Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Press Corpse

News of Bob Woodward’s recent hissy-fit over what he perceived to be a “threat” from a White House official concerning a story he was writing, serves as a perfect microcosm of the anemic state of journalism today.

According to the esteemed Washington Post reporter, an Obama administration official contacted him about a story he was working on last month containing details about the back-room negotiations surrounding the so-called “sequestration” and warned him he may come to “regret” publishing it. The pompous Woodward immediately took to the cable news airwaves to decry the rampant “intimidation” of reporters which he contends has intensified under the Obama administration.
Turns out this intimidating White House insider was Gene Sperling, Obama’s economic advisor. And, based on the record of the seemingly innocuous email exchange, Sperling was not trying to “intimidate” Woodward so much as point out that some of the information in his story was, in fact, inaccurate.

Now, Woodward’s ego—not to mention his long history of shoddy reporting—has been well documented by even one of his own editors at the Washington Post.  Indeed, the more one reads about the man, the more tempting it is to chock up his Watergate success to a combination of his colleague Carl Bernstein and dumb luck.
But those are not my concerns here. What makes Woodward’s tantrum so illustrative is how it highlights the importance of a journalist’s connection to power. Woodward was not upset because Sperling’s “threat” made him believe he was about to disclose pertinent, highly sensitive “insider information.” He was upset because he feared, albeit briefly, that he would lose his privileged White House access.
This is the focus of modern day journalism: Access to power and authority is prized over critical reporting. The press, originally envisioned by the Founding Fathers as a crucial watchdog of government—a Fourth Estate as its referred to in textbooks—has today become little more than a conveyor belt for government lies, corporate spin and the status quo perpetuation of “conventional wisdom.”

While most citizens understand that the mainstream news media’s claims to “objective” reporting are misplaced at best, and laughably dishonest at worst, the longstanding belief that the media generally operate with a “liberal bias” is equally misleading. In fact, the myth of the liberal media has been thoroughly debunked by a range of studies, including insider testimony by President George W. Bush’s own press secretary.

Yet I would argue the terms “left” vs. “right” are not even properly adequate to describe the overarching ideological prism of the U.S. news media. Our media are best described as “corporate.”
Whether a particular outlet slants the news through the perspective of the Democratic Party (a la MSNBC) or the Republican Party (Fox News) hardly matters. The end result is still the same: Corporate-owned and controlled media that give primacy to elite, wealthy interests, big business concerns, imperialist saber-rattling and Washington Beltway “consensus.”
Likewise, consider the powerful role and influence advertising plays in both print and broadcast news media. When your entire business model depends on advertising from Ford or Coca-Cola, you are not going to be airing stories about Coke’s long history of vicious retaliation against labor activists. In order then to understand the essential function of the media, and why they remain so beholden to power on either side of the political aisle, it is necessary to move beyond such simplistic concepts of “conservative” vs. “liberal” media.

Such a system, needless to say, is antithetical to a free and independent press.

The job of a reporter is to speak truth to power, to act as an ever vigil watchdog of government and corporate interests, and, when necessary, disclose to the public lies and abuses of power by elected officials. Journalism is based on the premise that democracy cannot function when the public is ignorant of local, state, national and world events. Say what you will about the Founding Fathers, but credit them, at least, for realizing early on that an ignorant, uninformed citizenry would be the death of democracy.

Great American journalists like Edward R. Murrow, I.F. Stone, Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair understood that their job was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable—to “agitate the air” as Murrow once put it. Reporters must, therefore, maintain a healthy, eternal skepticism of those in power.

According to Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, in her 2009 essay compilation, Breaking the Sound Barrier, the job of a journalist is to “go where the silence is,” and cover the stories the corporate media routinely ignore. She writes:

What is typically presented as news analysis is, for the most part, a small circle of pundits who know so little about so much, explaining the world to us and getting it so wrong. While they may appear to differ, they are quibbling over how quickly the bombs should be dropped, not asking whether they should be dropped at all.

Those that are invited to exclusive White House briefings or press conferences—celebrity reporters like Brian Williams, Katie Couric, Bill O’ Reilly and Rachel Maddow—are tolerated because their reporting toes the establishment line. They are not considered a threat. And, when pseudo-reporting like 60 Minutes’ recent softball interview with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (01/27/2013) is the standard for “hard-hitting” news shows, why should they be?

(Sample questions from Steve Kroft’s interview: “This is not an interview I ever expected to be doing… Why did you want to do this together, a joint interview?”; “How would you characterize your relationship right now?”; “What do you think the biggest success has been, foreign policy success, of the first term?”)

Yet contrary to the claims of those on the right, such media cheerleading is not limited to Obama and Democrats. The corporate media were just as deferential to Bush—so much so they devoured his warmongering administration's bogus rationales for invading Iraq without so much as a peep of protest.
Coverage of Bush’s May 1, 2003 declaration of “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq was marked by pundits’ fawning, over-the-top praise for their exalted “Commander in Chief.” MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews (accompanied by conservative trash-talker, Ann Coulter of all people) gushed of Bush’s entrance onto a U.S. aircraft carrier, “[T]he president deserves everything he’s doing tonight in terms of leadership. He won the war. He was an effective commander. Everybody recognizes that…”

Later that evening, Matthews continued his rambling, vacuous love-fest for the president on Countdown with Keith Olbermann. He said:

We’re proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who’s physical, who’s not a complicated guy like Clinton… They [the American people] want a guy who’s president. Women like a guy who’s president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It’s simple…

Indeed, the world according to Chris Matthews is very simple, apparently. I refer readers back to the previously cited quote by Goodman.

In sum, a press that refuses to take a critical, oppositional view to the president—any president—or other authority figures, cannot be trusted to deliver factual, non-White House sanctioned news and information. It cannot accurately address the needs of citizens, and fulfill its democratic obligation of government watchdog.

Much has been made, since the start of the 21st century, of the decline of the news industry—of newspapers, in particular. I do not believe it is much of a stretch to link the decline in newspaper readership with the loss of independent, un-embedded and uncompromising journalists. If the news industry—and, by extension, democracy itself—is to survive, it must cast aside the crusty, aging Bob Woodwards, and bring back the Ida Tarbells, Ed Murrows and I.F. Stones.  
Video of Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman being arrested while covering the 2008 Republican National Convention. When was the last time you saw Brian Williams arrested simply for doing his job?

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