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February 27, 2007

Welcome To My Nightmare

Posted in: Media

One of the great things about a healthy democracy is that it has error-correcting mechanisms which prevent it from veering too far off course. They're not infallible or instantaneous, but if a politician or policy is really terrible, the odds are that he, she, or it won't be around for very long. Unfortunately, the Republican party has dedicated itself to sabotaging and co-opting these mechanisms, and over the last six years our government has been straying farther and farther from the ideals that this country was founded on.

I would like to focus on three very important mechanisms in particular: the media, the electoral process, and the judiciary. When they are working properly, media and elections hold our public officials accountable for their actions, while the judiciary bounds those actions within the limits of the Constitution. When they are not working properly, the errors multiply, the rule of law breaks down, impunity replaces accountability, and democracy becomes anarchy or tyranny (depending on how selective the breakdown is). I intend to use one post per week to talk about how each of these essential mechanisms is malfunctioning, and to invite the FDL community to exchange ideas and strategies on how to repair them. This week… The Media.

It is impossible to overstate the media's importance. They are, in a very real sense, the gatekeepers of reality for a large proportion of Americans. For people who don't read blogs or alternative publications (i.e., Prospect, Nation, Mother Jones, etc.), the media are their sole source of information and interpretation of what's going on in the world, in their country, in their state, in their community. So when the media report something false, most people will believe it's true. When they don't report something, or gloss over it in favor of the latest missing/dead/bald blonde woman, then it simply never happened, or it's unimportant. And if, just hypothetically, the media consistently characterize Republicans as courageous, principled he-men, and Democrats as timid, flip-flopping weasels, then that narrative becomes conventional wisdom.

But not only do the media control perception of the here-and-now; they control the past, too. In the same way that the Ministry of Truth in 1984 edited history so that "we have always been at war with East Asia," our media misrepresent or ignore past events and statements that would be inconvenient for Republicans, making it as if they never happened. One recent example is their failure to call switch-hinting Joe Lieberman on his many promises to caucus with the Democrats, and a casual perusal of Media Matters will reveal many more such examples of mediamnesia. True, some people may actually remember things for themselves, but the less-skeptical will accept the media's version of events and decide that they must simply be mistaken. I know, it sounds crazy, but the media would be a laughingstock otherwise.

As some of you may perhaps have noticed, the media's errors or omissions hardly ever seem to favor Democrats, in clear defiance of all the laws of probability. I see a lot of exasperated liberal bloggers appealing to the media to show some pride in their work and start living up to their journalistic principles, or berating them for their addiction to cocktail weenies, but I think they miss the point. Lazy, incompetent, shallow reporters and pundits are merely a symptom, not the underlying problem.

The underlying problem is that the major media organizations are owned by very large corporations and very rich wingnuts, all of whom benefit from wealth-and-business-friendly Republican policies. That corporate and/or wingnut ownership exerts pressure on the editorial level to advance the Republican agenda, which in turn drives decisions on what gets reported and how prominently, who gets facetime on TV, and which reporters and columnists get hired, advanced, and fired.  Murray Waas toils in obscurity and Walter Pincus's WMD debunkings run on page A23, while Judy Miller becomes a superstar – if not for Fitz, she'd still be at the NYT, cheerfully making the case for war with Iran. The LA Times fires Robert Scheer and hires Max Boot and Jonah Goldberg. Tim Russert attacks Democrats with "gotcha" questions, but offers the Bush administration a safe haven for their talking points. CNN and ABC hire Glenn Beck, WaPo hires John Solomon. And on and on and on. If you're an uncritical stenographer or right-wing tool, the world is your oyster. If you're a sharp-tongued liberal columnist or a dogged investigative reporter, you're lucky to be treading water. And all the editors, reporters and pundits know this, so that even those who consider themselves liberal (supposedly a majority, but remember that Joe Klein and Mickey Kaus claim to be liberal, so take that with a grain of salt) feel that they must tone it down, or repudiate their liberalism entirely to prove how totally non-liberal and therefore objective their reporting is. (Hellooo, Mark Halperin!)

There is another very important point I want to make about media ownership, whether it be giant corporations or brazillionaire right-wing loons: media profits really aren't that important in the grand scheme of things. When the media go into a 24/7 feeding frenzy about a Democratic scandal or a celebrity overdose, it's not necessarily because they're trying to sell papers or bump up their ratings: there's a very good chance that they're simply trying to discredit the Democrats as a whole, or to distract from the latest Republican fiasco. Sure, profits and viewership/readership are nice, and the media will certainly pursue them wherever they can, but never forget: The giant corporations and right-wing fanatics who own them stand to gain far more from continued Republican rule than they ever could from a few extra Nielsen points.

Why am I so positive that propping up Republicans is more important than ratings? Two words: Jeff Gannon. The Bush administration allowed a right-wing male prostitute with no journalistic credentials into the White House press corps. Said male prostitute posted explicit pictures and, ah, "client" testimonials on his website, made numerous solo visits to the White House, some of them possibly overnight, and no-one cared. And more recently, the #3 guy at the CIA was indicted in a prostitution scandal, and no-one cared. When was the last time the media voluntarily passed up a good sex scandal when Republicans weren't involved? No, ratings are simply an excuse to flood the zone with frivolous distractions, blotting out stories that are inconvenient, and pumping up any Democratic missteps like the Clinton-Obama fracas. Here's Howie Kurtz in last week's WaPo chat session, doing a really unconvincing job of selling the ratings excuse:

In a Pew survey, 61 percent say the Anna Nicole saga is being overcovered, but 11 percent say they are following it very closely. Cable is catering to that 11 percent…. In cable, you only need an extra half-million or million viewers to produce a serious spike in the ratings, and that's why Anna Nicole, nearly two weeks after her death, is still sucking up plenty of cable oxygen.

Got that? Only 11% of America still gives a shit about the Anna Nicole saga and 61% want it to just go away, but somehow catering to that 11% is supposed to be a savvy ratings strategy. Riiiiight. It's. A. Smokescreen.

Ah, you say, but look at Bush's thirtysomething approval rating. Look at all the negative stories about Bush and Iraq and torture and wiretapping and Republican corruption. The media have finally woken up and gotten mad about all those times they've been punk'd by the Republicans. They finally feel shame and remorse for abandoning their journalistic standards, and they're trying to make up for it. Bollocks, I say, and not just because I like saying "Bollocks." The media are not having a sudden attack of conscience or righteous fury: they're fighting for their survival. Or more to the point, for their credibility's survival.

The media's control over reality is not absolute, and it doesn't extend to everyone. They must therefore adhere to a certain minimum baseline level of reality. If they stray too far away from that, they risk being undone by little bits of reality leaking in, like sunlight into a vampire's crypt. More people will begin to notice that what the media are saying conflicts with what they're seeing and hearing. Clued-in liberals like us will start whispering at them to check out the blogs and alternative media. And the more people who discover the reality behind the curtain, the more people who will start exposing others to that reality, and where to find it. In other words, if everyone realizes that the media are Pravda, they'll tune them out and turn to the blogizdat instead.

Which presents a bit of a dilemma.  As the situation in Iraq grows progressively worse, as the Republicans generate scandal after scandal, as the gap between have-nots and have-mores gets wider and wider, as media watchdog blogs get bigger and louder, that minimum baseline reality becomes increasingly unfavorable to the Republicans, and therefore so must the news.  But that doesn't mean that the media is reporting the whole truth; just the bare minimum that they can get away with and still remain credible to the non-skeptics.

And even when they do report stories that are unfavorable to Bush or Republicans, they still follow storylines that are pro-Republican, or at least pro-Bush (that Daou Report post is about a year out of date; I think even the storylines are starting to erode now).  Indeed, some stories that slam one Republican may in fact be propping up another.  For example, I suspect that this was the real reason that Chris Wallace called Doug Feith on his lie that he never touted a link between Iraq and al Qaeda: it backs up the narrative that Bush made a good-faith decision to invade Iraq based on bad intel from rogue subordinates, and Chris Wallace gets to look like a tough, no-nonsense journalist who can't be spun, not even by his own team.  Magic!

So, for all its length, that's still a rather brief and incomplete overview of The Media Problem.  The $64 billion question is, what can we do about it?  How can we decouple reporting and punditry from corporate and big-money interests?  Or failing that, how can we expose the media's Republican agenda so that the American people start to take the news with a healthy pillar of salt?  Here are the possibilities that came to my mind, in no particular order:

Reinstate restrictions on media ownership.  This just sort of dances around the problem.  The media might be owned by smaller corporations, but there's really no guarantee that they would be any less Republican.

Bring back the Fairness Doctrine.  This is appealing, but would need to be implemented carefully so that losers like Joe Lieberman and Joe Klein aren't allowed to represent the "liberal" side of any issue.  If we can be assured a steady diet of Cliff Schecter and similar liberal attack dogs tearing Republican throats out (um, metaphorically speaking, of course), then I'm all for it.

Counterweight.  Create a progressive or objective media empire as a high-profile alternative to the corporate, right-wing ones.  Or buy an existing empire and convert it.  Only question is, who would fund it?  I asked George Soros, but he wasn't interested.

Spoonfeeding. When Kos came to Pittsburgh, I asked him about the media, and his view was that reporters are simply lazy, and the Republicans feed them stories that are all wrapped up and ready to go.  Therefore, if liberals or Democrats provide the same "service," we should expect to see the same result.  I gotta say, I'm pretty skeptical on this one – it only works if I'm completely wrong… which is certainly possible.

Pushback.  Just like the Republicans swarm like angry bees whenever they see a story that displeases them, we can write letters, send e-mails, make phone calls, and post blog entries.  Sometimes the media take notice and change course, sometimes they don't.  I haven't been able to determine how they decide when to react and when to ignore; I assume they make a conscious or unconscious calculation of the benefit of leaving the story unreported or misreported vs. the risk of having their dishonesty exposed.

Word of mouth.  Talking to friends, family, acquaintances about the stories that aren't getting reported, pointing out the media's lies and spin.  It probably helps to be very charming and unafraid of conflict, and perhaps even skilled in self-defense…

Meltdown.  This is more hope than plan, but there's always the possibility that the media could overreach, and get busted trying to cover up some heinous Republican evildoing, or manufacturing a Democratic scandal out of whole cloth.  But given all of the revelations that have already come out (voluntarily suppressing stories until after elections, uncritically passing on Republican lies about WMD, covering up for the Plame leakers, etc.), it's hard to imagine what would really hammer home the media's propaganda catapultiness.

How about you?  What are your ideas on how to fix the media?  The liberal blogosphere is like a huge open-source think tank, so I have to think that we can come up with something.


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