15 July 2007

Culture War: Institutions vs. Media

Here is the news (as we want to report it)

Ever since 1963, the institutions have been the villains of the media liberals. The police, the armed services, the courts, political parties, multinational corporations - when things go wrong, they are the usual suspects. In my media liberal days our attitude to institutions varied from suspicion to hostility. From our point of view, the view from below, they were all potential threats to human freedom....

This ignorance of the realities of government and management enabled us to occupy the moral high ground. We saw ourselves as clever people in a stupid world, upright people in a corrupt world, compassionate people in a brutal world, libertarian people in an authoritarian world. We were not Marxists but accepted a lot of Marxist social analysis. Some people called us arrogant; looking back, I am afraid I cannot dispute the epithet....

Media liberal pressure has prompted a stream of laws, regulations and directives to champion the criminal against the police, the child against the school, the patient against the hospital, the employee against the company, the soldier against the army, the borrower against the bank, the convict against the prison - there is a new case in the papers almost every day, and each victory is a small erosion of the efficiency and effectiveness of the institution.
Snippet of Jay Rosen's comment at PressThink
Denying and destroying the legitimacy of a social institution is a series of acts over a period of time undertaken by many people who understand the overall task. There are all kinds of ways that the target may "deserve it."
Political Jihad and the American Blog: Chris Satullo Raises the Stakes
But the real goal of the propagandists - with their shouts of Bias! Arrogance! Monopoly! - is to destroy journalism. Why? Because journalism is the sworn enemy of propaganda.

I believe Satullo is drawing a distinction between those who are frustrated and angry with the traditional news media, and want answers, as well as changes, which is one group of critics—many of them pro-Bush or red staters, some of whom blog—and another group, posing as critics of bias, who see an opportunity to discredit CBS News in the wider public sphere.

They want to achieve an historic victory in a very long war between conservatives and the likes of CBS, going back to 1969 and Spiro Agnew, or even further to 1964, when Barry Goldwater met the hostility of Northeastern journalists. (For this background go here.) They want to inflict as much damage as possible on an institution they treat as hostile to Republican Truth, and to the message of the cultural right.
My comment at PressThink:
[The Malau]: But using ponctual cases to destroy decades old institutions simply because they disagree with our views just seems counter-productive and irresponsible.

That's a great conservative argument. In fact, that's been a conservative argument for decades since the 60s and 70s. It's at the heart of the counter-revolution/culture war.
What I find very interesting is that liberals are making this argument in defense of this incarnation of global cosmopolitan, transnational journalism.

It seems to me that the two main functions of the 4th Estate - witness and watchdog - are under siege. As a witness, journalists are accused of being stenographers and PR hacks by partisans of each political party. If you are a watchdog, then you have a political agenda - you are the opposition.

There are many theories of why this is so. I subscribe to three:
  1. The press has undercut their role as witness through he said/she said, View from Nowhere, the soundbite, the anonymous source, and being a slave to the constraints of their medium (column inches, [inverted pyramid], and TV summaries between commercials). This cuts at the heart of their "professional" credo. They are no longer considered by many to be reliable, or trustworthy, witnesses - unprofessional in their craft as evidenced by participating in staged events, scripted broadcasts and editorial selection.
  2. Watchdog journalism has been undercut by "Gotcha" journalism (see Searls) . There was a time when the "Truth" of the underlying story, or the power of the 1st Amendment, had enough public support that fake evidence, quotes maliciously taken out of context, and destroying reputations in the jury of public opinion was acceptable. There was a widely held public opinion that the decades old institutions of state power and capitalism needed a good kick in the teeth and the 4th Estate was the tool by which to deliver it. But today, Liberalism, Progressivism and the press are suffering a credibility crisis born from the excesses of that revolution.
  3. Conservatives have been on a Long March to challenge the authority of this 30-40 year old incarnation of an institutional press. Read Kaplan again, and think about the charges of a liberal media by conservatives:
Because he always seems to define even the most heroic institutions by their worst iniquities, his target is authority itself. Disclaimers notwithstanding, he is the soul of the left incarnate.
Does the Left rise up in defense of what Jay calls "traditional press" and attack the new conservative media out of a sense of kinship? Is it the enemy of my enemy is my friend? Combine Kaplan with ABC's The Note here ("Like every other institution, the Washington and political press corps operate with a good number of biases and predilections.") and here ("One party knows the press is its 'enemy'; one party mistakenly thinks the press is its 'friend.'"). Combine it with Lemann from Jay's link here:
Conservatives are relativists when it comes to the press. In their view, nothing is neutral: there is no disinterested version of the news; everything reflects politics and relationships to power and cultural perspective. If mainstream journalists find it annoying that conservatives think of them as unalterably hostile, they find it just as annoying that liberals think of them as the friend who keeps letting them down.
However, Keller, who is himself of indeterminate politics but is probably more conservative than his fiery populist predecessor, Howell Raines, went on, “Conservatives feel estranged because they feel excluded. ... [the whole paragraph is key]
Neal Shapiro, the president of NBC News, whose variegated domain includes cable television, and even blogs, plainly felt that the nightly news broadcast needs to have its red-state credentials in order. He said of NBC’s new anchor, Brian Williams, “He’s a great journalist, a great reporter. Having said that, he’s a huge nascar fan, has been since his father took him to the track when he was a kid. He cares a lot about his faith. He wants to take the broadcast on the road a lot. He was on the road the whole week before the inauguration. Brian does get it. He once did a story on Cabela’s”—the superstore chain for hunters. “A lot of the people in the newsroom said, ‘Gee I didn’t know about that.’ But he did. And many of our bureaus did. We’re not just the Northeast Corridor.” One doesn’t get the sense that Shapiro worries about the possibility that NBC’s anchor might be out of touch with the values and concerns of residents on the Upper West Side.
Did you hear that? Do you hear it [here] in comments? It's right in line with Okrent's column on the liberal slant at the NYT.

Do conservatives want all their media to be Fox News? I don't think so. I don't watch Fox News at all and I'm not the only one removed from the Left that doesn't. But I do think it's good for our country to have a Fox News that can be held accountable just as CBS and CNN have been.

And on that note, I'll add a fourth trend that influences - but is not directly related to the crumbling credibility of the witness/watchdog press. And that's the Information Age flow around gatekeepers. That undercuts the authority of the gatekeepers as well.

None of this is meant to excuse the conservative revolution, or counter-revolution, that is critical - if not hostile - toward the press, but to explain it. Something I think Jay wants to do, tries to do, but often fails to do as well as he could because of his own bias.
An Anthology of Journalism's Decline
The 'Media Party' is over
"When the Press Fails..." From a New Book by Lance Bennett, Regina Lawrence, and Steven Livingston

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