Category Archives: Why the News Media Sucks

Siren Song Evidentiary Documentation: Vast RW Conspiracy Confirmed Right Before Your Eyes

Paul Krugman reminds me to remind you that the VRWC is still fully operational. In fact you can see it playing out RIGHT NOW in “The Great (Fake) TeaBag Caper“.

[I]t turns out that the tea parties don’t represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. They’re AstroTurf (fake grass roots) events, manufactured by the usual suspects. In particular, a key role is being played by FreedomWorks, an organization run by Richard Armey, the former House majority leader, and supported by the usual group of right-wing billionaires. And the parties are, of course, being promoted heavily by Fox News.But that’s nothing new, and AstroTurf has worked well for Republicans in the past. The most notable example was the “spontaneous” riot back in 2000 — actually orchestrated by G.O.P. strategists — that shut down the presidential vote recount in Florida’s Miami-Dade County.

This is, of course, precisely the technique they used to drown the newspapers of 1983 in letters and demonstrations and (canned) phone calls demanding that they stop “picking on” St Ronnie. Paul may only go back as far as 2000 but I go all the way back to the beginning.

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Siren Song: Why the News Media Sucks (10) – Reagan and the Media

reagan-wiggledRonald Reagan was neither an intelligent nor a well-read man. When members of the Congress first met him in person, almost universally their first impression of him was that he was astoundingly ignorant. He knew nothing about how government actually operated, nothing about other countries, nothing about treaties, and little about the functions of his own agencies. In The Power Game (1989), Hedrick Smith draws a clear picture of a man who was extremely good at acting the role of a “president” yet lacked nearly all the knowledge and most of the governing skills one would consider minimum in the leader of the most powerful country on earth. Or any country, for that matter.

In other words, Ronald Reagan was pretty much a stooge/figurehead. He looked good on tv but the real work was being done by others. Reagan bragged about being a “delegator” and he was. He delegated virtually every responsibility of his office to others. On closer inspection his vaunted political skills, for instance, turn out to have been not his but Bush Family consiglieri James Baker’s, at least in the first term. Baker beat back his sillier ideas and protected him from his own political and intellectual stupidity. When Baker left in the second term to become Treas Sec his place was taken by a member of the California Mafia Reagan had brought with him to DC, Atty Gen Edwin Meese, who had been Reagan’s Chief of Staff when he was Gov of California. Meese was an ideologue, not a politician. Like most far-right ideologues, including Saint Ronnie, he looked down his nose at politicians and made no attempt to cultivate members of Congress. As a result of his arrogant naivete, Reagan’s so-called “political skills” deserted him in the second term and in pretty short order we had the public relations disasters and Constitutional crises of Bitburg, Reykjavik, and Iran/Contra. Among others.

But if his political skills actually belonged to someone else and his intellectual quotient was negligible, it’s undeniable that he looked good on television. He was the Grandad we never had, the old man whose pithy comments sounded like wisdom if you didn’t think about them for more than 12 seconds and who gave you quarters for ice cream cones when your parents wanted you to wait til after supper. He was sweet, he looked harmless, and if he said stupid stuff once in a while (OK, a lot), he was nevertheless kind and mostly harmless. We liked him. And we didn’t like it when the press kept picking on him, making fun of him for saying that trees pollute and debunking his funny stories, like the one about the welfare queen and her Cadillac. So what if it didn’t happen? So what if she didn’t even exist? So what if he heard it at a cocktail party for his rich corporate executive sponsors and believed it? What difference did that make? Leave the guy alone.

The reason for Reagan’s huge popularity has always escaped me. He struck me as an incompetent clown who had somehow escaped from the John Birch Society Circus. I could believe California could take a mental midget, raging right-wing fruitcake and professional corporate mouthpiece seriously – everybody in CA is nutz – but it never occurred to me that the country-at-large would do anything but tell him to shut up, go home, eat his porridge and quit bothering the grown-ups. I should have known better. We voted for Tricky Dick twice and he was a paranoid-schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur and a mean streak. But our feeling for Reagan went far beyond mere approval. It approached love, and that baffled me. Still does. But then as a director and actor I’m used to separating actors from the roles they play. The country clearly wasn’t. They fell for all of it, the whole childish performance, cowboy boots and all. In fact, they adored it. And him.

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MSNBC Anchor Rebels Against Celebrity Journalism

Mika Brzezinski, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s daughter and a news anchor on MSNBC’s morning news show, Morning Joe with Joe Scarborough, has had enough. With the Iraq war in freefall, the president under attack from his own party, more revelations about illegal wiretapping programs surfacing, and talk of Gonzo being impeached, her producer, Andy Jones, handed her what he considered the top news story.

On Paris Hilton.

She was furious. First she refused to do it but she didn’t think that was sufficient and on second thought asked her co-anchor for his lighter and tried to set the pages on fire. The lighter didn’t work and her co-anchor grabbed it back. She put the story to one side and, according to Jim Hightower, the producer put it back on top of the pile. When she picked it up again and saw what it was, she got up, stalked to a shredder on the set behind her, and sent it through.

Her co-anchors patronized her, including a shameful performance by Scarborough, who insisted on running the clip Mika was trying to dump of Hilton, um, walking. When the camera came back to her, she had her head in her hands, disgusted, at one point saying frostily, “I’m going to do the news now.”

I’ve been waiting for somebody to do this and had all but given up hope. For several years, rumors have been circulating that a lot of media news figures are privately sick to death of having to do so goddamn much celebrity journalism and have been bitching about it. These complaints have not, of course, been reported because of the “gentleman’s agreement” operating between media reporters and their targets. I have been hoping someone would rebel. I never thought it would be on camera.

So what happens now? Will they fire her? I can’t wait to see how this plays out.

MIKA BRZEZINSKIHero of the Week, Maybe of the Decade, in TV News At Least

Cokie Roberts and Her Slide Right

eRobin at Fact-esque caught NPR’s Cokie Roberts pushing right- wing TP’s today as shamelessly as she probably Cokie_Roberts-aever has. She seems to have abandoned her usual sugar-coating of faux-objectivity altogether.

I just heard Cokie Roberts, serious journamalist [sic], tell me that the Dems have to be careful:

The Democrats could do something things that could blow it. The Congress could seem to be ineffectual or they could seem to be overreaching. … (mentions Feingold’s censure resolution and Reid’s backing off of it) … Things like that, um, if the Democrats seem to be just piling on a pres who’s already at remarkably low approval ratings on a war that that public has turned their back on, if the Democrats pile on on that, that could be a problem.

Clever girl, our Cokie. She hit the GOP trifecta: She helpfully raised the Republican talking point of the “ineffectual Democratic Congress,” she tied the efficacy of Congress to ending BushCo’s Quagmire in Iraq without mentioning the Republican Quagmire in the Senate and then helpfully set up an impossible frame for the Democrats: They have to fix everything that BushCo has destroyed in the last six years except that they can’t do it on their own or appear rude while doing so. They have to get legislation passed by working politely with an obstructionist opposition party that was perfectly happy being a universal rubber stamp for Dear Leader and NOT PASSING A BUDGET THE LAST YEAR THEY WERE IN POWER. They have to end a war of aggression without hurting the feelings of the maniac who started it. They have to balance, weave, dodge and frolic and when they do, it still won’t be enough to win accurate coverage in the corporate media.

You almost have to be my age to remember when Roberts was a reasonably legitimate reporter and a fair if not exactly perceptive political analyst. Back in the day, Roberts was a young (30-ish) correspondent for a public broadcasting service that found its legs during Watergate and was building – or attempting to build – a reputation for journalistic excellence. She fit right in. She had unparalleled political connections, being long-time Louisiana Rep Hale Boggs’ daughter, and she used them with intelligence and wit.

But those days are long gone, and it might be instructive to examine how the slow, inexorable decay from a bright reporter to a conservative corporate mouthpiece came about.

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The GOP Is Weak? Really? You Wouldn’t Kid Me, Would Ya?

Found in today’s NYT: “Some Hitherto Staunch G.O.P. Voters Souring on Iraq“:

While a majority of Republican voters continue to support Mr. Bush and the Iraq war, including the recent increase in American troops deployed, there are concerns that the war is undermining the party’s political position.

Would some one please explain to the Times that that train done left the station, like, a year ago?

Republicans are now officially OUT. Of favor, of time, of patience. The country (see, “election, Nov ’06”) has had it. We’re fed up to the teeth with the whole clinically-insane lot of them. With their wars and their stupidity and their greed and their theivery, with their nutbag theories and their bragging and their lies and their lack of connection to any kind of actual, observable reality – all of it.

Maybe we ought to re-name it the New York Times-Warp.

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?

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Why the News Media Sucks 3: Shoot the Messenger (1)

Having built a bond of trust between themselves and the American public that seemed to be made of iron and steel, how did the press ever come to the point where no one on either side of the political divide trusts much of anything they say, write, or show?

The answer is one of the 20th century’s greatest ironies: they lost our trust because they insisted on living up to it.

The two most important challenges of the post-WW II US were the Viet Nam War and Richard Nixon’s presidency. The first was based on lies, excused and explained by the sophomoric – not to say childish – Domino Theory, and kept going long after it was clear that it was a monumental bungle because neither Lyndon Johnson nor the people around him – chiefly McNamara – could admit that they’d made a mistake. The second was the nation’s first real experience with quasi-authoritarianism: an imperial president with no conscience and few scruples who was paranoid and semi-delusional. He was a drunk who thought he was above the law, a failure out for revenge on imaginary enemies, and an anal-retentive with an almost psychotic need for rigid controls put into office during a time when the foundations of society were in upheaval and flexibility and patience were what was desperately needed.

As voters, we blew that election Big Time. Instead of pitying Queeg and sending him to the showers, we put him in charge of the whole shebang.

In both cases, it was left to the American press to make it clear what a mess we’d made, and in both cases they did, coming through for us with flying colors.

For which we never forgave them.

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Why the News Media Sucks 2: Trust

Chapter 1 – The Greatest Generation

Glenn Greenwald, continuing his examination of the modern media, posted a summary today of a conversation he had with ABC News Senior VP (of “Corporate Communications”, for which read: PR flack) Jeffrey Schneider. On Tuesday, Greenwald criticized the ABC report on Iran’s supposed acceleration of it nuclear program and the startling claim that they could have an atomic bomb “by 2009” because it never named a source or explained why it didn’t. Schneider responded:

Schneider, though somewhat combative at times, was perfectly rational and civil, but the crux of his defense was this: we are ABC News, the award-winning and respected news network of Peter Jennings, and we can therefore be trusted when we say that these sources are credible. That was the premise on which many Americans previously operated, but it isn’t any more….


Journalists find any criticisms based on that lack of trust to be “outrageous,” because they think they’ve done nothing to deserve it. They see themselves as trustworthy and solid professionals with a record that merits great respect and faith. After all, they win Peabody Awards. Their failure to recognize just how fundamentally broken their profession has become — and how little faith so many people have in it — explains, more than anything else, why they are not really changing how they operate. It also explains why they are incapable of understanding criticisms of this sort as anything other than outrageous (or “partisan-motivated”) slander.

(emphasis in the original)

The trust issue is a good place to start because in order to understand how touchy modern journalists are about it, you have to understand how different – and how recent – not being trusted is in media news history.

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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.