Sunday, April 27, 2008

Real Deep Memory Hole

Elizabeth Edwards gives a searing indictment of the media in an op-ed in today’s New York Times. She articulates beautifully much of the frustration we’ve all felt this campaign season: the shallow campaign coverage, the media’s “casting” of characters as if they were filming a movie not covering a news story, or how they treat viewers like consumers who are buying soap, not citizens trying to make an informed decision about our nation’s leadership. It’s an excellent read and I urge everyone to go read the column.

The thing that’s astonishing to me--and Edwards herself admits this--is how it’s always been this way! Even during the McCarthy hearings, she notes, only one network televised the proceedings. Today we have more networks than ever, 24-hour cable news, and channels devoted to everything from shopping to health news, yet news coverage is as shoddy as ever.

I know what she means. I picked up the October 12, 1972 issue of Rolling Stone at a junk shop on 8th Avenue a year or so ago. I love old newspapers and magazines, it’s a great window into the memory hole.

This one has a column by founding editor Ralph Gleason called “Perspectives: Youth Won’t Vote For Nixon.” Gleason writes:
Newspapers, as A.J. Liebling explained in The Press, are neither public servants nor custodians of the Holy Grail.

They are private enterprises in a capitalist economy whose primary function is to make money. Just like a department store or a gas station.

They are not in the business of truth and honesty and the public good unless the owner of the paper sees that as a way to making money.

The other thing to understand about newspapers is that they are owned by rich people and rich people are, by and large, Republicans.

So when your friendly neighborhood newspaper dumps on McGovern, runs his campaign news inside the paper and spreads the latest bullshit about Nixon’s runaway lead in the polls all over page one, remember that Republicans own the newspapers. As Liebling once noted, Democrats only work there.

Just imagine, for a moment, what would have been the manner in which a story disclosing that the Democrats had hired industrial spies to bug the Republican Headquarters would have been played on the front pages of the nation’s press. It would have been banner headlines in the biggest type available and day by day every little bit of evidence which supported the original charge would have been played up. But since the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak, scandals which would have resulted in impeachment proceedings against a Democrat get sloughed off in Republican papers because they concern a Republican president. And a very special Republican president, the one who has given the biggest, fattest green light to exploitation of the land by big business since Warren Harding.

This was published in October 12, 1972. See much change in the past 30+ years? Me neither.

In fact, as Edwards points out in today’s op-ed, things have gotten worse. Because rich Republican families no longer own the newspapers. Rich Republican corporations do--corporations which make their money from things like (in the case of GE, which owns 80% of NBC Universal), defense contracts. This is dangerous to our democracy.

Edwards writes:

News is different from other programming on television or other content in print. It is essential to an informed electorate. And an informed electorate is essential to freedom itself. But as long as corporations to which news gathering is not the primary source of income or expertise get to decide what information about the candidates “sells,” we are not functioning as well as we could if we had the engaged, skeptical press we deserve.

And the future of news is not bright. Indeed, we’ve heard that CBS may cut its news division, and media consolidation is leading to one-size-fits-all journalism. The state of political campaigning is no better: without a press to push them, candidates whose proposals are not workable avoid the tough questions. All of this leaves voters uncertain about what approach makes the most sense for them. Worse still, it gives us permission to ignore issues and concentrate on things that don’t matter. (Look, the press doesn’t even think there is a difference!)

Indeed. Going back to Ralph Gleason’s column, I was stunned to read this:

The Republican polls and surveys tell us that the so-called youth vote is in favor of Nixon. It defies intelligence to believe that young people will vote against their own best interest, in favor of war and reaction, in favor of Big Brother’s phone taps and spy service, in favor of discrimination against the blacks, the browns, the yellows and the poor.

Well, replace “Nixon” with “McCain” and “young people” with "Americans," and we’re looking at 2008. Same bad situation, just, you know, worse.

It’s disappointing, to say the least, that after 30 years we’ve made so little progress. It’s disheartening to think that our media and our culture have progressed so little. But I find hope and encouragement in knowing how the Nixon/Watergate story played out. If history is indeed repeating itself, then we know how this story ends. But progressives and liberals of all kinds must make sure we don’t visit this circus a third time.

I don’t want to read a blog post in 2040 about the 2008 election and think, “Oh my God, nothing’s changed!”