Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Front Page

Here's a long & thought-provoking post by Yves Smith. One of her themes over the past year is this: the development of "access" journalism has resulted in a de facto "controlled" press, where reporters are dutifully reporting spin from government and financial institution sources in order to preserve their access to said sources. MSM Reporting As Propaganda (No One Minds Our New Financial Lords And Masters Edition)

The press has been on a downslope for at least a decade, as a result of strained budgets and vastly more effective government and business spin control (and it was already pretty good at that, see the BBC series, The Century of the Self, via Google video, for a real eye-opener). I met a reporter who had been overseas for six years, opening an important foreign office for the Wall Street Journal. He was stunned when he came back in 1999 to see how much reporting had changed in his absence. He said it was impossible to get to the bottom of most stories in a normal news cycle because companies had become very sophisticated in controlling their message and access.

I couldn’t tell immediately, but one of my friends remarked in 2000 that the reporting was increasingly reminiscent of what she had grown up with in communist Poland.

Smith is one of those people who thinks that the Iraq War was some kind of turning point RE: press manipulation. (Actually, that was an example of too-clever over-spinning in an effort to gain support from querelous Democrats and the "International Community," two groups whose support turned out to be built on sand. As it turned out, it would have been easier to state the blunt truth: in the wake of 9/11, Saddam Hussein was a symbol of everything wrong in the Middle East, and should be removed from power). Really, you have to go back to the Clinton Administration, where the concept of "spin" first entered political discourse, and where an ideologically sympathetic press willingly downplayed personal and financial scandals that would have "rocked" a similarly fraught GOP Administration. Things have only gotten worse.

As for the financial press, well, they have the same problem as the financial regulators; they simply can't keep up with their sources in the financial sector. For one thing, the finance sources will have much more control over the flow of information, and know much more than some hapless reporter. There really is no equivalent to the Freedom Of Information Act for financial institutions. For another, the banks can hire the smartest guys in the room while the press ...can't.

So what do we have? A media that predominantly bases its stories on what it is fed because it has to. Ever-leaner staffing, compressed news cycles, and access journalism all conspire to drive reporters to focus on the “must cover” news, which is to a large degree influenced by the parties that initiate the story. And that means they are increasingly in an echo chamber, spending so much time with the influential sources they feel they must cover that they start to be swayed by them. It is less intense, but not dissimilar to the effect achieved when reporters are embedded in military units. The journalists often wind up adopting the views of the people they associate with frequently (I am sure readers will add more nefarious theories in comments, but the point here is a simple: an up the center description of what has happened to the media shows it has fallen under the sway of powerful interests).

Now how do we get to the propaganda part? Not only, per Taibbi, are we getting the view of the economy from the vantage of the bankers, as opposed to a broad swathe of the population, but we now we have the media (well, this example is that odd hybrid, an MSM blog) telling us there is no outrage.

"Propaganda" is a harsh word, and one I am not willing to use. What we really have is a press that is silly enough to believe everything they are told by certain sources of information, and refuse to believe others. If George Bush talks about the good economy, the news is filled with tales of the "jobless recovery." If Obama talks up the economy, everyone starts marveling at all these "green shoots" popping up everywhere. Hard nosed "gatekeepers" can easily turn into doughnut eating "beat cops" at the turn of an administration. That's as much of a problem as access journalism, but one which no one wants to acknowledge so long as the press is actively aiding one side of the public debate (and dictating the terms of that debate, as well).

Even worse are the press' proposed "solutions" to America's economic problems, which are as cheap and formulaic as a daytime soap opera. There are, for example, the pathetic attempts to gin up outrage over executive pay (while simultaneously deploring the rise of "populism"!), as if Rick Wagoner's $15 million per year was the cause of GM's collapse. There's the ritualistic calls for an increase in the minimum wage (which has tripled in the 23 years since I earned $3.35/hr as a grease monkey). There's the equally ritualistic call for "extensions" of unemployment benefits. While entrepreneurs are called to the dock to answer for the "failings" of capitalism, the politicians who promulgated policies that distorted the market are allowed to skate away under a heady steam of blather, along with the lucky businessmen who managed to profit at tax payer expense. We are not receiving "propaganda" (yet), but we are certainly receiving a very limited version of the news.

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