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Published:April 15th, 2008 06:44 EST
The Press as a Red Herring Fishery

The Press as a Red Herring Fishery

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

(This is the transcript of Hot Copy No. 40, Del Marbrook’s podcasts for The Student Operated Press)

The most frustrating aspect of journalism is its daily failure to challenge society’s assumptions. 

When television reporters say General Motors or Ford have decided to downsize, they say something like, “Heavily unionized General Motors announced a plan to downsize its North American operations this morning.” Notice the anti-union bias. It is assumed that part of GM’s trouble is its unions. There is never a story saying, “Badly managed General Motors...” or “Unimaginative General Motors...” 

But that’s hardly the only problem with this kind of knee-jerk reporting. First, it’s not reporting at all, it’s putting a GM press release on the top of a huge stack of assumptions. There is rarely any reportage about huge salaries and bonuses paid to executives for managing their companies poorly or chopping them up and shipping them overseas. There is never any reportage about whether there should be any more obligation in American society to limit profit margins in order to share more with workers. It is presumed that whatever is good for shareholders is good for everyone. And sometimes it is simply assumed that whatever is good for executives is good for the rest of us. These undemocratic assumptions essentially take healthy discussion off the table—and that is their intent.

There is no talk about how much profit should be used to reinvest in the business. There is rarely any talk about how much of the national tax burden corporations should shoulder. Instead, it is assumed that lowering corporate taxes helps them compete with overseas companies. If that is true, then why shouldn’t there be more journalistic discourse about what happens to our economy when they sell their assets to foreign interests instead of improving their competitive positions?

Why are these assumptions not open for inquiry? The press works for corporate America, that’s why. It’s worth your job in the American press corps to press such inquiries against the unexpressed but well known biases of the business offices.

In the journalism industry itself it has been assumed that conglomeration of the media is good. There has been little talk about its impact on the role envisioned for journalism by the Founding Fathers. There has been almost no discourse, except from such visionary institutions as the Poynter Institute, about whether failing newspapers can be reimagined in the hands of local owners. Why? Because the press is by nature inclined to talk too much about what is wrong with the other guy and much too little about what is wrong with yours truly. Could a small daily in local hands, devoted to covering local news in depth, remain profitable in the Internet age? How profitable? Profitable enough to satisfy enlightened owners who operate a newspaper not merely to make money but also to serve the community? We don’t know, but we do know that the press is not encouraging a discussion of this vital issue.

Let me give you one of the more egregious red herrings the press has been peddling since 2003. Ever since we invaded Iraq and began calling it the front line in the war on terror, the press has left unchallenged President Bush's repeated assertion that he, The Decider, is simply responding to events on the the ground, as he has put it. He claims he is making his decisions according to what his generals on the ground tell him. There are so many problems with this assertion that you have to wonder how a free press has let him get away this for so many years. First of all, in our republic the military is not supposed to make political decisions, not only because it is bad for us, but because it is bad for the military. It politicizes them, and a politicized military is not an effective military. It also encourages ambitious field officers to ingratiate themselves with an ideologically driven White House by telling the President and his men what they so clearly want to hear. This accounts for the recent dust-up between Admiral William Fallon, a plain-spoken officer, and General David Petraeus, our brilliant but somewhat less straight-talking commander in Iraq. Admiral Fallon thought General Petraeus a political suck-up and said so. It may well have cost him his command. This kind of thing isn't good for us. Why hasn’t the press raised the point that we could spend the next hundred years in Iraq responding to developments on the ground and make very little headway, because we are in fact dealing with historical circumstances that we didn't take into account in the first place? Did we intend to go into Iraq and hand it over to Iran, our avowed enemy? That is certainly how it is turning out, and yet the press week after week obediently quotes the President as saying he is awaiting his generals' reports in order to decide what to do next. Why isn't the press talking about the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room, which is certainly that there is no overarching vision for Iraq, that we are merely reacting to this or that turn of events? Why isn't the press asking, Uh, Mr. President, Mr. Decider, there seems to be a logical anomaly in what you are saying? Do we just barge into a place and see what happens? How long do we keep on getting ourselves killed and bankrupted doing that? Do we keep on letting generals decide our policies who may or may not have the grit to tell politicians the unpleasant truth? Is this leadership?

But this issue of our appetite for red herrings is more important than Iraq, more important than the sub-prime mortgage crisis, more important than the election campaign, because if we come to live in a nation where there is little or no local coverage of news, we will be living blind, and others will be making decisions for us that will put money in their pockets while they cheat us.

Such a nation—thousands of blind communities—is bound to make the wrong decisions about its national destiny. In fact, it won’t be making the decisions at all. They’ll be made in clubs and corporate offices. Is that what we want? Of course not, but that is exactly where the American press, which we are so fond of calling a free press, is leading us.

Instead of playing blind man’s bluff and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, the press should be nurturing a broad and sustained debate about the kind of society we want. The pervasiveness of entertainment news, if it can be called news and not gossip, is no accident. It coincides with conglomeration of the press, the concentrating of the media in fewer and fewer hands. But all the while, the media moguls have said concentration will give us a better press. There has been ample time to test this contention, and the unequivocal answer is that it has not given us a better press, just as more than thirty years of trickle-down economics has not made the average worker more prosperous.

It is no accident that the press fails again and again to challenge each of these assumptions. To raise these issues the media would have to confront their own dereliction, the lies their corporate bosses have foisted on the public. 

When you consider the failure of the press to reexamine its operating assumptions, it’s not difficult to understand why the presidential election campaign seems to snatch at one red herring after another. The press can pretend all it likes that Hillary Clinton’s fib about coming under fire in Bosnia when she was First Lady or Barack Obama’s sitting in a pew listening to Jeremiah Wright rant is a major story, but they are major stories in lieu of major stories, in lieu of the stories the press isn’t pressing. When Hillary Clinton tut-tuts and tsk-tsks about the Obama-Wright connection, what is stopping the reporters from saying, “Senator, what do you think about President Bush’s comment today that the tax rebates will fix the economy? What do you think, Senator, about the argument our corporations make that they can’t compete and pay higher wages?” Serious questions. What is stopping the press from changing the direction and the demeanor of the debate? Is it because that’s the not the role of the press in a free society? Well, if that’s the answer, is it the role of the press to suppress discourse about its own concentration in a few hands, about the issues it hardly ever raises? 

The press is as responsible for the conduct of serious debate as the politicians. It is not the ironclad obligation of the press to indulge the politicians in their diversionary ping-pong. It is not the obligation of the press to assist the politicians in chucking red herrings at the electorate. The press is not supposed to be a parrot. So when its pundits complain of election campaigns as content-free zones, the public should remember the press has had a big hand in creating and  sustaining these content-free zones. 

If the press were doing its job the Sunday talk shows and their egocentric formats would be about the people, not the big talking heads, not the big shots, but ordinary people with ordinary problems that are, at the end of the day, far more interesting than Eliot Spitzer’s disappointing behavior or John Q. Pundit’s swollen opinions. Why aren’t these shows, assuming they’re of any value at all, correlating the decline of unionism with the decline of the middle class? We know the pundits use statistics to prove any point under the sun, so why can’t they find any data about this issue? Why aren’t they correlating the collapse of our manufacturing sector with the rise of our biggest industry, the prisons? And why aren’t they discussing why we have comparatively the biggest prison industry in the world? We freely discuss other nations’ prison systems, and the press freely reports that discussion, so how do we explain such silence about our own prisons and our mammoth prison population? 

And these are only a few of the issues we’re not having a national discussion about. And it’s not all the politicians’ fault. They’re glad not to discuss anything difficult. They’re glad not to discuss anything that raises questions about their ideologies, which are often shallow and won’t stand up to much scrutiny. But why is the press so glad to play along? Why is the press so quick to talk about its First Amendment rights and so loathe to talk about its responsibilities as a privileged fourth estate? 

The reason is that the owners of the press don’t want to spend the money necessary to do the job. They don’t want to raise issues that inevitably impinge on the way they themselves do business. They are part of the red herring fishery. Our Founding Fathers viewed the press in a very different way. They viewed the press as a kind of court of last resort, as a watchdog that would keep the politicians and the corporations honest and keep them out of our pockets. The Founding Fathers may not have imagined a press with the lofty ideals of The New York Times or The Washington Post, but they did envision a press whose owners would at least try to balance greed with civic responsibility.

The argument of the media moguls is that they are entitled to run efficient and profitable business and to do whatever is necessary to that end. But the discussion we’re not having is about the special nature of the Fourth Estate. If these business people wanted to run a business unburdened by the special vision of the Founding Fathers, they should have gone into another business. And that too raises questions the press is ducking. What is the responsibility of American business to the people? Does it have any responsibility to its workers, to the national infrastructure, to the nation’s defense? Or is its sole job to make money for its executives and its shareholders? Notice I haven’t spoken about its obligation to compete with foreign companies, because we have already witnessed that when push comes to shove American companies are hardly averse to selling themselves to foreign competitors.

Listen to this debate premise. Resolved:  that American business has no responsibility in a global economy to improve our health, education and overall wellbeing. You can see those eyeballs roll in the boardrooms. You can hear media bosses saying, What, is this guy kidding? But isn’t it a valid premise for a debate, because it happens to impact every single one of us? So where is the debate? Where is the inquiry? Where are the studies?

There are corporate executives and politicians who will say such a premise is too naive to entertain or too shallow or too uninformed. Yes, well, would you mind taking a minute to explain why? Oh, you’re too busy making money. Well, may I ask, Money for whom? The guy who is sick and can’t pay his doctors? The family who can’t afford to send its kids to college? The old people who eat pet food? Are these the people you and our big, important press are too busy to explain such matters to?

As for the press, it has certainly spent time explaining to us celebrity behavior, American Idol, Pat Robertson’s latest lunacy, Jeremiah Wright’s angry screed, so couldn’t we have a little time exploring my naive, shallow, uninformed question about just how much responsibility our businesses have to what we have always been proud to call the American way of life?

We not only need a free-ranging debate about the kind of capitalism we want and how we choose to meet the challenge of strong global competition, we need a debate about the role of the media in our society. But how do we hold the board rooms responsible? How do we bring them to the debate? Our dilemma is that we have come to prefer slogans to inquiry. The media, including the book publishers and the filmmakers, have been telling Congress for decades that they are giving the people what the people want: violence, trivia, celebrity fecklessness, and a youth culture whose self-absorption knows no bounds. But is this true? Can the media be believed? For the sake of promoting a discussion, there are strong indications the public does not prefer what the media say it prefers. For example, Pew researchers have found that the public wants news stories about money and disasters, not celebrity trivia, not sex. Perhaps if media coverage of economic issues had been deeper and more consistent, the mortgage crisis could have been averted, home buyers would have refrained from overreaching, banks and insurers might have been constrained to act more prudently with other people’s money, and the public might have savored the possibility that an economy booming because of a rage to buy and sell homes might be an inherently unhealthy one-horse economy, just as Washington, with its obsessions about power, is an inherently unhealthy one-horse town.

So how do we get the big shots to the table to get serious about where we’re going, how to get there, and what their responsibilities as citizens are? The politicians and preachers are quick to talk about our duty to defend the country and support the troops, but have you seen any statistics about how many sons and daughters of the rich and powerful are in Iraq? Could such statistics be developed? If so, who would want to generate them? Not the think tanks of the right, certainly. As for the think tanks of the left, they seem as ideologically muscle-bound as their right-wing antagonists. The point is not to twist each other’s tails, the point is to head in the same direction. We spend more time trying to paint each other as un-American than we do remembering that we all belong to the same country and wish it well.

But wishing it well isn’t enough: we need to reexamine the assumptions that we have accepted as set in stone. 

You have been listening to Hot Copy. I’m Del Marbrook, and if you want to know more about what I think, please visit me at Del Marbrook Dot Com.