Is the American Political Divide the Media's Fault?

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Five Years Ago Today, this Web Press was Born to Counter the Fourth Estate

The Boliek house in Takoma Park, Maryland, where this site was started five years ago today…

The Big Picture
by Glynn Wilson

THE BUNKER – Five years ago today, I huddled in front of a little apple red iMac computer in a friend’s kitchen in Tacoma Park, Maryland, near Silver Spring. It was there I wrote the very first Sunday column for this alternative, independent news Web site, there in the pouring rain with the jazz down low on the radio.

By that time, George W. Bush had been sworn in for a second term, so we knew he would be with us for another three and a half years. There was not much hope for stopping all the damage he would surely cause in that time, but somebody had to try to warn the public.

There was always the hope of impeachment.

That story never did grow legs, or at least not long enough to ever be considered a real threat to the corporate state pulling Bush’s strings.

As the rain poured with the jazz in the background, I read about the suicide of Hunter S. Thompson, and thought of my good friend Spider Martin, who had given up the ghost two years before, also by self-inflicted gunshot wound.

You’ve just about got to be a big picture kind of writer to make sense of moments like that — in an hour or two of reading, thinking and writing. That’s about how long it takes to produce an average newspaper-style column of about a thousand words.

The problem was, everywhere you looked over the Internets on the World Wide Web at that time, there were these things called “blogs” popping up all over the place like mushrooms in a cow pasture after a summer rain.

In the face of that kind of fast-paced change, what was an experienced, real journalist to do in these times, five years after the heralded advent of the new millennium?


There was all this anonymous defamation on some sites; on others, it was mostly self-congratulatory navel-gazing, like reality TV. Ugh!

Could the Free Press and American Democracy survive both Bush — and blogs?

Gawd only knew.

Never afraid to jump over the ramparts into the battlefield of a new challenge, however, I leapt into the blogosphere — not having any idea if I would ever come out.

Even though my stay in DC was a short one, my time in the nation’s capital as a free-lance journalist (and yes, a blogger, I was one of the first) was also one of the most interesting times in my life and career. Not the most interesting, perhaps, but damn interesting.

With the right gig, I could do DC — and I mean DO it RIGHT!

I love the bike trails throughout Virginia and Maryland, reading books and drinking bottled water on the Metro, and sitting in Lafayette Park at lunchtime, gazing into the windows of the White House — while talking on a cell phone, of course. Everyone was doing it by then.

I would love to be there for the Cherry Blossom Festival right now. Perhaps there will be another day in this life for that. Let’s hope so, in a Roadtrek Sprinter Van.

But for now it is another Sunday in Alabamaland, where the dogwoods and azaleas will soon bloom — and maybe one of these days they’ll figure out whether electronic bingo should be legal or not. (Do I have to put a smiley face here?)

The answer seems pretty simple to me. But then my economic future doesn’t depend on the fate of the Alabama Republican Party at the ballot box — or dollar bills in any collection plate at any old Baptist church.

Today the blogs are not so much the issue, as the social networking site Facebook has surpassed the search engine Google in Web traffic.

The issue on my mind today just happened to come in the form of a question on Facebook from a broadcast journalist on Alabama Public Television. It is a perfect question to answer in taking the next logical leap toward my explanation of the Web Press.

Of course that will take me more than 1,000 words, so it’s a good thing I started writing this thing on Saturday night : )

There may very well be rain on Sunday, and there will most definitely be jazz in the background…

The question comes from Lori Walker Cummings of APT, who asked: “Do you think it is the media’s fault for the division in this country?”

Of course the question was inspired by the political polarization in the land of the free, which came to a crescendo in the past few months in the fight for health-care reform.

Democrats wanted it. Republicans didn’t.

Liberals would not be satisfied with anything less than nationalization.

Conservatives formed the Tea Party to try and stop it, and inspired one Pinson, Alabama man to call for bricks to be thrown through the windows of Democrats, and for the most radical three percent of American gun owners to lock and load on anybody they could find to the left of them — who dared to support the president’s policies on health-care.

Mike Vanderboeg, who lives not 6.7 miles from here, walks with a cane and survives on a government social security check, well, that and his wife’s health insurance from work. He’s no real threat to the establishment, but he knows just enough American history to be dangerous — if he can convince a few riled up rednecks with guns he actually knows what he’s talking about.

He doesn’t. But since when did that stop the media from jumping all over it? Thanks in part to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the guy’s story, such as it is, has been repeated in the Washington Post, not once but twice, and MSNBC, as well as National Public Radio and hundreds of newspapers, thanks to the AP wire.

Sean Hannity has no idea what he is talking about on a daily basis, and neither does Rush Limbaugh. Glenn Beck is just there to entertain the true crazies on the right, who don’t know the difference between Fascism and Socialism. They understand authoritarianism and seem to believe in it, as long as the king is on their side. They are not acquainted with the term totalitarianism, which is what caused the old Soviet Union to break up into little pieces.

Nobody really takes Beck seriously, although I would like to know if Vanderboeg watches his show.

Is Vanderboeg the media’s fault?

Maybe in part from the right, but in searching for culpability for the information deficit afflicting the institutions of this country, you cannot leave out the education system, or the family.

Make no mistake. A dumb, racist, redneck daddy is as much to blame for idiocy as lousy schools and corporate media. No daddy at all may be just as bad.

Putting that aside for a minute, though, there does seem to be something wrong with the way news is presented on television and even in some newspapers that leaves the public scrambling to know where to turn for reliable information.

I can’t hardly watch Ted Turner’s old network anymore. The new corporate objective formula at CNN is now so obvious it is sickening. The bounce from sensational crime to celebrity gossip to the controversial political soundbite of the day is like the merry-go-round for some people. It’s hard to get off it if you got hooked a few years back.

But that mirrors the contents of major daily newspapers, especially when you add in sports and weather.

Where are the investigations — and real, intellectual analysis making sense of what’s going on in the world?

It is gong to take some serous brain power to solve the problems we face. It’s time for the news business to get over its anti-intellectual reflexes. That might very well mirror your community, but it doesn’t enlighten them much.

Let’s face it. That’s what they really need.

I could do an entire film on the issue of objective journalism, and will one day, if the budget can ever be found.

But for today, just a hint in the form of a couple of ideas and links. I know I promised you a rose garden, and a full essay on journalism objectivity, but that’s the advanced course for my New York, D.C. and West Coast audience.

The reading assignment for today includes a recent speech by Anniston Star publisher Brandt Ayers, who says “journalists are shaped by family, education, chance, circumstance and by the rise and fall of the great seas of history. They are the drivers, not technology, which is a platform from which journalism is done. A new technology has arisen today, which raises the big question: Will newspapers survive the digital age?”

The second reading assignment is interesting, since it is new online since the last time I thought to check Wikipedia on the question of journalism objectivity.

Objectivity is a significant principle of journalistic professionalism, according to some journalism historians, referring to “fairness, disinterestedness, factuality, and nonpartisanship.”

The term objectivity was not applied to journalistic work until the 20th century in America, of course, but it had fully emerged as a guiding principle by the 1890s, according to a few scholars. Some even trace it back to the appearance of modern newspapers in the Jacksonian Era of the 1830s.

Point of fact is, the rise of objectivity in journalistic method is also rooted in the scientific positivism of the 19th century, as journalism of the late 19th century borrowed parts of its worldview from various scientific disciplines of the day.

Some scholars have observed that “objectivity” served the need to make profits in the newspaper business from the sale of advertising. Publishers didn’t want to offend any potential advertising customers, or readers, so encouraged news editors and reporters to strive to present “all sides of an issue.” This trend grew with the consolidation in the newspaper industry, with the chains gobbling up papers and then the rise of wire services, forcing reporters to produce more “middle of the road” stories that would be acceptable to newspaper publishers, readers — and advertisers. Notice the influence of money.

Wikipedia falls into the trap of calling corporate media critics “advocacy journalists” and “civic journalists,” who “criticize the understanding of objectivity as neutrality or nonpartisanship, arguing that it does a disservice to the public because it fails to attempt to find the truth.”

That is our basic position on the Web Press, but the answer is not so simple as all that. I’m no advocacy journalist, nor am I a civic journalist. The watchword that is missing in the equation is “watchdog” journalist.

Contrast the definition of journalism objectivity above to this one on objectivity in science, which delightfully has also been updated since the last time I checked.

“An objective account is one which attempts to capture the nature of the object studied in a way that does not depend on any features of the particular subject who studies it. An objective account is, in this sense, impartial, one which could ideally be accepted by any subject, because it does not draw on any assumptions, prejudices, or values of particular subjects.”

Notice the phrase, “…could ideally be accepted by any subject…”

Is it possible for us to get a consensus on anything to solve any problem today with the population so polarized along party lines? What about climate change due to global warming, a problem we should get started on soon — if any of us want the next generation to survive on this planet.

Here is where the media has it wrong, and why it does have a negative impact on our dialogue. That translates into policy failures — and an inability to solve pressing social and economic problems, like the health-care conundrum, or alternative energies in place of fossil fuels.

In the fake attempt to appear for monetary reasons to present stories from “both sides,” you inevitably present the factually wrong side as equal to the right side. That is not objective. That is like presenting the wrong research in an academic journal alongside the research that met standards and expectations and produced reliable results.

There is no credible other side in the global warming debate. If all the media just made fun of anybody who doesn’t believe it, like The Daily Show’s John Stewart, we could eliminate the opposition from society like we did with opposition to voting rights for women and blacks.

Let me boil it down and make it simple.

The Karl Rove-style fake, public opposition to health-care reform on the part of Republicans in the House and Senate running for reelection is not a legitimate side in the debate. It is not equal.

Republicans in the know understand that health-care reform was critical to the economy. They won’t say it over the next few months, because the Tea Party would throw bricks through their windows, but watch this.

Just as the Bush crowd never introduced a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage after the 2004 election — after winning the election in part because they promised in the last two weeks of the race they would — the Republicans will never utter the words “repeal” and health-care reform in the same breath after the 2010 elections.

Don’t be fooled media. If you present that shit as an equal and opposite position, don’t be surprised when people start throwing bricks through people’s windows, and worse.

The media is the Fourth Estate, of government, with the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches one, two and three.

Agenda-setting and framing research aside, there is culpability for the mess we’re in on the part of the corporations which own the media. No doubt about that.

It is going to take the Fifth Estate, the Web Press, to fix that in the 21st century.

What is the Web Press?

You are looking at it…

White_House2007a.jpg
Glynn Wilson

A view of the White House from Lafayette Park during an anti-war protest in 2007…

Related Links

Secret Vistas: A River Runs Through It

Sunday School: Plato’s Parable of the Cave

© 2010 – 2016, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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