Tragedy and Farce: how the American media lost its way

April 6, 2007 | By | 1 Reply More

I was recently provided with a copy of Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sells Wars, Spend Election’s, and Destroy Democracy, by John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney. Written in 2005, this book is a great way to get an historical perspective on the state of journalism in America.  “How bad have things gotten?” you might ask.

Our media system has become so dysfunctional that it repeatedly shows its willingness to stenographically report the Bush administration’s spin as truth “while rejecting expressions of reality as manifestations of partisanship that must be balanced with more spin.”  (Page 4) The authors write that the media is a “lumbering and lazy media” that is ideally suited to the whims of “Karl Rove and the thousands of other paid liars.”

Our media system is so bad that American political discourse has become “meaningless.”  There is no better way to exemplify the bankruptcy of the media system than the March 2003 press conference at which George Bush was not challenged by anyone in the Washington press corps with regard to the preemptive war he was about to launch.  The members of the press “asked him not a single probing question about the flimsy case that had been made for war, nor its likely costs, nor about anything akin to an exit strategy.”

The authors argue that our elite reporters no longer show passion for truth, but rather passion only for access to those who wield power.  Reporters for major media outlets have become “celebrity content providers” who play it safe and avoid all controversy, unless those who hold power choose to air public disputes with others who wield power. Unless an issue is being publicly debated by those in power, it becomes invisible to modern media.  For it to be raised by the media when it is being hidden by politicians often draws the charge that the media is arrogant and partisan.

Consider this comment by the New York World, which published comments made by President Theodore Roosevelt followed by this disclaimer:

To the best of the World’s knowledge and belief, each and all of these statements made by Mr. Roosevelt and quoted above are untrue, and Mr. Roosevelt must have known they were untrue when he made them.

(Page 6) As Nichols and McChesney argue, “an assessment of a president’s credibility this blunt is unimaginable today”; members of the media have simply stopped challenging the President on credibility and basic factual claims.

This book looks hard for a bottom line cause for the problems with the media system.  That cause is not incompetent or corrupt journalists or owners, but “a highly concentrated profit driven media system that makes it rational to gut journalism and irrational to provide the content a free society so desperately requires.”  (Page ix)  there are plenty of conspiracies between government officials and the media, including paid access, Swift boating, and embedded journalists, but these conspiracies don’t hold a candle to the pressures on journalism resulting from the consolidation of media ownership.  Mainstream media treats Americans as consumers, not citizens.  “The theory in the boardrooms is that consumers are attracted by entertainment, rather than information.”

Nichols and McChesney argue that democracy sustaining journalism has three components.

It must be a rigorous watchdog of those in power and those who wish to be in power; it must present a wide range of informed views on the most pressing issues of the day; and it must be able to expose deception and permit the truth to rise to the top… the contemporary US media system flunks this test.  In this book we measure the caliber of our journalism by looking at the two central tests of a free press: how well it monitors the war-making power of the government and permits the citizenry to intervene to prevent military adventurism; and how well it empowers citizens to effectively conduct elections for leadership of the government.  The results of those tests do not present a pretty picture. 

(Page 12).  The authors note that “objectivity” has been a relatively recent development in journalism.  For the first hundred years of our republic, journalism was “highly opinionated and partisan.”  Partisan journalism has strengths such as the ability to contextualize political issues, which provided meaning to the facts reported.  Partisan journalism also drew people into public life, which resulted in higher voter turnouts.  On the other hand, a partisan press can degenerate into “shameless lying and blatant propaganda.”  The authors suggest that one possible remedy is to have a wide range of partisan viewpoints available. 

As newspapers became more commercial, they actively sought to generate larger numbers of readers leading to “sensationalism, blatant fabrication of stories, widespread bribing of journalists and all sorts of other disreputable measures.”  During the 20th century, newspapers consolidated to the point where many cities now only have one daily paper.  In fact, “there has not been a single profitable new daily newspaper established in the United States in an existing market since World War II.”  Throughout the 20th century, newspapers became larger and were owned by wealthy owners.  They were “in bed with those who owned and controlled the community.”

The result was “professional journalism,” an attempt to put a Chinese wall between owners and editors.  The problem, however, is that journalists “can never be objective.”  Journalists always write from a viewpoint.  Reporters internalize these viewpoints and write their stories, often unaware of their own viewpoints. According to McChesney and Nichols, most mainstream journalists have internalized the following three notions which guide their choices of stories and their methods of writing:

  • A) corporate power is largely benevolent;
  • B) capitalism is synonymous with democracy and
  • C) the United States is a force for good in the world.

The authors recommend that professional journalists can do a good job, but only if they “stand outside of partisan institutions,” assume the perspective of those outside of power and “Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”  Seymour Hersh, Bill Moyers, Charles Lewis and Amy Goodman are recommended as good examples of this new approach of consciously taking perspectives outside of partisan institutions.

The authors, who were founders of Free Press, explained that media reform is of particular interest to progressives due to its “commitment to a democratic society.  True media of reform “draws the citizenry into active public life.  This value is not as common among conservatives, although it is found among principled conservatives.”  True media reform needs to be both progressive in a sense, as well as nonpartisan (not getting caught up in supporting specific politicians or parties).  Effective media reform works hard to “make media policy a legitimate political issue, an issue that all politicians and parties need to address.”

This is a terrific book, with chapters on the embedded a war in media coverage of elections.  The book was written in 2005, prior to the most recent National Conference on Media Reform in Memphis (January, 2007), which took the principles espoused by the authors ever further. 


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Category: American Culture, Iraq, Media, Politics, Reading - Books and Magazines, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (1)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    This topic and this post raise so many important issues that it is difficult to know where to start. I am probably more cynical than Erich, so I will begin by highlighting the following two sentences in his post:

    "This book looks hard for a bottom line cause for the problems with the media system."


    “'The theory in the boardrooms is that consumers are attracted by entertainment, rather than information.'”

    The authors of that book search for an answer that is staring them in the face, but which they apparently just do not want to believe: that too many Americans are shallow, lazy and apathetic, at least when it comes to politics, and are getting exactly what they want from their media. The "theory in the boardrooms" that consumers "are attracted by entertainment rather than information" is not a theory that boardrooms fabricate out of thin air; it is a theory based on reliable market research data and proven, over and over again, by subscription sales numbers. Anemic journalism is not the disease of American democracy; the disease is vacuous, narcissistic America consumers, and anemic journalism is merely one of the many visible symptoms.

    America is becoming less a democracy than a zoo: as long as the animals are fed and entertained, they stay peacefully in their cages. That's what zoo managers want, and it's what politicians want, too.

    What is the solution? Well, bashing corporate media giants probably isn't it. At the very least, we need to stop pretending American mainstream media should be what we might want it to be and start viewing it for what it is: merely a slightly less sensational version of the National Enquirer. Americans need to think more like Europeans, who, for decades, have realized that newspapers are merely rags with which to line the bottoms of their birdcages. Many European newspapers are way ahead of their American counterparts when it comes to vacuous writing; accordingly, Europeans have simply recalibrated their expectations. Americans need to do likewise, at least until such time that American mainstream media companies change their business model.

    One bright spot I see is that ownership of printing presses is becoming less and less of a barrier to entry for aspiring journalists, because more and more Americans are going to the Internet for their news. Unlike paper-based media (newspapers and magazines), the Internet does not require a large capital investment in printing equipment, so it is accessible to a wider range of authors. Indeed, if paper is desired, even that can be economically printed on a small scale (i.e., newsletters) with a home computer or even a handheld PDA. Barring efforts by the media conglomerates to privatize (and then control) the Internet, this trend seems likely to continue. Or even accelerate, as computer prices continue to fall and as more people around the globe go online. Also, though it still too early to tell, broadband prices also seem likely to drop as wireless companies expand their infrastructure.

    Yes, the American media has, indeed, lost its way; yes, it is a tragedy and a farce, but I hope that blogs like this one will continue to provide insightful views and analysis, and perhaps even prod more people to demand better content from the MSM.

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