Thursday, June 25, 2009

Bob Nietzsche Somerby on reporters exposing "lies"

Bob Somerby's Daily Howler column often reminds me of reading Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Anyone that has spent some time wrestling with Nietzsche's work has encountered passages that seemed at first glance to be wild polemics that, on closer inspection and in the context of the larger work, are actually well-thought-out analysis. His concept of Judaism and Christianity as being based on "slave morality" comes to mind.

Somerby is in full Nietzschian mode in his post of 06/25/09 as he undertakes rhetorical jihads against Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Eugene Robinson for a frivolous obsession with stories of sex and adultery ("We're all Ken Starr now") and at Glenn Greenwald and Jay Rosen for failing to take into full account the state of our national press corps during the 1990s.

And he makes some great points in the process, though someone not really familiar with his work might be taken aback by his polemics against such well-known liberals and, in the case of Glenn and Jay, outspoken critics of the Establishment press.

Anyone who has read a few consecutive posts of mine knows that I quote Glenn Greenwald every other day or so, normally with approval. He's been great on the torture accountability and NSA spying issues, for instance.

But Nietzsche-Somerby in that column touches on one of the weaknesses of Glenn's approach in criticizing the national press is that he often frames it in lawyerly abstractions about the press catering to power.

What Glenn sometimes misses or at least understates is the way that the dysfunctions of the national press more often than not benefit the Republican positions on issues of the day. Or, as the Howler puts it in full-throated Nietzsche mode:

What makes Glenn’s work so mushy? He walks away from some profoundly basic distinctions — distinctions which have been universally observed for millennia. As Froomkin tends to do, he draws no distinction between "false statements" and "lies." Everyone in the western world has observed this (important) distinction, for several millennia. But we progressives have become so ardent that we now tend throw this distinction away. In the process, we seek a world where "objective establishment journalists" should be empowered to tell us who’s lying.

But guess what, dumb-asses? Establishment journalists have felt quite free to make such judgments in recent decades. ...

Can we talk? Establishment journalists have felt quite free to identify "LIARS" in recent decades. The problem is this: To the extent that they’ve had this freedom, they have kept calling Democrats LIARS. Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Hillary Clinton were endlessly described as the world’s biggest LIARS. And uh-oh! In the future, this is likely the way the mainstream press corps will work - to the extent that they’re given this power.

In fairness, Professor Rosen knows nothing of this, being newly arrived from Pluto. He think the press corps’ problems began under Bush - and only because these elite professionals lacked imagination to deal with his outlier ways. (They were doing their best.) But if we continue to have an establishment press corps, it will be very unwise for liberals or progressives to task them with telling us who are the LIARS. Their track record on this point is clear. The establishment press is a tool of power. They will tend to call Big Pols of the more liberal party LIARS. They’ve done this for the past twenty years. Once financial regularity returns, they will likely resume this practice as the looting starts up again. [my emphasis in bold]
It can be very misleading to try to interpret the national press dysfunction as partisan or ideological; a lot of it is just plain weird. Their deference to power is primarily a deference to economic and corporate power which often does not translate into deference to the Democratic President and Congressional delegation, even when they are at a high tide of popularity as of the current moment.

Three defining features of today's national press corps are their deference to corporate power; their general practice of their profession as infotainment rather than as anything that deserves to be called journalism; and, a locker-room-style groupthink that strains at a gnat and swallows a fly (to borrow a famous King James Biblical phrase). Mix that all together, and you get Maureen Dowd writing about how Obama's cigarette smoking is like Silvio Berlusconi's sex life, Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann trashing Hillary Clinton so hard a year ago that both would up apologizing on-air for their excesses, and leading celebrity press figures stewing in outrage because Obama called on a writer for the Huffington Post in his press conference this week. (Bush's people hiring a male prostitute to act as a ringer at dozens of his press conferences? Not so much.)

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