Or, How Dismissing Mountains of Evidence and Asserting the Opposite Perpetuates the Myth of the Liberal Media
Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy
by John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney (New Press, 2005. 211 pps.)
Seven years on, this brief history of American journalism and its denigration over the last century still fascinates, highlighting the major shifts in media presentation and ownership (consolidation, pursuit of objectivity) that subsequently led to the remarkably poor coverage of events post-9/11, particularly those leading up to and immediately following the invasion of Iraq in 2003. No major revelations here; the book serves as an amalgamation of numerous in-depth works and studies by other authors and journalists, and the problems discussed were several decades in the making. By the authors’ admission, the book is meant to be timely, not timeless. Meaning these problems can be fixed, which is good because they’re legion.
Nichols and McChesney cite American media critic Ben Bagdikian on what ails American media: “1) reliance on official sources; 2) fear of context; 3) a dig here, not there, built-in bias concerning what areas of power are fair game and what are off-limits.” The authors assert, for example, that the ruthless pursuit of so-called ‘objective’ journalism is in some ways hindering the process itself, as early 20th century newspapers, on the contrary, were highly partisan, and such a bias “had its strengths, not the least of which was its tendency to contextualize political issues so that citizens could recognize seemingly random events as part of a coherent pattern,” and that unlike the mindless Democrat and Republican back-and-forth, the point was “to have a wide range of partisan viewpoints available,” including political philosophies unmentionable today: socialist, anarchist, communist, and the like (or unlike). It’s easy enough to find the business section of a newspaper. How many have one for labor?
The book’s most notable pitfall is its somewhat alarmist tone. While it’s true American media inquiry into the case for an invasion of Iraq was all but nonexistent or that the sensationalist nature with which it chased idiotic stories concerning candidates John Kerry and Howard Dean, it’s also true neither are unique historical events. Media was largely subservient to power in its delayed response to and coverage of the Iran-Contra scandals. Similarly, when the FBI’s highly illegal COINTELPRO activities were uncovered in the early 1970’s, focus shifted dramatically (and understandably) in favor of Watergate. Skipping large portions of chapter 4 and half of 5 won’t leave you all the worse—not that they’re poorly argued or irrelevant, but the obsession the authors have with the media’s poor treatment of Kerry and Dean in 2004 is tiring and repetitive, and while I wouldn’t call the tone conspiratorial, there’s an aura in the writing that makes it seem like Kerry lost solely because of the way he understood American journalism and not because he was a subpar candidate unwilling to address legitimate public grievances.
I’m no expert in media matters, though I’ve seen enough CNN/MSNBC/FOX and stayed tethered enough to reality to realize most of their programming is garbage—a collection of highly sensationalized and state-serving garbage with little to no politically ideological bent. I’d even say that about FOX News; full sponsorship of Republicans is not a political ideology, it’s a handshake with big business, every single time. It’s so much that way that either their socially ‘conservative’ stances are either a sham or they also help to serve business interests while parading as ‘family values’—certainly many corporations oppose gay marriage not because it shits on Jesus but because it would cost them a good deal of money in insurance policies to cover partners of homosexual employees. Even still, that the New York Times often appears supportive of the Democrats does not translate to a liberal bias, as the highest echelons of the Democratic party only ever sway “left” on certain domestic, social issues. Forget foreign policy; were NYT liberal, it would be challenging power all the time. Its recent history (with both the Obama and Bush administrations) elucidates little of the sort. And that enough people view Democrats as crazy liberal leftist Stalinists serves to illustrate the damage that’s been done by a media conglomerate supporting the interests of the few rather than the masses.
Nichols and McChesney, despite their wan cynicism, still believe these systems can be changed. They’re not incorrect. The harsh and immediate backlash from the public concerning SOPA had lawmakers reeling. That the phrase “99% vs. 1%” has permeated public discourse is no small feat for the Occupy movement. And regardless of what you think of them, the protests held by the Tea Party did elicit some real grievances that have come to the forefront of discussion, even if only bullshit discussion: the anger stoked by massive bailouts, the correct observation that congress has completely stalled, and the want to remove massive outside money from political proceedings. But the need to be vigilant remains. This is the point Nichols and McChesney drive home more than any other: Pay attention. Pay attention pay attention pay attention.