TCS Daily

Media Matters: A Devil's Bargain

By Frederick Turner - August 19, 2004 12:00 AM

The "mainstream press" may be in the process of squandering a precious resource that its leaders no longer have the institutional memory to recognize as the source of its legitimacy and its living. In the last few years -- essentially since 9/11 plunged us into a new world, a new agenda, that the press did not understand -- the major organs of civilized journalism, once trusted by the billion most effective people on the planet, have given away their credibility upon a trifle.

Everybody now recognizes that such voices as CNN, the New York Times, the BBC, the Washington Post, the major TV networks, the New Yorker, the Guardian, etcetera, are now the express and all-but-explicit advocates of a very special point of view, one with specific political goals. Those goals are certainly different from those of al-Jazeera or the socialist press, but they are in their own way as coherent, exclusive, and unquestioned.

This collective view emerged as a rather well-intentioned product of an age of wild hope, ill-informed academic speculation, and youthful optimism about the world. Nurtured in the great European and American universities, it was statist, existentialist, anti-religious, suspicious of any science that did not support its views, snobbish, pacifist, anti-technological, hedonistic in practice, puritan in theory, postmodernist in its tastes, committed to a social rather than an individual morality, hostile to the virtue tradition, sentimentally Romanticist in its attitude to Nature (which, in an unconsciously Creationist turn, did not include human beings), relativist about cultural differences, legalistic, optimistic about human nature, and deeply hostile to the marketplace. In one sense it was a nostalgia for the aristocratic European world of our collective rose-tinted memory, when the virtues of artists and intellectuals and university-educated people were recognized automatically, and merchants and financiers were "rightly" despised. In another sense it was a yearning for the dear lost days of revolutionary fervor, moral certainty, "free" sex and callow cynicism about tradition and respectability. It was escapist in its worship of Otherness -- cultural, social, political, economic, ideological, sexual, biological -- and conformist in its anxious attention to the next move of its "coolest" current leadership.

Harmless enough as a cultural phenomenon, one might think, though perhaps unhealthily centered upon the desires and dreams of a single very large generation of people born in the years following the Second World War. The problem arises when such a fashion effectively takes over the university system, as it did in the seventies and eighties, and then rises into positions of leadership in the great institutions of journalism. The journalistic Boomers themselves, who had often been trained by scholars who believed that there might be truth about a state of affairs that could be closely approached if not fully attained, usually knew when they were bending the truth and spinning for political advantage. Their leftist principles taught them that objectivity was desirable in the abstract and might again become feasible and desirable once the inequities of society were resolved. In any case, they felt, one should not lightly fritter away the legacy of credibility built up since the Enlightenment by the great authoritative institutions of civilization -- science, historiography, the serious newspapers, the great museums, the courts, and so on. But their younger followers and employees, postmodernist in belief-system, educated by ideologically relativist and politically correct junior professors, and increasingly deprived of the basics in logic, ethics, and inductive reasoning by their specialist education, were no longer capable of making any distinction between what was true and what was conducive to their social ideals.

Thus the scandals associated with such violators of journalistic trust as Howell Raines and Jayson Blair of the New York Times, Andrew Gilligan of the BBC, and Eason Jordan of CNN (who confessed that CNN had been going easy on Saddam Hussein for many years, with the implication that CNN had helped prepare a public attitude of sympathy for his regime and anger at the UN sanctions) are but the tip of the iceberg. Studies have shown that the huge majority of journalists and professors are liberal Democrats; no cause for alarm in itself, but troubling when the brakes of traditional critical analysis have been disabled, as they were by the deconstructionist ideology of the schools. And the general reader is beginning to realize that there is indeed a systematic bias in the traditional news media.

Part of the problem has been the rise in the popular interactive media -- talk radio and the Internet -- of an unabashedly ideological counter-movement on the Right. There is a long tradition in both Europe and the US of such partisan advocacy -- it used to be called "pamphleteering" and is a recognized and honorable part of a free and democratic society. It is a tradition that recognizes the distinction between opinion and fact, and bills itself honestly as opinion. Since the collapse of sympathy for communist and socialist causes throughout the nation when the abuses and lies of the old Soviet Union were revealed, there had been a depressing paucity of such pamphleteering from the Left, and what there was seemed pallid and bereft of ideas. In frustration, I believe, many young journalists in the great organs of record, rejecting the fact/opinion distinction, turned to the idea of using their new command over the means of information production to fight back. Remembering their professors' nostalgic stories of Vietnam protest, and indulgently encouraged by their Boomer editors, they took the war in Iraq as the ideal occasion for a counter-attack. They had a villain from Texas with an accent and an apparent ignorance of university manners, the smoldering resentments of the Florida recount, a wealth of horrific footage supplied by al Jazeera, and an expertise in spin provided both by their rhetoric professors and by the advertising profession (laundered through political campaign strategizing). How could they fail?

But what could they gain? Perhaps the next election, if the American people realize too late that their informational wells have been spiked. But if afterwards at least 40% of the public no longer believes the mainstream press and is, from the moment the election is over, furious about being lied to and vigilant to avenge itself on the perpetrators, the new president will be incapable of pressing home any of the programs desired by the aspiring Boomer professional elite that the press represents. So the gain might indeed be only a trifle.

The problem is that with the collusion of their editors the new generation of reporters chose to use their exalted position of trust in the Fourth Estate to prosecute their political ambitions, rather than -- as had the conservative talk show hosts -- doing it the hard way, by creating a soap box of their own and building a popular audience. Their anthropology and history and literary theory classes had taught them that every system of knowledge was just the servant arm of the regnant regime of power, and that therefore no respect need be given to institutions of so-called objectivity and research balance. Editorializing crept into the news pages and then right out onto the front page above the fold. The editorializing, with its suppressions, its half-truths, its word-choices, and so on, carried an odd double-entendre -- for the cognoscenti, an implicit acknowledgement that this was useful strategic rhetoric to be used for the campaign, and for the rubes, all the solemn garb of scientific or historical or judicial gravity. Talk radio is hilariously explicit about its leanings and its spin, and is honest at least in that. Internet bloggers assume that they cannot fool their readers into thinking that their propositions come from the oracular lips of Truth. They are thus more trustworthy, oddly enough, than the Gray Ladies of the traditional journalism.

In a way the recent attempts to create an explicitly leftist talk radio are rather laudable (though they seem to have failed). Certainly the Left has as much right to pamphleteer as does the Right. Michael Moore, too, though he quaintly insists on calling his work "documentary", has a certain honesty about him -- his untruths really don't pretend to be more than entertainment. He surely does not realize the propaganda value of his work to al Qaeda recruiters and its potential to prolong the war and thus cause more American and Iraqi casualties. The Arab world, which never had a free press, is not as sophisticated about such things as the American public. But Moore must have known that his work, with its falsifying elisions and juxtapositions, would be systematically refuted by internet fiskers, and that the mantle of art would cover his veridical faults -- and so he is not corrupting a medium or an institution that is corruptible, because it was never pure in the first place.

But for a while most of us felt that we had an established press whose canons, techniques, competition, and honorable tradition gave us news that was fairly reliable and when in error, honestly so, or at least the result of the coarsening and immediacy implicit in the medium. That trust is gone -- not just among Republicans and conservatives, but as the polls show, among Democrats, Independents, and liberals as well. It was bad luck for the Gray Ladies that their minions chose to break the tradition of trust just at the moment that powerful new media emerged from the boiling ferment of electronic technology, and that alternatives now exist. It may be that the old media are now self-destructing, and that like the medieval Vatican, the Ching Dynasty, the Holy Roman Empire, the French Academy, the Victorian Church of England, and the Communist Party, they are losing their hard-won authority because of wanton abuse.

So we set out now, like Adam and Eve at the end of Milton's great poem on the Fall, into a new informational world, a new period of history where we cannot rely on journalistic authority and have no guide as to what to believe. It is a fallen world, but it has a certain excitement. For we may now start learning about the current world from each other -- from Chinese or Iraqi or Israeli or Indian or Persian or Spanish or U.S. eyewitnesses, from bloggers and friends on the telephone and radio callers whose trustworthiness we must judge on our own -- just as we did before the great nineteenth and twentieth century newspapers came along.

Perhaps we could put it in an even more radical way. As such institutions as coffee-houses, town meetings, old fashioned barber shops, primary caucuses, soap box gatherings, debates, and suchlike fell into disuse, and the networks and newspapers took over, the Public itself began to disappear, to be replaced by a segmented demographic mass swayed by centralized journalistic voices and shaped by polls. What is now happening is that rather swiftly a new Public is forming, self-organizing around Google and link lists and blog chatrooms. And it will demand a new Res Publica.


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