Friday, March 30, 2007

The media has abdicated its responsibilities

Glenn Greenwald writes a great post about the great failure of the media - that they have failed to "fulfill their core responsibility -- to serve as an adversarial check on government".

Like every other group, elite Beltway journalists are not monolithic. There's a natural tendency to search for One Simple, All-Clarifying, Unifying Theory that explains everything bad in the world ("reporters are paid to lie for their corporate masters to promote corportism"), but human beings are complex, and such theories -- while perhaps accounting for partial and isolated influences -- are almost never valid standing alone. Even among journalists who produce wretched and mindless reporting, they are driven by different motives.

Analyzing the dynamic of how the national media works is an extremely complex undertaking and the factors are virtually endless -- some of those journalists are genuinely malicious political operatives; others are just politically biased. Large numbers are just careerist sycophants, while others still simply lack critical faculties and/or the initiative to do anything other than recite what they hear. And the socioeconomic transformation of journalists into coddled, rich elites -- along with the dependence of journalists on those in power for access and scoops -- obviously create a greater identification with the political officials they are supposed to investigate, scrutinize and check.

But one overarching influence affecting the group as a whole is that they have been enmeshed in the culture of national journalism for so long that they are incapable of viewing it critically. In every environment and every profession, broken and corrupt behavior becomes commonplace and then normalized. When that happens, even decent and well-intentioned people can engage in such behavior believing that it's constructive and proper. And because those rules of behavior are normalized, they actually come to believe that the more they adhere to them, the more appropriately they are acting.

As Atrios recently noted, Washington -- with some exceptions -- has been a town dominated by the Republican power structure for close to two decades now. For the last six years, Democrats have been almost completely irrelevant (as but one example, I paid almost no attention to, and had no opinions about, Nancy Pelosi until October of 2006, because prior to that, she was completely inconsequential).

Journalists like Harris who want to break stories and have meaningful sources -- for years -- have needed to cultivate relationships primarily with Republican sources, and that process of currying favor with the Republican power structure, listening to Republican sources, being dependent in their careers upon Republican favors and Republican access, unquestionably influences how they think and who they like and how they view and talk about the world, even among the most well-intentioned and ethical journalists. And the fact that, by their own admission, their world is shaped by a right-wing hack with the most unscrupulous partisan behavior only exacerbates those influences.

The effect of that process -- whereby currying favor largely with powerful figures on the Right is a prerequisite for career success -- is substantial even for the best journalists. And the cumulative effect on the craven careerists who compose the bulk of our media elite is virtually limitless.

Much of the deep-seated dysfunction of our national press is the result of the fact that many of our national journalistic elite simply do not believe in the real purpose of political journalism. But it is also true that even the more earnest and well-intentioned ones are enmeshed in a culture that produces dysfunctional, deeply biased and corrupt journalism, and it will just naturally be very difficult, perhaps close to impossible, for those who are such a vital part of that culture -- and whose careers depend upon thriving within it -- to view its operating principles as anything other than normal, proper and even honorable, even when they are anything but.


Even six months after this country invaded Iraq, 70% of Americans continued to believe that Saddam helped personally plan the 9/11 attacks. That heinous fact, by itself, should have provoked a major crisis in political journalism -- a desperate effort to find out what went so fundamentally wrong. Yet it did nothing of the sort. Most of the energies of national journalists are devoted instead to defending how they operate and, most of all, condescendingly disparaging their critics as shrill partisans who don't understand the real role of journalists.

I honestly find it unfathomable that any national journalist like Wolffe or Harris can defend their profession, and deny that there are deep-seated and fundamental flaws in it, when this country started a war with the overwhelming majority of citizens -- 70% -- believing an absolute, complete myth, a known falsehood, one which, more than anything else, caused them to support that war. Leaving aside every other issue of gullible, government-propaganda-based reporting, that fact standing alone is a towering indictment of our country's press corps, and the fact that they continue to believe that the way they operate is proper, that they are sufficiently adversarial to the political powers that be, and that it is their critics who are "ideological" and therefore easily dismissed -- all reveals that they have not changed at all.

They may not know it, but the disaster of the Iraq War and the absolute myths which they allowed to take root -- and which they never investigated, exposed or attacked -- is an inescapable indictment of what they do. That is the foundation on which media criticism rests, and there is nothing "partisan" about it. It is the opposite of "partisan." It is instead a demand that the media fulfill their core responsibility -- to serve as an adversarial check on government -- a responsibility which they have profoundly abdicated.

In an e-mail exchange with the the editor of Politico, Glenn gets this exactly right:
I have a great deal of respect for the role journalists are intended to play in this country. I am a great admirer of, for instance, of your former colleague, Dana Priest. I devoted large parts of my litigation practice when I litigated to defending the First Amendment. My criticism of the press is based on my sincere belief that it is supposed to play a critical role -- but has abdicated its responsibility -- to serve as a watchdog over our government and to check abuses of power by political leaders. I don't think journalists should promote partisan storylines or promote any political agenda. I think they ought to fulfill the function the founders envisioned, because our country's political health would be substantially improved. That's what motivates my media criticism.


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