Monday, December 05, 2005

This Media Life

Terry Teachout's piece on Capote and Good Night and Good Luck is interesting, though as with any politics-related piece from Commentary magazine it's a bit heavy on certain clichés that the magazine hasn't been able to give up on since approximately 1971. For example, any piece in Commentary about the McCarthy "witch hunt" must, perhaps by law, include some variant of the following sentence, pointing out that Clooney's film does not mention:

The fact that McCarthy’s witch hunt, however irresponsible in practice, was at least nominally motivated by the existence of actual witches.

Having read this argument dozens of times, I'm never sure why it's supposed to be relevant. If anything, the fact that McCarthy siezed on "the existence of actual witches" to promote a hunt for non-witches -- e.g. Communists who weren't spies, liberals, people who looked funny -- makes it worse, not better. The fact that the "witches" existed may excuse the public for getting so scared; it has zero to do with the politicians who knew better. It is, in other words, a way of changing the subject.

Another sentence the piece could well do without is:

Here, Clooney echoes the New Left mantra endlessly regurgitated by aging baby boomers longing to assuage their liberal guilt by keeping faith with the never-to-be-questioned commandments of the 60’s.

Again, no Commentary piece is complete without an attack on the '60s and non-conservative baby boomers, but please, enough is enough. The politics of Clooney's movie are, if anything, pure '50s liberalism, or possibly '30s leftishness; the only people these days keeping faith with the never-to-be-questioned commandments of the '60s are conservatives, who are still repeating the same talking points they were repeating back in 1968. The '60s shaped conservative thinking much more than liberal thinking.

Anyway, the piece ends with some of Terry's patented blog triumphalism -- he's the friendliest blog triumphalist around, but still:

What has changed since 1958, of course, is the willingness of a fast-growing number of Americans to continue taking for granted the objectivity of the news media. With the emergence of such decentralized “new media” as blogs and talk radio, it is no longer necessary to settle for whatever news CBS and the New York Times see fit to publish.

Now, first of all, let's remember this: blogs and talk radio and the like are parasitic on "mainstream" news. When bloggers say they're talking about something the "MSM" won't report, what they really mean is that they're calling attention to "MSM" stories that they feel were not given enough prominence by said "MSM." The same goes true for all articles in opinion journals: left or right, any news stories they mentioned are stories that were at some point reported in the New York Times or on CBS. (Don't bring up the Dan Rather memo thing, okay? It just wasn't important, didn't swing the election either way, and nobody cared about it outside the blogs. The only important thing about the Rather thing was that it caused CBS to kill a far more important story on the forged Niger documents.) In other words, the decentralized "new media" does, in fact, settle 99% of the time for whatever news CBS and the New York Times see fit to publish, and always will.

Second, If you think about it, what Murrow was doing with his piece on McCarthy was very much akin to what the decentralizers are doing now: taking the news and adding the context that conventional reporting couldn't or wouldn't give. What frustrates most people today about the news media is its attempt to sidestep the question of what's true and what's false. The most persistent and valid objection to conventional reporting is that they adopt the "he said/she said" technique, which means that even if one person is telling the truth and the other is lying, they will be reported as if they are equally valid. That's the kind of reporting that was going on with McCarthy -- McCarthy says the Communist conspiracy is taking over America, Senator John Milquetoast says it isn't -- and Murrow decided that he-said-she-said couldn't give an accurate portrayal of what was going on. So he "crossed the line" into attacking McCarthy (with McCarthy's own words) and by doing so produced something more, not less, accurate than a conventionally neutral piece.

I don't think this is a particularly controversial thing to say, really; if a reporter were to write that Stalin says everything is great in Russia but John Siberiabound says it isn't, and then write the story in a way that suggests that the issue is open, anyone would call that wrong even though it's clearly not taking sides. In this case, as in many others, the objective point of view is not the neutral one: a reporter who looks at the issue objectively will have to take sides. Sometimes, of course, a liberal reporter might be blinded by his own views into confusing his opinion with objective truth. But given that conservative media critics always seem to think that an objective report would validate their own view of any situation, I can't take them seriously when they pick on the occasional moderate-Clintonite for suggesting that maybe things aren't going so smoothly in Iraq.

I would also submit that it seems a little quaint to be talking, however obliquely about liberal bias in the media at a time when so many journalists -- Bob Woodward and many others -- have been shown to be buddy-buddy with members of the Bush administration. That doesn't mean they're right-wing either; it means that journalists tend to make their living by sucking up to people in power in order to get juicy bits of gossip ("Joe Wilson's wife is..." was a piece of gossip that unexpectedly turned out to be radioactive for all sides). This is why -- and this is still not very widely understood by conservatives -- it's liberals who are most frustrated with the "MSM" now, because liberals actually believed that mainstream journalists were supposed to be truth-tellers. The fact that Bob Woodward sucks up to the Bush administration is ignored or shrugged off by conservatives; it hurts and angers liberals. And you can't discuss the media culture of today without acknowledging the fact that mainstream journalists have a decidedly non-adversarial relationship to the government.

The idea that journalists should "speak truth to power" may be a liberal cliché on a level with Commentary's store of conservative clichés, but it seems obvious that journalists should at least not be worried about pissing off people in power; once they get to worrying about that, they start repeating thinly-disguised press releases as fact, and then you get the media culture of today, which satisfies no one because it challenges no one.

If Clooney's movie has an old-fashioned "truth to power" point to make, it is at least one that, if followed, would lead to better journalism than we get today. Blogs are journalism too, and one of the reasons most conservative blogs are so bad -- and they are very bad indeed -- is the power-worship. The aptly named Power Line (which broke the Dan Rather story that no one outside of the blogs seems to care about), probably the single worst blog on the net, routinely and seriously calls President Bush a genius and the president who has articulated his worldview "more consistently and more eloquently than any President since Lincoln," while hurling accusations of treason at anyone who disagrees with them. They are political hacks who started up a blog, and whose political philosophy revolves around total devotion to the people currently in power; that's always going to happen, but it makes for terrible journalism because they dismiss (look at any of their posts, if you can stand it) any fact that doesn't confirm what they already knew to be true. They are much, much worse than any CNN or CBS journalist at ignoring facts and distorting other facts, yet they are set up as the critics of CNN and CBS.

The "decentralization" of news, in this case, has merely become the ability of people who don't want to be bothered with inconvenient facts to go and find out why they were right all along. (Happens on the left too, of course, but not as much at the moment, in part because most left-wing blogs have comments, which allow for fact-checking and challenges to the blogger, whereas most high-profile right-wing blogs don't have comments.) This is not progress, and if George Clooney wants to advocate for journalists to be a little more like Murrow and a little less like Bob Woodward, well, that may be simplistic, but it's better than what we've got now. Besides which, of course, blogger-journalists claim they're speaking truth to power too; the source of "power" they identify being that of the "MSM." The difference between speaking truth to CBS and speaking truth to a politican is that the former has only the power to report on stuff that happened; the latter has the power to make things happen. The current weird situation is one where many blogger-journalists on the right, and even a few on the left, spend most of their time railing against those with declining power (the "MSM") and the rest of the time justifying every action of those who actually have power.

Where the media goes from here, I don't know. Political blogs are mostly useful now as an echo chamber or as a political organizing tool (a way of getting together people of the same political persuasion). If anything is to revive trust in the "MSM," it'll probably be something that conservatives don't like, like more nasty reporting on Iraq or various other scandals. Why? Because muckraking, scandal-mongering and "speaking truth to power" actually increases public trust in the media, if the public thinks the scandal is important. The Murrow thing increased public trust in the media; so did the Woodward-Bernstein Watergate scandal. If the Democrats get back into power and do something really bad, and the media reports on that, that will also increase public trust in the media. (The Clinton-Lewinsky thing decreased public trust in the media, but that's because the general public, rightly or wrongly, decided that it wasn't an important issue and the media shouldn't be writing so much about it.)

Because, again, while it's hackneyed to say that the media should "speak truth to power," it's the only thing that the media can do to make more people like it. People have an instinctive distrust of politicians and people in power. The more the media is seen as being on the side of the politicians, the less they will be trusted. The conservative solution, at the moment, would push the media into being still more on the side of the politicians -- and unless you're a worshipper of politicians, that's a recipe for making most people hate the media even more than they already do. Murrow got to be loved because he embodied the adversarial relationship between journalism and politics. That's what the public likes, much more than journalists (including bloggers) who suck up to politicians, or journalists who have an adversarial relationship with other journalists. A little less media-bashing and a little more bashing from the media; that's the ticket to renewed prestige and popularity.

By the way, did I mention I hate the term "MSM?"

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