Sunday, January 25, 2009

Our American press: still doing a heckuva job (Updated: 01/27/09)

Digby makes a great characterization of our sad excuse for an American news media in The Refs Hulaballoo blog 01/24/09. She makes a good statement of why the Establishment press winds up helping conservatives more than liberals even though it's not a problem of ideological bias as such:

The problem has never been that members of the media are conservative, although plenty of them are. The problem is that they are subject to sophisticated manipulation by the permanent political establishment (which is conservative by definition) and live and work in a world in which conventional wisdom cannot be freely challenged. And after many years of being called the "liberal media" they are still sensitive to the charge that they are in the tank and feel the need to prove their credibility. (The left's media critique has no similar slogan --- or clout --- unfortunately.) This ads up to a media which is now feeling the need to prove their "independence" --- and that never works out well for the liberal program. [my emphasis]
I'll interject here that the last comment isn't strictly accurate. There are times that the media dysfunction helps liberals in the short run, the obsession with Sarah Palin's clothes being one recent example.

But in the longer run, it's true that current media dysfunction works against liberals and, more importantly, popular interests. That's why Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby is constantly warning Democrats to be careful about applauding when some bonehead media obsession benefits Dems in the short run. Because in any time horizon past, oh, a couple of weeks or so, the results are horrible from a Democratic perspective.

The political establishment and the right wing noise machine are very, very good at this. They've been doing it for decades and their methods are far more nuanced and subtle than Rush Limbaugh screaming that he wants Obama to fail (although Limbaugh plays a part in this by legitimizing those who are playing a smoother game but are no less hostile.) They have the ability to manipulate the press to sabotage the progressive agenda through the building of false expectations, propaganda, social pressure, tabloid scandal and a long term commitment to the indoctrination among the people of ideological dogma. It's a very well-developed strategy and it doesn't suffer from Republican political failure because it exists outside of, and in spite of, electoral politics.

The problem with the press is far more complicated than a simple matter of fairness or even stultifying conventional wisdom, which as Jay Rosen explains in this widely read and important post, is hugely influential. It's also a matter of their own lack of self-awareness and inability to either see or fight the pressures to conform that are brought to bear by powerful interests and institutions. [my emphasis]

Jay Rosen's article refers back to a book by Daniel Hallin, The Uncensored War: The Media and the Vietnam War (1986). He explains that in the coverage of the Vietnam War, the mass media established three distinct "spheres" of opinion: the sphere of legitimate debate; the sphere of consensus; and, the sphere of deviance.

These kinds of academic distinctions can be useful and necessary in discussing a phenomenon such as the one on which Hallin focused.

But I don't find that this particular framework provides any particular insight to the functioning of today's American political press. They describe a process that isn't defined by quality. What I mean is, the very best press would also operate on some kind of assumption that there are some issues on which there is consensus, some on which there is meaningful debate, and some opinions that it's a waste of time to take seriously. Part of the liberal critique of our current press dysfunction is that it makes bad decisions in establishing those "spheres".

The debate over evolution, for instance, is not a debate between different kinds of science. It's a debate between science and non-science. And the reporting on this issue often fails to make that clear. People who present creationism as a scientific theory are scamsters. A responsible news media should place such dishonest in what Hallin called the "sphere of deviance".

There are ten thousand kinds of crackpots out there on almost any issue we can imagine. But if someone is saying the Moon is made of rocks and soil, and someone else is saying the Moon is made of green cheese, no responsible news media should treat those two claims as somehow equally valid in some sort of "this side says, the other side says" coverage.

The issues on which Digby focuses in her comments are much more relevant to understanding the dysfunction of today's American media. Corporate pressures, an entertainment focus, habits shaped by decades of conservative yowling against the "Liberal Press", and often just a plain lack of sensible thinking are major issues. If some of those problems could be fixed or reduced, there would still be Hallin's three "spheres". But there would be better judgment about what belongs in which sphere.

And let's not forget about just plain sloppiness, which has really become a serious problem for our high-end press. I posted a couple of days ago about a ditsy column by David "Bobo" Brooks, in which he referred to a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study of Obama's stimulus package. He usually refers to the theme of his Friday New York Times column during his weekly appearance with alleged liberal and McCain admirer Mark Shields. On their 01/23/09 segment, he did just that, bringing up the CBO report.

Only one problem: there was no CBO report! [Update 01/27/09: The ever vigilant Bob Somerby in his Daily Howler post of 01/27/09 scolds liberal bloggers for using language saying that there was no such report. I agree that it's a potentially misleading formulation.]

Via dday at Hulaballoo (Factcheckers 01/23/09), Controversial CBO Report On Stimulus Turns Out Not To Exist by Ryan Grim Huffington Post 01/23/09:

Reports of a recent study by the Congressional Budget Office, showing that the vast majority of the money in the stimulus package won't be spent until after 2010, have Democrats on the defensive and the GOP calling for a pullback in wasteful spending.

Funny thing is, there is no such report.

"We did not issue any report, any analysis or any study," a CBO aide told the Huffington Post.

Rather, the nonpartisan CBO ran a small portion of an earlier version of the stimulus plan through a computer program that uses a standard formula to determine a score -- how quickly money will be spent. The score only dealt with the part of the stimulus headed for the Appropriations Committee and left out the parts bound for the Ways and Means or Energy and Commerce Committee.

Because it dealt with just a part of the stimulus, it estimated the spending rate for only about $300 billion of the $825 billion plan. Significant changes have been made to the part of the bill the CBO looked at.
Dday also observes:

Thing is, the new head of the Office of Management and Budget promptly refuted this study, with numbers and everything, but he wasn't really part of the news reports. He said/she said balance would have been an IMPROVEMENT upon this fiasco. But conservatives rule their world.
Your press corps at work. Democracy can't survive with a press this dysfunctional.

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