Under the Microscope
by Glynn Wilson
A couple of weeks ago, when not one single Republican took up our new President Barack Obama’s call for “bipartisanship” to vote for his stimulus package to aid the faltering economy — a measure backed by virtually every economist in the land as a needed step to avert a far worse economic collapse — a reader on an e-mail list asked: “Why is cable media spinning this as a failure for Obama?”
“Because they are the corporate media,” I wrote. “That’s why we are building a replacement here at the Locust Fork News-Journal.”
Obviously, more of an explanation is in order.
In one of his blog columns this week, Tommy Stevenson at The Tuscaloosa News picked up on a recent episode of the Bill Moyer’s show on PBS, which Moyer’s set up by asking: Is the old media sustaining the old politics?
Guests chosen for the show to discuss this issue were New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who later had this blog post on the subject under this statement: pundits and reporters as an establishment institution.
Also on the show was attorney and Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald, who also wrote more about it later in this post, summarized by this statement: The mentality of the Beltway journalist.
Before I get to the criticism, let me applaud all these commentators for getting a discussion going on these issues. It has been reported that the Moyers show got more comments than anything they have done to date.
This is just one demonstration of the public upheaval that has been building for several years against the establishment media in this country, sometimes referred to, and not as a compliment, as “the mainstream media.”
The blogging revolution started in part as a place to vent this backlash against the press and the media, the TV punditry, mainly for not doing its job in the run up to the Iraq war or for holding the Bush administration accountable on all kinds of issues.
There is no doubt the establishment or corporate press as I call it was complicit in allowing the Bush administration to get away with murder, literally, as well as torture, warrantless domestic spying, and turning the justice department into just another political wing of the Bush White House’s perpetual campaign operation.
With all due respect to Tommy Stevenson, Bill Moyers, Jay Rosen and Glenn Greenwald, none of them have ever chased major stories for the national desk of the New York Times. None of them have ever worked a major city bureau for a top 10 circulation newspaper like The Dallas Morning News out of New Orleans. None of them have ever had the experience of making democracy work like I did working for a chain of weeklies on the Gulf Coast, where for nearly four years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, thanks in part to my reporting, we won every environmental battle that came down the pike.
While Rosen got a Ph.D. in 1986, he has never really studied the academic literature on the influence of the press on public opinion as I have, for nearly a decade — way more than Gladwell’s 10,000 hours — through a masters and a Ph.D. program and teaching at four universities in the South. The point being that while their criticism and analysis is a good start, they are missing a good chunk of the story. So let me try to fill in some of the blanks.
During the early debates setting up this country as a democratic republic, Thomas Jefferson in 1787 wrote to Edward Carrington in a quotation that is well-known today:
“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
The rest of that quote, rarely reported, went: “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
Of course there was no radio or television then, no Internet either, so the early newspapers were the best source of information in Colonial America. Jefferson knew that for the newspapers to have the power to keep the new democracy going, the citizenry had a long way to go to become educated enough to live in a democracy. All our experience in government prior to those days had been religious monarchies, where the king derived his power straight from god.
The new idea, which we still grapple with in a big way, is that men (and now women) should be able to govern themselves without a royal family telling them what to do. And a free press, giving people information and yes educating them over time, was critical for this form of government to work. Also critical was a wall separating church and state, which was made “high and impregnable”
by Alabama’s very own Hugo Black during his tenure on the Supreme Court.
But for the past few decades, newspapers in this country, now in dire straights not only because of the Bush recession and bloggers, but because of the lack of business and editorial imagination, are for the most part now on the wrong side of history. They are part of the problem, not the solution, on how we are going to continue having a free press to protect our rights into the 21st century.
So in other words, the problem is not just an “inside the beltway mentality.”
The New York Times, which was set up as the first so-called “objective” newspaper in 1898, has always been an establishment newspaper. It depends on inside sources in the federal government to accomplish its goal of being “the newspaper of record” for the U.S and much of the world.
A few readers may recall the fight between Karl Rove and New York Times editor Bill Keller not long after he took over from Howell Raines. More readers might recall the story when Vice President Dick Cheney kicked the New York Times reporter off his campaign plane during the 2004 election. The Times must have access to sources to do what it does. The alternative press doesn’t necessarily have to kowtow to sources to educate readers.
How can I demonstrate that so average news readers know what I’m talking about?
Well, maybe this story will help.
Last fall, when I was on a trip to New York to meet with Scott Horton of Harper‘s and Joe Conason at The Nation Institute, I was sitting in a bar near Times Square not far from the new New York Times building. I struck up a conversation with an older gentleman who worked as an editor for the Times‘ travel section. I told him why I was in Manhattan, and also passed on the story about the trouble I had with the business editor while covering the trial of Richard Scrushy in Birmingham.
He gave me one of those very knowing looks, and said something that pretty much says it all, if you have an ear to hear.
“You have to understand, man, that the Times IS establishment.”
That is to say, it is not the alternative, independent press some people seem to think it is, just because it has come to the rescue a few times in history.
Certainly it was one of the institutional heroes during those frightful days of the Civil Rights struggle in the American South in the 1950s and ’60s, along with CBS News. The local papers were part of the problem then too.
Probably the most important service The New York Times performed in its history for this country was publication of the Pentagon Papers — the secret report showing we were losing the Vietnam War — in defiance of the Nixon administration. Moyers, of course, was right there with Johnson when he escalated the war. And the Public Broadcasting System is now largely supported financially by large corporations as much as they are from viewer contributions. Look at its sponsors.
The Washington Post was far more important to the Watergate story, which brought Nixon’s corruption down. The Times was slow to get on that story, as they were slow to question the WMD claims on the Iraq War, mainly because of the flawed reporting of Judith Miller.
Before journalism historians even have a chance to begin putting their thoughts together on what this all means, it is clear that George W. Bush and Karl Rove never gave a damn about freedom of the press. But they were damn good at manipulating and fooling the press and keeping them in check.
One of the reasons newspaper managers were scared of them is that a good chunk of the revenue that supports the papers, and the TV news folks too, comes from oil companies, power companies, insurance companies and drug companies. You can’t turn on the TV or open a newspaper without seeing their ads, and now you can’t find a newspaper, TV or magazine Website without Web ads from those same companies. Do you ever get as sick of those drug disclaimers as I do, the one’s listing all the side affects? If so, you know what I mean.
Even if the newspaper companies finally figure out the Web, they will still be “the corporate press.” They will still not have the courage to stand up for working people, unions, the downtrodden — and the juries who might give them some measure of relief in court when they are harmed.
Like, for example, when Exxon Mobile was caught lying to the taxpayers of Alabama and underpaying their royalties on oil and gas wells along the Gulf Coast. The lower courts ruled in the peoples’ favor, but the Karl Rove GOP Alabama Supreme Court reduced the damages, from something more than $300 million down to about $11 million, if memory serves.
And dog forbid trial lawyers. When The Birmingham News mentions a “trial lawyer” in its pages, it is meant as a slur. They may as well bastardize Shakespeare’s line about, “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” and put it as the moniker below their banner on the front page.
The masses get the subliminal message. Lawyers are bad.
The power company, which after all uses blue birds in its green-washing ad campaigns, is good, because you know, “Alabama Power (is) Always On.”
I always tell my friend who works there, “It ain’t always on, man. The power goes off at my house all the time, even when there’s no hurricane on the way or tornado in the neighborhood.”
But it is true that Alabama Power is “always around,” because not a day goes by that I don’t see them hanging out on my street — not working on the power lines, mind you, but spying on their number one blog critic.
For the newspaper editors, never mind Alabama Power’s contribution to global warming and climate change and bad air and polluted water and giving Alabama the number one mercury pollution ranking in the U.S.
Do you think that might have as much to do with Alabama’s negative image as racism and “out of control” jury awards and “jackpot justice?”
But hey, the news managers say to themselves: “The corporations advertise. Them trial lawyers, they don’t. So Fuck ’em.”
Now, I hope that makes things a little more clear to the elite audience who take the time to read this site, in addition to their local newspaper and The New York Times. The Washington Post‘s Website is better anyway, as is their Washington, D.C., staff, which is why we link to it more on our news page.
As we continue to develop the budget for this alternative, independent Web Press, due to our news and academic experience, we will kick their asses all over the place on a regular basis. If you want to help support this, well, you know what to do.
© 2009 – 2016, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.