, and as beloved.

Together, we thought, the heroes of the press, personified by Woodward and Bernstein, the courage of the Senators in facing up to the president, and the persistence of Senate investigators in digging out the truth and presenting it calmly, without hyperbole or histrionics, had saved the country from a potential dictatorship at worst and an administration of criminals at best. There was, right up to and for a time after Nixon’s resignation a sense that we had dodged a very dangerous bullet.

Unfortunately, that feeling didn’t last very long.

(James link via Norwegianity)

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4 responses to “Why the News Media Sucks 4: Shoot the Messenger (2)

  1. mullah cimoc say usa media not free. moyers him afraid for speak the true words most important of this subject:

    in pashtu this word neocon (nikan)
    meaning “israeli spy in white house and pentagon”.

    when not say these words him story one big lying.

  2. Um, your comment is off topic and your accent is terrible. If you’re going to pretend to be somebody else, try an impression you might actually have a chance of pulling off. “Nikan” isn’t Pushtu. It’s a Japanese memory therapy. Try again.

  3. Swamp, Swampland, etc., reference the belief that D.C. was built on a swamp. I don’t think that’s technically true, but it’s been used to describe Washington politics ever since the nation’s capitol was established.

  4. Aha. So it’s supposedly a reference to a political swamp rather than a media swamp, is it? Couldn’t reference both, could it? And why would the Chi Trib use it? Last I heard, Illinois was nowhere near DC and not built on a swamp. Are all their bloggers from the Wash Bureau? Or is the Beltway all they talk about?

    I dunno. You’re almost certainly right but I want to suspect a subconscious awareness on the part of reporters of the swamp Wash “journalism” has become, and that maybe it’s emerging through little cracks like titling blogs.

    Of course, given the mainstream press’ attitudes, it’s just as likely that, subconsciously of course, the title reflects what they really think of the blogosphere.

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