Snipers posing as journalists.

September 8, 2009 | By | 10 Replies More

This month’s issue of The Atlantic includes a detailed and thoughtful article by Mark Bowden, “The Story Behind the Story.” For 25 years, Bowden worked as a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Using the media frenzy over Sonia Sotomayor’s isolated phrase “wise Latina” as his case study,  Bowden keenly describes what has happened to journalism before our very eyes.   Not that it was obvious while it was happening, which brings to mind George Orwell’s: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”  And just look what is now in front of our noses:

Image by speedfighter17 at Dreamstime.com (with permission)

Image by speedfighter17 at Dreamstime.com (with permission)

With journalists being laid off in droves, ideologues have stepped forward to provide the “reporting” that feeds the 24-hour news cycle. The collapse of journalism means that the quest for information has been superseded by the quest for ammunition . . .

The reporting we saw on TV and on the Internet that day was the work not of journalists, but of political hit men. . . . This process—political activists supplying material for TV news broadcasts—is not new, of course. It has largely replaced the work of on-the-scene reporters during political campaigns, which have become, in a sense, perpetual. The once-quadrennial clashes between parties over the White House are now simply the way our national business is conducted. In our exhausting 24/7 news cycle, demand for timely information and analysis is greater than ever. With journalists being laid off in droves, savvy political operatives have stepped eagerly into the breach. What’s most troubling is not that TV-news producers mistake their work for journalism, which is bad enough, but that young people drawn to journalism increasingly see no distinction between disinterested reporting and hit-jobbery.

All you need to join the modern fray is a laptop and an internet connection.  Not that Bowden is dissing the idea of citizen journalists.  Far from it, bloggers of all stripes have often kept the mainstream media honest.  Nonetheless, we now live in an era where it is easy for an idealogue to pose as a journalist in his or her spare time, Bowden is proposing that journalism has morphed into post-journalism, an enterprise where balanced truth-seeking is not a prerequisite.  Rather the enterprise  of post-journalism usually like a sport and, quite often, it is war:

The truth is something that emerges from the cauldron of debate. No, not the truth: victory, because winning is way more important than being right. Power is the highest achievement. There is nothing new about this. But we never used to mistake it for journalism. Today it is rapidly replacing journalism, leading us toward a world where all information is spun, and where all “news” is unapologetically propaganda.

The search for conflict certainly makes economic sense.  Conflict screams for our attention and, of course, it sells ads.  What’s more interesting:  A) Jack and Jill take a walk or B) Jack and Jill have an argument?   What’s more compelling, batting practice or a real ballgame.  What’s more compelling: peaceful protests, or protests involving rock-throwing and teargas?  We are, all of us, addicted to conflict pornography. We no longer see much need to listen to people who disagree with us, not when its socially acceptable to villainize them.  As Bowden comments,  “The other side is no longer the honorable opposition, maybe partly right; but rather always wrong, stupid, criminal, even downright evil.” And again, bringing down one’s opponent, especially while one is filled with Nietzschean ressentiment, feels fun.

What does Bowden propose as a solution?  It’s not looking good:

Unless someone quickly finds a way to make disinterested reporting pay, to compensate the modern equivalent of the ink-stained wretch (the carpal-tunnel curmudgeon?), the Web may yet bury [press critic A. J.] Liebling’s cherished profession. Who, after all, is willing to work for free?

While reading Bowden’s article I kept thinking that the same thing that has infected journalism has spread to politics.  Yes, politics has always been contentious.  But now our political system is so wrought with anger and accusations (and corruption) that it seem absolutely incapable of dealing with any major problem.  I suspect that the causal arrow points from journalism to politics on this–that if we could somehow mute the fake journalists, our politicians might be better able to calm down and work better with each other.   Total speculation, I know, and I’m not optimistic about seeing the sad state of journalism improve.

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Category: Media, Politics, Psychology Cognition

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.

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  1. What's more interesting? War or Peace? | Dangerous Intersection | April 8, 2010
  1. Erich Vieth says:

    For a relevant cross-reference, see this post concerning Bill Moyers. http://dangerousintersection.org/2009/09/06/just-

  2. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Erich-

    I'm not so sure about the direction of the causal arrow that you talk about in your last paragraph. I'm not even sure there is a causal arrow. Journalists and politicians both operate within the broader cultural milieu, which colors not only their spin on a given issue, but also the ways in which the public interprets what is being said. In other words, is increasing polarization the fault of the media, politicians, the political process, the public, some combination of the above, or none of the above?

    That being said, I can't dispute that the way news is manufactured has undergone some dramatic changes with the advent of the internet, just as it did with the age of television. The ways in which those changes impact our political system certainly deserve ongoing scrutiny. On balance though, I think I'd prefer a world in which there are a million transparently biased voices weighing in on an issue than one in which there are a handful major media conglomerations transmitting their allegedly non-biased and disinterested view. It's always up to the consumer to determine the "truth", whether one gathers the news from the Wall St. Journal, Fox News, or DailyKos.

  3. NIklaus Pfirsig says:

    In the simplest terminology, journalism, the unbiased reporting of events, is being replaced with Op-Ed (Opinion Editorial) masquerading as journalism.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Brynn: I'm not a big fan of much of the work product of the corporate media, but I do realize that much of the accurate and important information on which citizens (and yes, bloggers) rely still originates with the corporate media. They sometimes still get things right and they sometimes present it in eminently balanced ways. But, as you note, many members of the corporate media are not transparent.

    With regard to those thousands of citizen "journalists," though, I'm not convinced that they are transparent either. Some of them wear their viewpoints on their sleeves, but many of them don't–they just write things, thousands of things on their own websites and as comments everywhere else. And there are too many of them out there to know the axes that they are each grinding and the skeletons in each of their closets (to mix metaphors).

    On a site like this, readers can click on the author's name (on the bottom right of every page) and read a sampling of posts to see who the author really is and whether we are taking the time to be self-critical. Heck, many of use our real names, something I've quite proud of.

    The problem with most of the mass of bloggers/readers/commenters, though, is that we tend to engage with them purely as anonymous posters of claims and accusations–many of them are truly anonymous and others are functionally anonymous (we might know their name, but we just don't know anything else about them other than they posted THIS THING).

    My struggle, then, is that there is no practical ability to WEIGH what I read from most of the people who post things on the internet as I can weigh the credibility of Amy Goodman or Sean Hannity (to give two very different examples) based on their track records. When these people who are regularly in the public eye make assertions, I can put the information into more meaningful context because I know, for example, that Amy Goodman is highly self-critical and that she treasures primary sources telling their own stories whereas Sean Hannity is essentially honking out op-eds, and that I can pretty well predict that he would say about many thing before he even opens his mouth.

    How do we sift the wheat from the chaff when it comes to the millions of citizen journalists? To some extent, we can do it by double-checking their claims with our own independent research as best we can, but in the aggregate, we can barely scratch the surface.

    Getting information from the Internet is like trying to get a drink out of a fire hydrant. Practically speaking, there's no substitute for being skeptical (or putting our trust in news aggregators and commentators who are skeptical) about many of the claims we hear. What is truth? I don't know how to answer that, but I do know that to get closer to the truth requires a lot of work and a lot of self-critical analysis.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Niklaus: I don't know if there is such a thing as "unbiased reporting," but I do know that the news sources I respect are those who visit a wide variety of perspectives along the entire continuum. To clarify, reporting only the shrill endpoints of the continuum is entirely insufficient. This technique of leaving out "the middle" is incredibly misleading and I blame this technique for much of what passes for "journalism" today.

  6. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Erich-

    You're quite right- there's no practical way to discern the background of the legion anonymous bloggers or commenters on the internet. But I doubt that you do that with the author of a New York Times piece either. Despite all of the lip-service paid to the ideal of independent, un-biased journalism, such a thing simply does not exist. Are there people that get duped into believing falsehoods by things that they uncritically read online? Yes, but I would argue the same is true of the mainstream media as well. Certainly bloggers rely on the mainstream press for much of the primary reporting on any given issue. But bloggers are therefore constrained, to a certain extent, to focus upon the same topics as the mass media. For example, the New York Times held off on breaking the story of Bush's illegal wiretapping for over a year. So there could be no debate, no partisan rancor, no chance to distort any positions on the issue because the mainstream media was complicit in keeping the story secret. That is one example of what I mean when I say that there are clearly biases in the media as well–biases that one would do well to keep in mind. If they can hold off on reporting that blockbuster story for a year, what kinds of small details are left out of the daily news?

    Everyone has a perspective- paid mainstream journalists, editors, and their paymasters included. I think you're absolutely correct in the need to be skeptical of the claims we hear– I would simply include the mainstream media in that caveat.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    Today I received this Email from Josh Silver of Free Press

    Fox News Channel headliner Glenn Beck has turned his nightly program into a megaphone of misinformation. He just took down presidential adviser Van Jones, one of our most visionary and principled young leaders. What happened to Jones is outrageous. President Obama should have ignored the media's smear campaign and rejected all calls for Jones' ouster. This madness is a failure not only of the media, but of our president to stand up against modern-day McCarthyism:

    Emboldened by their success, Glenn Beck and other right-wing blowhards have begun media witch hunts against people in all aspects of public life. If we don't speak out now, the champions of the issues you care about will be run out of Washington.

    Surveys show that most Americans want health care reform, good schools and clean air. But if you watch Glenn Beck's show, you would think the opposite is true: that the only proponents of these ideas are dangerous, anti-American radicals operating out of the White House basement.

    I'm urging you to take a stand with me and sign this open letter to the president. Glenn Beck's fear-mongering is endemic to a media system that cares more about ratings than about the truth. We need President Obama to take a stand against such hysteria, which only distracts us from the real issues at hand.

    Here’s the letter Free Press proposes we send to Obama:

    The loudmouths of mainstream television and radio have turned media into a megaphone for smear campaigns against public servants and innocent Americans. Our leaders need to know that these media blowhards don’t speak for us.

    It’s time to condemn merchants of misinformation like Glenn Beck, and work together to foster a media system in which diverse perspectives aren’t drowned out by the rants of a few.

  8. Ramona says:

    Talk about misinformation. Glenn Beck didn't take down Van Jones. Either Obama threw Van under the bus or Van stepped down. This is just business as usual. Remember Bork? The Clarence Thomas hearings? Harriet Myers? Zoe Baird? Kimba Wood? Linda Chavez?

    I think Josh Silver's expectations for the Obama adminstration are unrealistic. Some folks just get chewed up and spit out when they get picked for office. It is just the way it is.

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    San Francisco radio station 910 KNEW has dropped conservative talk-show host Michael Savage from its lineup. This was arguably his flagship station.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/09/11/michael-

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