Thursday, May 26, 2005

In Defense Of The "Liberal" Media

Amidst the sporadically-growing blogroll you may have noticed Jon Carroll, who is in fact a columnist, and not a blogger. Still, I've enjoyed his columns for many years, and he seems to be a blogger at heart -- the willingness to write about anything and everything, the conversational meter of his prose, the affection for feline companionship -- so he has honorary status in my book. (Indeed, he was infamous among SF Comical readers for his "cat columns" looooong before Friday cat blogging came in vogue for the pajamahadeen.) Carroll has a gentle yet firm and sensible manner of discussing issues, which is obviously a rarity these days in any medium.

Like Christopher Hitchens or Kurt Vonnegut, even when Carroll writes something that I might disagree with (or am not terribly interested in), he does it in such a way that you can still enjoy the rhythms and natural cadences of the prose. It can be almost musical at times (work with me here); if the sturm und drang of Hitchens' literary eviscerations are analogous to Wagner, if Vonnegut's whimsical excursions are Coltrane, then Carroll would be....oh, I dunno, Van Morrison.

Carroll's latest excursion is a two-parter on the beleaguered corporate media. Yesterday's first part is a model of explicative concision, and ought to be tacked up on every media hack's cubicle wall. He very effectively debunks the stupid canard that the corporate media is anything but, well, corporate -- that is, establishment.

The word "liberal" has come to imply wild, outside-the-mainstream ideas and beliefs. Let's see whether the American press can fairly be described that way: The American press supports the idea that democracy is the superior system of government, and if all the nations in the world were democracies, it would be a better place. The American press supports the stock market and believes that it is vital to the continued functioning of the free enterprise system, which it also supports. The American press believes that religion is an important part of American life. The American press supports members of the U.S. military and believes that they are necessary for the maintenance of freedom, which it also supports.

The American press was and is anti-communist. The American press was and is opposed to terrorism. The American press is owned by corporations, mostly large corporations, and supports the continued consolidation of media power. The American press does not use dirty words, does not support sex among underage citizens, does not support illegal drug use and does not support the desecration of any religious institution, building or icon.

He's right. If anything, the majority of the corporate American media goes out of its way to not cross the line on these issues.

It does often give a platform to, and sometimes supports, people who advocate the right to abortion, gay rights, free expression and safe sex. These are not minority or radical opinions. In order to "prove" that the American press is "liberal," you have to select a very few trees from a very large forest.

And yet, a lot of American newspapers and broadcasters are going out of their way to prove that they are not liberal. They are accepting the premise. They are being bullied by zealots and by a few powerful operatives who have slithered into positions of power in the Republican Party. They are not standing firm. Perhaps they are afraid of declining revenues. If they are changing their positions because they fear declining revenues, they are not run by ideologues -- they are run by businessmen. Of course they are run by businessmen. Get a damn grip.

Exactly. The media do not see "red" or "blue" any more than they see "black" or "white". They see green, and they will not do anything that might affect that bottom line. Why the hell do you think a shrieking harridan like Nancy Grace not only has a job, but is extremely well-pimped by what used to be a fairly watchable CNN Headline News channel? No more; it's just crap -- wall-to-wall man-bites-dog bullshit, "runaway bride" this, "Michael Jackson" that. Not one bit of it is "news", in the sense that "news" is defined as information that you and I can use to affect how we run our respective lives. What the hell are you supposed to do with the knowledge that some goofball broad from Atlanta got cold feet and pretended to be kidnapped while she hopped a bus to Vegas? I mean, that's not news, it's a Danielle Steel potboiler.

So what's going on? I think it's possible that any discussion of race, religion or class is considered "liberal." I think the idea that there are two Americas, one rich and one poor, and that in a democracy things should be done that improve the lives of all Americans -- I think that's a "liberal" idea. I think the idea that race is at times an insurmountable handicap in American life is a "liberal" idea. I think that the idea that what class you belong to largely determines your economic future is a "liberal" idea.


Truth is probably not knowable, but facts are knowable. It is either 72 degrees outside my window or it isn't. You can't balance the report on 72 degrees with one that says it's 58 degrees -- that's stupid. And all of the journalists I have known in, oh God, 44 years in the business have wanted to get the facts right. All of them.

The key to why the word "liberal" has been so bastardized and demonized is here. The media, in its craven attempt to appear evenhanded on every issue, no matter how ridiculous, has let it happen unchallenged. So, for that matter, have liberals themselves. They have sat back while Oxycontin Limbaugh and the rest of the Hitler Youth have merrily defined terms down, relating most explicitly to the latent and overt feelings of emasculation their fans project.

This is not speculation; this is what's been happening. There is no other reason for it to be on this grand of a scale, but the fact of the matter is, a cornerstone of the Republican propaganda agenda -- since at least the Reagan years -- has been to effectively demonize the Democrats by rhetorically emasculating them, portraying them as effete, feminized pussies.

Sadly, the Democrats and liberals have played right into this nonsense. They either don't understand that politics no longer abides by quaint Marquess of Queensberry rules, or they naively feel that adopting similar tactics would take them down to that level.

It's the quintessential starving musician question -- do you want a hit song, so you can have the long-term financial freedom to do what you want, while still churning out an occasional pop-tart, or do you want to starve with your precious integrity intact?

Guess which the Democrats have chosen, deliberately or not. And it's not as if they got to keep that integrity in the bargain.

As much of a breath of fresh air as Carroll's first part was, it is today's second half which I take some issue with.

Look: Newspapers are a human enterprise run by fallible beings. Surgeons make mistakes; accountants make mistakes; journalists make mistakes. As Steven Winn pointed out last week, we apologize too darn much for making mistakes. Of course we're sorry, but the quest for perfection is just that, a quest. We never get there. You never get there. We hate hate hate it when we get facts wrong, but we are actually after bigger game.

So far, so good, but I submit that one reason the mistakes seem to be piling up these days is because of corporate cost-cutting. Used to be a respectable newspaper would have fact-checkers on staff; it is as boring as it sounds, but it serves a purpose. Corporate news divisions have been eviscerated over the last couple decades, most prominently in overseas news bureaus. You think that if a media outlet is willing to kill off or pare down an entire staff, that the fact-checker -- who is usually a low-rent college intern to begin with -- isn't just about the first one out the door?

Mitch Albom, a columnist in Detroit, was almost fired because he said two basketball players attended a game that they had not, in fact, attended. It was wrong, but -- who was hurt? What damage was done? The United States is hiring untrained teenagers and making them prison guards in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Mitch Albom is the problem? Come bloody on.

Here is where we differ a bit. I wouldn't equate Mitch Albom's transgression with that of murderous prison guards in our Gulag Of Freedom™, but that doesn't mean he's not a symptom of an overall problem with the media. Look, the guy makes his living writing bullshit puff pieces anyway. But the fact is, he wrote a story about the final game of the NCAA Tournament as if he were there. He deliberately gave the impression he was there. We can assume he had a reason for this. Perhaps "flavor" was the reason, but whatever.

The fact is, two players that Albom had talked to on the phone the night before the game, who said they were going to attend, and whom Albom overtly implied in his "you are there" article had been there right near him (Albom), changed their minds at the last minute and did not attend the game, leaving poor Mitch's pecker to the wind, wondering about the next five people he'd meet in hell.

So no, it didn't hurt anyone, but it's the principle of the matter. If you present yourself as a serious writer, a chronicler of factual events, and you get caught with your pants down, don't be so surprised when someone makes fun of the size of your doodle.

Look, it's not a coincidence that Jon Stewart and Bill Maher -- two professional comedians -- are doing more serious news analysis with their respective programs than any mainstream news program out there right now, and it's not even close. Remember 48 Hours the "newsmagazine"? It was originally envisioned as a companion program to 60 Minutes (hence the time-reference name). Long ago they dropped the pretense, and have done nothing but Scott Peterson retreads, long before Peterson ever got the notion to kill his wife. Same with Dateline, a show that originally was supposed to compete against 60 Minutes on its own turf -- it's nothing but crap now. 20/20, same thing.

Maybe you recall a short-lived news show back in the day called West 57th, featuring a fresh-faced rookie reporter named Meredith Vieira. Vieira long ago traded in her dreams of credibility for a cushy seat just out of Barbara Walters' talk-spit-range, a game-show chair, and a comfy cushion for a nation's fantasies of milf pillow fights between Vieira and Paula Zahn.

Again, if you don't want to get called a "media whore", then quit wearing a halter-top and fuck-me pumps. There is a reason the public is giving up on you.

Do the media do awful stuff? You bet they do. Should the media strive to get better? You bet they should. Should they stop cravenly caving in to every hack with a megaphone? Absolutely -- we do our best, and without us, citizens would really be in trouble. We're a goddamn bastion, and it would be nice if we acted proud of that once in a while.

And this, ladies, fish, and gentlemen, is my main beef with the so-called SCLM. They don't seem to realize that the gang of corporate yokels has treed a bear, and that they (the media) are that metaphorical bear. A cornered animal has exactly two options -- fight or die. And the media has demonstrated a complete unwillingness -- if not inability -- to fight.

As Carroll points out, they are the gatherers and collators and distributors of information, in an Age of Information. They must have some dirt, some compelling truth, that would both illuminate the nature of their persecutors and inform the American people, who are being led around by their dicks.

And yet they are craven and corrupt. They think that if they roll over and show their bellies at every opportunity, their attackers will stop baiting them. They think that if they let themselves be co-opted into carrying water for this metastasized tumor of an administration, they'll get great seats at the next press conference. Sure, why not? Hell, maybe if you tongue Rumsfeld's balls, he'll slip you a couple tickets to the next Black Tie & Boots Ball.

The point is, you can't respect someone who has no self-respect. I don't blame Carroll here; I think he's one of the "good guys". But he's out of the corporate loop, willingly. He has no use for the blandishments your average media tool actively seeks out. His entreaties, while valid, are orthogonal to the problem at hand.

Even when the media tries to present "both sides" of a matter, they do it in a ham-fisted manner. They allow the "2+2=6" argument of creationism to be presented right alongside the "2+2=4" empirical argument of evolution, with little or no objective commentary. They are treated equally, as if they were mere differences of opinion, rather than an empirically-based scientific theory versus religious dogma.

The implicit message is that maybe we should just agree that 2+2=5, just so we can all get along. Maybe we should collectively pretend that Hamid Karzai's and Gen. Richard Myers' explicit rebuttals of Scott McClellan's now self-rebutted claims about Newsweek causing deadly riots have no meaning. Words, in this pomo dystopia, are no longer used for meaning, but rather for effect.

Do you think that qualifies as a "liberal" media -- or for that matter, a responsible one? I don't.


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