News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: The Rabid Dog (The Media) 1

Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Rabid Dog (The Media) 1

Let me start out with an image: the modern news media remind me of those people who once used to follow behind the circus elephants to shovel their dung into wagons as they walked down main street before the show. The innovation of the media on this humble job, though, is that they take the offal back to the studio, hire pundits to scrutinize every grain and straw in the pile before them.

Of course, if the news media were historians, archaeologists, biologists, or anthropologists such an enterprise might seem appropriate. The crux of the disconnect is not simply that news people aren’t trained in these other disciplines but that type of activity is not what they should do in the first place.

But that raises the question, doesn’t it, about what it is the media should be doing. …

If the press had spent just 10 percent of its time producing reports like the one I just saw Arwa Damon on CNN or those running nightly by Michael Ware in the run-up to the war in Iraq I imagine that their reports would be much different at this point.

The problem with the press is perhaps best exemplified by the way that CNN host Wolf Blitzer is framing the question about whether to call the Iraq situation a civil war. According to Blitzer, CNN has chosen to “leave it up the public” to come to their own conclusions about whether it’s to simply be called a civil war or not. This “discussion” only comes up because of NBC’s announcement that it has decided to call it a civil war.

There are numerous proposes for the failures of the press in covering the political landscape (see, for example, this article). A decent portrayal of one such explanation comes in John Sayles’ movie, Silver City. There we see the fight that reporters have to wage with the corporatizing of the news, especially in terms of reduced staffs, news bureaus, and pandering to corporate interests in having the corporate ethos. The truth of this portrayal can be seen in recent reports that news agencies are shipping jobs overseas.

Helena, Cobban, a journalist for over forty years has an insider view on her craft. Having written for both British and US media outlets, she suggests that the difference between the two ways that journalists in the US and Britain see their place in the power structure is a matter of elitism. She writes:

Since I grew up in England and have worked in both the British and the US media, I have often been struck by the different self-images and self-definitions that journalists seem to have within the two different national cultures. In the UK, as I understood matters, a "good" journalist was always expected to keep some distance from, and a huge degree of skepticism towards, the holders of or aspirants to political power. But in the US a "good" journalist was seen as one with good connections with the holders of power... The norm of US officials anonymously "leaking" tidbits of newsworthy information to favored journalists only strengthened this tendency of these journos-- Tom Friedman comes to mind here for some reason-- increasingly seeing themselves as part of the power structure, judiciously giving their advice to power wielders while helping the powerful to frame the image they presented to the voting public...
What’s common, perhaps to Sayles and Cobban’s view is the idea that the news has suffered a decline in its reporting by renouncing the critical and analytical understanding of the stories that are important.

Mr. Wolf at Blackfive sees things differently. For him, US news outlets have a decidedly liberal bias and show it by reporting only the negative—anti-American—side of stories. For Blackfive, the news media should provide more balanced reporting. It is difficult to see what differentiates his understanding of the media’s role in American politics from propaganda. In this regard, Blackfive’s prescriptions for fixing the news spears quite similar to the goals and objectives that were recently announced for a Department of Defense office that would monitor and correct news 24/7.

I have documented the techniques and methods used by professional political information consultants in molding messages that produce desired effects (see here, here, here, and here.) CBS News’ Dick Meyer believes that the matter rests in the fact that the press is afraid to breach certain rules of civility that are unspoken rules among the press and those they cover. In this way of looking at the issue, the idea is that we need more straight talk. What’s meant by straight talk here is that kind of talk that can go by numerous clich├ęs: taking the gloves off, no holds barred. For Meyer the problem involves the idea that the press is too civil in its interaction with the inhabitants of the halls of power.
Often what I am calling phony emerges after something older, something that felt authentic, has gone away. In politics, for example, there have been phonies, hypocrites and blowhards since the spoken word was invented. But American politics changed dramatically after modern political marketers, pollsters and ad makers transformed politics for the TV-generation and later for the Information Age. They invented a kind of artificial, ersatz politics: wedge issues, Astroturf lobbying, kabuki hearings, spin, "on message," photo-ops and negative television ads. Of course there have always been dirty tricks and showboating in politics. What has happened in the era of electronic media is categorically different.

The methods that Meyer says are the reason for this inauthentic political discourse are, of course, quite thoroughly documented. I have covered some of them in several postings. Yet, even here, there seems to be a more basic undergirding of these practices. That is, the people who want to employ these professional communication consultants and the methods used to mold public opinion to fir policies.

In his work, The Phantom Public, Walter Lippmann writes about insiders and outsiders. The insiders are those who have the knowledge and expertise to run the government. For Lippmann, this makes perfect sense since the idea of running government by common consent or public consensus is tantamount to courting chaos. Government requires knowledge; that those on the outside don’t know what’s going on only makes the job of governing easier.

In recent postings , Glenn Greenwald has undertaken a very detailed analysis of the insider workings and how they make their way into the media. In a recent analysis of the conflict between Pelosi and Harman, Glenn Greenwald comes close to rendering as clear a statement of this insider cult as has Lippmann.

Greenwald writes:
At first I thought that the media's obsession with smearing Pelosi was some combination of its adolescent cravings for cattle-like demonization of the unpopular, loser Democrats, combined with the surprisingly (at least to me) strong and obvious discomfort with a woman being this politically powerful in her own right, not dependent upon appointments or derivative popularity from political spouses. And there is definitely a lot of that driving this chatter.

But now I believe that what is really responsible for this amazing obsession with undermining Nancy Pelosi before she even starts -- over matters as seemingly irrelevant (in the grand scheme of things) as Steny Hoyer and Jane Harman, no less -- is that institutionalized Beltway personalities fear a repudiation of the rotten system on which they depend and of which they are such integral parts.

They were so petrified by the possible rejection of Hoyer in favor of the anti-war Murtha because that would have been viewed by them as a repudiation of their brand of Serious Washington Centrism -- the disease which enabled the Bush administration and brought us this war. It would have meant that those who continue to prop up this war and this administration, either actively or passively, are going to suffer a loss of prestige and credibility. And that is exactly why it is so important to them that Jane Harman become House Intelligence Chair and why Pelosi's refusal to allow that will unleash even more hostility towards her.
If we didn’t have Lippmann’s testimony and that of Edward Bernays, many might consider such views as somewhat conspiratorial. Yet, the truth of the matter comes by way of those privileged enough to see the insiders at work. Steve Clemons is one of those people. Known as an insider’s insider, Clemons lives in Washington and is part of the social class that is allowed to participate in dinners, lectures, and other hobnobbing events where the powerful talk the talk of technocracy—that kind of talk where the hype and disinformation have their birth. More importantly, this is where the plans and processes are discussed in naked frankness.

Consider the following description from Clemons of a dinner where the very movers and shakers of Washington gears within gears gathered one evening:
I really can't discuss the participants or venue of a dinner I attended last night but suffice it to say that some of America's and Europe's leading current and former political personalities were there -- 60 people only -- and among them a few former Secretaries of State and foreign ministers, top intelligence officials, think tank chiefs, Senators and House Members, former National Security Advisors and Secretaries of Defense. The attendance list was extraordinary.

And the conversations -- on the whole -- were about the crappy condition of America's national security position. The guests in this dinner probably represented key participants in any new strategic consensus for the country. If there were brilliant [sic], silver bullet ideas that might help this country move quickly beyond its problems, it would have been in such a crowd where such notions might be taken seriously and have impact.

But nothing. Absolutely nothing. People were depressed and dismayed about current conditions. One very, very senior Bush administration official when asked by me what ideas he had to stabilize Iraq and stop our slow bleed situation said he had exhausted what he felt was possible.

Another top tier official when another guest pushed him to move the President into some rational deal-making that might trigger a more fruitful trend, ominously said "don't hold your breath." (also see this posting)
This description might shock some for its stark display of power brokers stymied by current events. Others might simply be agog that this is how decisions are made—contrary to the media perceptions. Others might ask why these questions and discussions occur behind closed doors and not within what’s known as the public sphere.

All of these questions and reactions are legitimate, I think. For people like Clemons and Greenwald, obviously, getting to that that level of intimacy revealing the inner workings is paramount in ensuring the health of democracy. Yet, unless you happen to have access to the internet and then are lucky enough to find their blogs, what chance is there of this type of information gaining more widespread dissemination?

Some will say that this is exactly what the press is supposed to be doing. They are supposed to be getting the insiders; secret discussions before the public so that those conversations and the decisions that follow are more participated in by the majority.

Let me cut to the chase by pointing out reporters have done this in the past. Look at Edward R. Murrow’s attack on Joe McCarthy. What Murrow did was to present the facts and then present his conclusion about what the facts revealed. This is the proper way to report events—present the facts and conclude what they show. Based on those facts, the journalist then takes what they have found and makes what can best be described as a crusade of it.

This mode of operation goes back to the beginnings of what we have come to know as the public sphere. Voltaire took up the case of a man unjustly tortured and imprisoned for crimes he did not commit. Voltaire used that event not only to publicize the injustice towards the man but also as a means of attacking the very assumptions that seemed to authorize monarchical rule.

It is this mentality that is perhaps most lacking in the press. Cowed by institutional, social, and political process, they have evinced a lack of courage to confront that very structure that would bring corruption and political injustice to light. And—as we have seen—the consequence is a so-called war that will go down in history as the worst military and foreign policy decision in 2,000 years.

Even more importantly, it has also meant the deaths of 100,000s of thousands of innocent Iraqi men, women and children, the deaths of American young men and women, and the padding of the pockets of the military contractors and corporations whose lobbyists have helped plan and sell the war.

To return to the image at the start of this posting and to answer the question about the job of the news media: instead of following behind the circus cleaning up the shit, they should instead be out in front, much like the drum majorette, setting the time and stirring the crowds to want to spend their precious time at the circus.

… to be continued …

PS On the heels of this post Juan Cole comments on the Rumsfeld memo that is making so much news yesterday and today. While most in the press are highlighting the resemblance between Rumsfled's plan for Iraq and that of Democrats like Murtha, Cole focuses in on the "rhetorical" (as one journalist called it today on NPR) aspects of Rumsfeld's memo.

Cole is sensitive to the aspects of this memo that affect the lives of Iraqis. He is also aware of the fact that the insiders don't just come up with ideas, but that those ideas have to be sold to the public. Indeed, the success of a plan--not whether it's a good plan or whether it's workable--depends on the spin and the angle that the technocrat takes in getting that plan in place.

Cole writes:
Rumsfeld spends more time plotting out how to manipulate the American public than how to win the war. Everything is about spin, about giving the image of progress even in the face of a rapid downward spiral into the abyss. Consider these phrases:

' Publicly announce a set of benchmarks agreed to by the Iraqi Government and the U.S. — political, economic and security goals — to chart a path ahead for the Iraqi government and Iraqi people (to get them moving) and for the U.S. public (to reassure them that progress can and is being made) . . .

Announce that whatever new approach the U.S. decides on, the U.S. is doing so on a trial basis. This will give us the ability to readjust and move to another course, if necessary, and therefore not “lose.”

Recast the U.S. military mission and the U.S. goals (how we talk about them) — go minimalist. . . '

It is about how we talk, how we are perceived to set goals, what is made to look like progress. It isn't actually about getting progress. The point of going minimalist is to reduce expectations among the American public. If you tell them you can only move the ball a yard, you get a lot of points for moving it two yards.
It's the illusion that counts, an illusion that is meant to forestall debate and question and discussion about whether these are the things that this country should be doing now.

1 comment:

Dick Meyer said...

Really thoughtful post. I enjoyed it.