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May 29, 2008

It comes from the top

-- by John Emerson

From Glenn Greenwald:

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think the press corps dropped the ball at the beginning. When the lead-up to the war began, the press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war that was presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president's high approval ratings.

And my own experience at the White House was that, the higher the president's approval ratings, the more pressure I had from news executives -- and I was not at this network at the time -- but the more pressure I had from news executives to put on positive stories about the president.

I am a big fan of the media critics Atrios, Brad DeLong, Eric Alterman, and above all Bob Somerby. For years (in the case of Alterman and Somerby', for at least ten years) they've been documenting the shallowness, inaccuracy, dishonesty and ultimate Republican slant of the media -- especially TV and radio, but also including such highly respected publications as the New York Times and the Washington Post.

However, they tend to be too willing to slip into the "Heathers" or "Villagers" explanation. Supposedly the media are staffed by a bunch of silly, shallow, people who only talk to each other and who, for example, did what they did to sabotage Al Gore's Presidential run because he annoyed their silly high school sensibilities.

I've always believed that it was a management problem, and I think that Greenwald's post confirms that I've been right. This does not mean that the Heathers are not silly people, and it doesn't mean that they're not culpable. But the people whose names we see are quite literally hirelings and lackeys (albeit very well paid hirelings and lackeys). They give management what it wants.

Greenwald gives several more examples, and over the years there have been dozens of reporters whose newspaper careers ended (or dead-ended) because of excessively accurate reporting -- Seymour Hersh is only the most eminent of them. (To Greenwald's list of recent suppressions, I'd like to add the case of Lara Logan, who tried to start an email campaign to keep her bosses at CBS from suppressing a story).

Every time that I make the claim that responsibility should be assigned to management rather than to individual reporters, the reflex "conspiracy theorist" accusation shoots back at me so quickly that I have to ask whether my statement even reached the cerebral cortex at all. All I claim is that management manages and that reporters can be hired, fired, promoted, and demoted, but people respond with abstruse theories proving that management does not, and can not, manage. And claim that I'm the crazy one, not them.

As for management's motives, I have no way of knowing them. My present guess is that the owners and managers of the big media are pro-war, are responsive to the favors that the federal government hands out, and want low taxes (and an end to the estate tax, which is a major factor for the few family-owned publications: see here). They are not right wing on most other issues, but the Bush administration really isn't either -- by now they've double-crossed most of their conservative ideological constituencies. (That is to say, the nativists, the cultural conservatives, the fiscal conservatives, and above all the little-government conservatives.)

I'm sure that organized winger pressure is a factor too, but the public opinion isn't the reason: the big media have always been more hawkish and more anti-tax than public opinion has been. A much bigger factor is advertiser pressure, since advertising pays all the bills for TV and radio and most of the bills for newspapers. Advertisers all have their own political agendas and have never been shy about pushing them; furthermore, a substantial proportion of high-end advertising is institutional advertising -- e.g., for oil companies -- which is intended to promote a company, rather than to sell any specific product.

Of course, Chomsky and company said all this twenty years ago. Maybe we shouldn't have been tuning those guys out all that time.

Posted by John Emerson at May 29, 2008 8:00 AM

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Comments

This is such an important story because of the implications for the election. We do not have an independent, free press. We have a corporate-controlled information environment that operates in the interests of the people who control the corporate apparatus. This means they will be pushing McCain very hard, without regard for journalistic standards.

Posted by: Dave Johnson [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 29, 2008 7:43 AM

Katie Couric said much the same thing as Yellin yesterday (also on CNN).

Posted by: "Q" the Enchanter at May 29, 2008 8:47 AM

Ah, and now that I clicked over I see Greenwald mentioned that alread...

Posted by: "Q" the Enchanter at May 29, 2008 8:50 AM

I don't know that it works this directly. Since the mid-1990s at the latest, media outlets have been financially pressed. Newspapers are afraid that they won't survive for many more years; TV networks, having been bought up by conglomerates, have come to regard the news division as just another profit center. Also, like people in most industries, journalists have been pressed to do their work with fewer resources. Accordingly, I suspect that a culture of lowered expectations has taken hold: journalists are not necessarily aware that they're trying to entertain and please at least as much as they're trying to inform.

Posted by: ChristianPinko at May 29, 2008 9:40 AM

Terrific post. Of course, some creative class types will just never get it.

Speaking of my betters, Obamacan Michael Bérubé has a book coming out on this very subject. In the spirit of post-partisanship, the first thing he does is dis Chomsky. Bérubé argues it is not so much the corporate agenda but rather the wayward, inexplicably synchronized, views of our leading infotainers which is shaping our public discourse. What we need are better infotainers:

*************************
OK, well, I have a whole entire book coming out next year, and one of its arguments is that the "corporate media" complaint doesn't quite get at what's wrong with American mass media. (The longer version has to do with a decade-and-a-half long friendly argument I've been having with fellow Cafégoer Todd Gitlin, who knows very well what's wrong with the "manufacturing consent" argument- and the theory of "false consciousness" on which it depends-

[snip]

There is no question that mass media can and do dupe people:

[snip]

But that does not mean that the "media dupe people" theory should stand in for sustained left analysis of how the winning of popular consent actually works in civil society; for when it becomes axiomatic, it degenerates into an all-purpose excuse for the left's many strategies of self-marginalization.

[I]t's awfully tempting to conclude that Ye Olde Marxists are right, and that the shills of the corporate media are deliberately preventing any real issues from coming to the table (except, perhaps, for the real issue of the terrible pain that will be felt by households making over $200,000 a year if the tax-and-spend Democrat Party has its way). And yet the truth, I fear, is much worse.

Things would actually be simpler if the American commentariat was composed merely of corporate shills. Instead, it's composed also of pathological, Chris Matthewsian misogynists, rabid foaming Glenn Becks, Tim Russert the Terrible Trivium, and, of course, David "Red Man Tobacco and Pabst Blue Ribbon" Brooks...

[snip]

The point is that we are not dealing merely with a "corporate" media. That would be bad enough. We are dealing instead with a deeply decadent and deeply entrenched class of courtiers in the late stages of Bloated Beltway Media Empire, one of whose pastimes is chattering on about the folkways of the salt of the earth (bowling, shots-and-beer, guns, God)...
***************************

You see we are the victims of an unfortunate series of random coincidences coming out of corporate media personnel offices...By the way, which candidate has been the darling of the Bloated Beltway Media this Democratic primary season?

(Coming soon to a television near you: Sen. Chuck Hagel, the type of right wing wing-nut the Dems need on their ticket.)

Posted by: CMike at May 29, 2008 11:42 AM

Berube disappointed me with that piece. He didn't seem to want to leave any room for argument: Chomsky is wrong, and that's the story. I couldn't quite tell what he was getting at and probably should look at his book.

Posted by: John Emerson at May 29, 2008 11:53 AM

Shorter Berube: Chomsky's model is wrong and we can't let its truth be an excuse for political failure.

Posted by: "Q" the Enchanter at May 29, 2008 3:18 PM

Posted by: lemmy caution at May 29, 2008 4:18 PM

The best explanation I've seen is that the media outlets serve the business interests of their corporate overlords.

Posted by: Horatio Parker at May 29, 2008 8:32 PM

I have a hard time reading that excerpt from Berube as asserting that Chomsky is wrong. In his two "merely"s I read "Not only is Chomsky correct about the management's intent to manufacture consent, but on top of that there is an entire spectrum of other pathologies further muddying the water."

Posted by: W. Kiernan at May 30, 2008 2:01 PM

I've always thought media support for the war was rooted in media companies' reliance on FCC licensing agreements--if you crossed the administration, you might loose out on an important market...

Posted by: lbd at June 11, 2008 10:27 AM

However, they tend to be too willing to slip into the "Heathers" or "Villagers" explanation.

I think the Heathers mentality flows from the corporate management structure you describe. The organizations where you see the kind of catty backbiting and bullying are those that are very heirarchical with lower ranks that are relatively powerless and attacking each other to compete for favor from the powerful higher ranks -- like high school, prison or large, centralized corporations.

As for the politics of the management, I think they are scared stupid of offending advertisers or their superiors, so they default without much thought to a cringing pro-corporate, pro-jingoistic stance that is almost a parody of itself, that won't offend anyone who could negatively influence their careers.

In most of these organizations you get ahead not by being brilliant (most managers are dull, lickspittle 'team player' followers), but by not making waves and not making any 'mistakes' that attract attention, like controversial journalism that draws critical phone calls to your boss from a bullying White House.

Posted by: Mike G at June 11, 2008 10:56 PM

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