The Watchmen: a vapid media fiddles while America burns
by shef, Fri May 02, 2008 at 09:39:04 AM EDT
This was published originally this week as a long-lead feature piece in Wilder Voice, a publication at Oberlin College in Ohio. It is crossposted at Ich Bin Ein Oberliner. I know it's long, but I think it's worth it.
At a recent campaign stop in Altoona, Pennsylvania, Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama went bowling. He only played seven frames. He scored a 37. This abysmal score did not go unnoticed in the media. The major papers and news services--AP, Reuters, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post--and a host of minor ones all printed stories. The big television news networks--CNN, MSNBC, FOX--not to be left out, ran their own segments. It was a column after column, day after day, Obama bowl-a-thon.
As if obsessing over bowling scores during the height of a presidential campaign weren't enough, the political analysis was even more absurd. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough said, "Americans want their president, if it's a man, to be a real man," and "you [bowl] 150, you're a man--or a good woman." Chris Matthews chimed in, adding a racial je ne sais quoi:
[T]his gets very ethnic, but the fact that he's good at basketball doesn't surprise anybody, but the fact that he's terrible at bowling does make you wonder.
When did bowling scores become news? When did bowling aptitude become fodder for punditry and relevant for presidential office? For that matter, when did John Edward's expensively coiffed hair, or Hillary Clinton's pastel clothing choices become newsworthy?
Obama's dreadful bowling doesn't mean much in and of itself--except that Obama can't bowl very well; a fact by itself does not mean anything until it's put into context. The relevance of a fact comes from the values behind it and the other facts surrounding it. We don't have to look too hard for the context that gives Obama's score relevance; Mr. Scarborough gave it to us, albeit somewhat crudely: Americans want their president to be a real man. If Mr. Scarborough is right, and if Americans agree with him that "you [bowl] 150, you're a man--or a good woman," then Obama's score is quite newsworthy. Whether we agree that bowling scores make for serious news or not isn't the point; these are the values, this is the context in which our media operates.
For the media, Obama's bowling isn't just unmanly (or, to quote Scarborough, "dainty" and "prissy"), it's abnormal; poor bowling, and its inherent femininity, is indicative of an inability to connect to "normal people." Chris Matthews put it best: "[C]an Obama woo more regular voters--you know, the ones who actually do know how to bowl?" In other words, to connect with these "regular voters," you ought to be manly and do manly things, like bowl well.
MSNBC correspondent David Schuster, adding to the list of things Obama does that show he has trouble connecting with the ordinary people, said:
[W]hen Obama went in, he was offered coffee, and he said, "I'll have orange juice." ... And it's just one of those sort of weird things. You know, when the owner of the diner says, "Here, have some coffee," you say, "Yes, thank you," and, "Oh, can I also please have some orange juice, in addition to this?" You don't just say, "No, I'll take orange juice," and then turn away and start shaking hands.
But, then, it comes back to bowling. Matthews, riffing off Schuster's observation, asked Pennsylvania Senator and Obama supporter Bob Casey:
Isn't that interesting, Senator Casey, that Barack Obama, your candidate, can walk before 15,000 people with complete calm and assurance, but he seems a little out of place in (A) a bowling alley and (B) a diner? What is the problem with your guy?
Is that interesting? It is for Matthews, Schuster, Scarborough, and the rest of the establishment media. It is if you view the world through their lens--through their context.
But the truly interesting--and disturbing--thing about Matthews and Scheuster isn't their bizarre fixation on Senator Obama's bowling scores and beverage selections; it's that--within a week--they had connected his bowling scores to his beverage selections, and turned both into evidence of Obama's effete elitism. How did these get grouped together? Since when did trivialities make or break a candidate? How did this happen to our media?::
An infinite number of facts exist on any given topic. At some point, someone has to decide which are important. As it is the media's job to report the facts, they make this decision. They have to make a decision. Every night, they decide which facts to pick out of all the others and declare The News.
The news, then, can't simply be any fact, or even any random collection of facts. Facts have to be bound together by values, by a set of beliefs about the nature of our political topography. These values and the support they accumulate are called narratives. In science, they would be called paradigms, in psychology, schemas. They are the filters, the theories, the necessary meaning-givers, through which our media--and by extension, the public--views the world.
Senator Obama's bowling score was newsworthy because it fit the narrative; Americans want real men, and real men can do normal things--like bowling--well. And Senator Obama's beverage choices fit the narrative too. But in order to see how, we have to take into account the already-accumulated body of facts in the narrative. Obama, through his poor bowling, has called into question--if not utterly smashed--his normalcy, his real man-ness. And now, the media looks at the world with this in mind. Most journalists would probably say that they find facts and then decide which way to order them--which context fits best. But, this idealized view of reporting is impossible. In actuality, normal news coverage is finding and fitting facts into pre-established narratives, not the other way around. Their relevance--their newsworthy-ness--is a function of how well they cohere with the rest of the body of facts already in a narrative and how well they support the narrative's central values and claims.
It's easy to see the media's narrative bias at its most absurd moments: the obsessive coverage of Natalee Holloway, lost in Aruba (the value here: pretty, young, white girls are of the utmost importance); the euphoric, compulsive effeminizing of Senator John Edwards (Democrats are effete); and, of course, the bizarre fixation on Obama's bowling scores and beverage choices (Obama is an elitist).
Certainly, this narrative-based reporting is more obvious in the media's Ionescoesque bumbling, but it is central to all news coverage. It's present in everything from mundane stories on the local town's budget problems to dramatic coverage of natural disasters. We don't see it normally because the values are less controversial, less inadequate, less stupid.
As the values are mundane and noncontroversial in most day-to-day reporting, the narratives are subtler. It is largely unquestioned, for example, that American casualties are more important than non-American ones. Iraqi casualties are neither a priority in Washington (as reported in The Washington Post, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, "we don't do body counts on other people") nor in the media, where estimates often differ by a factor of ten. Contrast this with the precision in reporting of American dead and wounded. It's easy to imagine that the Iraqi media values the Iraqi death count a bit more. Our media is largely comfortable excluding precise facts from its coverage. Why? It doesn't fit the narrative.
None of this is to say that there is something inherently wrong with narrative-based reporting. It's borne of necessity, and it only produces absurd coverage when it is fed absurd values. Unfortunately, the media has digested something poisonous, something that causes stories about Obama's bowling score and Edwards's metrosexuality to spew forth. What's more, our self-aggrandizing, narcissistic media is too busy fetishizing its own objectivity to notice its spurting, infectious diarrhea.
That poison is the narrative of American Exceptionalism.::
The concept of American Exceptionalism is central to the media's understanding of much of our foreign and domestic politics. In a phone interview, writer and author Glenn Greenwald gave me his take on it: "The way that you express patriotism is by embracing the idea that America is exceptional--meaning better than all the other countries--and unerring in its goodness." Greenwald is the author of three books, including Great American Hypocrites, released April 15. He's a writer for Slate online magazine, and was formerly a constitutional law attorney. He continued, "[W]e're always well-intentioned, we're always good."
Joe Klein, a political writer for Time, gives us how American Exceptionalism plays out in our media. In a column titled "The Patriotism Problem," he wrote: "this is a chronic disease among Democrats, who tend to talk more about what's wrong with America than what's right." So, if a politician criticizes America or puts the state of the union in anything less than glowing terms, that politician is--according to the media--unpatriotic. The media has coupled this with a 1950s, Leave it to Beaver view of gender roles, leading to stories that equate patriotism with manliness and normalcy, and casting those who resist this narrative of being effeminate and elitist. Dangerous and endemic, we can use this narrative to explain much of the absurdity in today's political coverage.
John Edwards's campaign, for example, focused a great deal on poverty and its effects. Of course, talking about those America has left behind opposes American Exceptionalism--he has, what Joe Klein might call, a "patriotism problem." This, coupled with his boyish looks, made him an easy target: to quote Ann Coulter, John Edwards is "a faggot." She puts a finer point on it than most of the media would, but that didn't stop AP from calling him "pretty" and explaining that his hair salon, "caters mostly to women." Nor did it stop Maureen Dowd, a New York Times columnist, from piling on, saying that America wasn't ready for a "metrosexual-in-chief." And it did not stop US News and World Report from printing this idle bit of speculation:
The Edwards campaign said the original [YouTube] video, which captures two minutes of Edwards fussing, fluffing, and brushing his hair to the West Side Story song "I Feel Pretty," didn't harm the candidate, but not everyone agreed. "It reinforces his reputation as a pretty boy and ... that is very damaging," says James Kotecki, a recent Georgetown University grad who has made a name for himself on the Internet by critiquing official candidate videos.
I'm sure that Mr. Kotecki is a smart man, but considering the sheer number of other political events, it seems borderline insane for the AP to cover YouTube videos that involve John Edwards primping for a couple of minutes.
Edwards--as any American with a pulse and a television could tell you--gets very expensive haircuts. Some of the ensuing media frenzy was no doubt inspired by a sense that getting expensive haircuts was somehow hypocritical; after all, Edwards's message was one of populism. But the obsession over his hair overshadowed other "hypocritical" aspects of Edwards's life (for example, his expensive mansion). Senator Edwards had the gall to question America's unerring goodness, and because of that, he is unpatriotic. And patriotism is strength. Patriotism is manliness. American Exceptionalism was the cause; his haircuts were the buzzword; his pretty face, the shibboleth.
Even ignoring the effeminizing aspects of Hair-gate, how do allegations of hypocrisy merit the kind of coverage heaped on Edwards's expensive haircut? Remember, Democrats are not just womanly; they are elitist fops. And what is more foppish than a 400-dollar haircut? Bearing in mind that virtually every politician in recent memory who has championed the cause of poverty has been wealthy, charges of hypocrisy are little more than a Trojan horse for that old charge of elitism. The media, dutifully following their narrative, looks for and picks out facts that fit in--facts like Edwards's haircut and Obama's bowling, Dukakis's tank ride and his wonkishness, Al Gore's stiffness and John Kerry's windsurfing.
Our media has embraced a narrative that demands that Democrats receive scrutiny of their character, of their personality. Why? They have a "patriotism problem," they "tend to talk more about what's wrong with America than what's right." In a Pennsylvania debate hosted by ABC, it took 45 minutes for the moderators to get to a question about issues. In March, Senator Obama gave one of the most important speeches about race in last two decades, but did the moderators ask about the state of race in America? No, they asked Senators Obama and Clinton about Reverend Wright and The Weathermen, flag lapel pins and Farrakhan. American Exceptionalism's structure was clearer than ever; the questioners recycled accusations of guilt by association and Obama's decision to eschew wearing a flag pin. Surprisingly, they didn't ask him about his middle name. It was the greatest hits of media inanity--and "are you patriotic? are you man enough?" in all its variations was played over and over and over again.
Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, doesn't always wear a flag lapel pin, but, of course, this isn't newsworthy: It doesn't fit in with the narrative. Republicans aren't criticized on these kinds of trivialities because they are the embodiment of American Exceptionalism. So, while Fox News puts up a graphic asking the question "Will Prez Obama blame America first?" and The Washington Post accuses (incorrectly, by the by) Obama of misspelling "flak jacket," MSNBC's Brian Williams drools over Senator McCain, "Talk about a warrior," and McCain gets a pass on his inability to discern between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
Our media fawns at the feet--a caricature of obeisance--of America's most notorious warmongers and apologists and spits bile at those who dare call for change. If we--as Americans--are committed to fighting this poisonous narrative, we must first understand how it came to be. We must understand the media's--and our own--complacency in allowing it to work its way into the heart of our body politic.::
The history of our media's American Exceptionalism is hazy and convoluted. It is really a hybrid of two disparate but equally divisive concepts. The first is the classic idea of America Exceptionalism, which, since colonization, has been a part of Americana. We fancied ourselves "a city upon a hill;" Thomas Paine, in Common Sense wrote of our innate differences from--and superiority to--Europe; and, of course there's that old jingoistic bugbear: manifest destiny. What separates the modern incarnation of American Exceptionalism from the mere nationalistic narcissism of the past is the addition of so-called traditional gender roles. There's always been power in painting one's adversaries as somehow abnormal, effeminate, and elitist, and tying it to Exceptionalism only increases its potency--and its danger.
Glenn Greenwald traced the roots of this narrative to the 1980 race between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, when the Republican Party took Reagan--an actor by trade--and transformed him into a rugged everyman. Greenwald said:
[It goes] all the way back to Ronald Reagan, when they dressed him up as a cowboy and a rancher and they mocked Jimmy Carter as being weak. Even though Carter was an expert on a nuclear submarine in the navy, and Reagan steadfastly avoided combat.
Indeed, since then, Republicans have made a concerted effort to inject their narrative into our media. The brutal attacks on Dukakis--his wife, his tank ride--effectively turned him into, as Greenwald put it, an "unmanly and sort of effeminate weak creature ... as illustrated by his inability to protect us from black rapists and his failure to get excited or angry at the prospect that his wife might be raped."
But it wasn't until the mid-nineties that this narrative really became a part of the mainstream media's understanding of the world. There had been hints of it before--as with Reagan and Dukakis--but the media hadn't fully embraced this kind of narrative. It began with the creation of the right-wing noise machine: Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, Don Imus, and a host of conservative "journalists" dedicated themselves to the creation and dissemination of American Exceptionalism. Through personality scandals and character attacks--plying "their dirt-mongering, bottom-feeding trade," as Greenwald calls it--conservatives pushed American Exceptionalism to the fore of the nation's collective consciousness. David Brock--a former writer for The American Spectator, a conservative magazine--describes the process in an interview with Mother Jones:
[W]e were able to create a so-called story that had a lot of political motivation behind it, had partisan money behind it, and we were able to take that and get a lot of attention for it in explicitly conservative media--on radio talk shows, on internet sites like the Drudge Report. Eventually the story would spill over into the regular media.
Brock made a name for himself in the 90s, attacking President Clinton and Anita Hill. After a change of heart, he has gone on to author Blinded by the Right and The Republican Noise Machine. He founded Media Matters, an organization "dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media." He lays some of the blame for the media's embracing of conservative narratives on a "phony notion of balance."
Republicans and conservatives had been alleging a liberal bias in the media for years. Pat Buchannan cites Vice-President Spiro Agnew's (of the Nixon Administration) 1969 speech as the moment when "the issue of liberal bias cohabiting with immense media power was on the table. It never came off." By complaining--loudly--about a perceived liberal bias, conservatives have been able to bully the media into giving them and their narrative coverage.
The right-wing noise machine says something extreme--like Michelle Malkin (a '92 Oberlin graduate) suggesting, over and over again, that John Kerry may have shot himself to get a purple heart or Ann Coulter calling Edwards a faggot. Then, when the mainstream media plays the infamous "swift-boat" ads on loop, or effeminizes Edwards, they are being reasonable and responsible. It's called the gray fallacy; if two sides are shouting at each other, the answer must lie somewhere in the middle. Obviously this isn't necessarily the case. But the media has been pushed into this--bullied into it--by the right-wing noise machine.
Often, conservatives haven't had to push that hard. Beginning with the Lewinski scandal, the media became a willing accomplice to the right-wing's character attacks. Greenwald explained:
[P]olitical journalists realized they could report on political events and attract a lot of attention for their reporting and generate ratings, without spending much time or energy or resources or expending much thought, by reporting on kind of low-level gossip, which is ultimately what the Lewinski scandal was: sex and talk--very cheap, shallow scandal.
Since then, the mainstream media has gleefully swallowed each and every drop of American Exceptionalism they could wring from the right-wing noise machine, and you can't get much more mainstream then Mark Halperin and John Harris. Halperin is a political analyst for both Time and ABC, and, before that, he was the political director of ABC. John Harris was with The Washington Post and now runs the influential Politico. In their book, The Way to Win, they call Matt Drudge "the gatekeeper ... he is the Walter Cronkite of his era," and my personal favorite, "Matt Drudge rules our world." Keep in mind that Matt Drudge is a man who defended Florida Representative Mark Foley by calling the former pages "beasts" and accusing them of "playing" and "egging on" Foley. Essentially, teen pages are nymphets. Matt Drudge cheered on the swift-boating of Senator John Kerry, and has posted misleading and factually incorrect information on Democrats since he first came to prominence. Drudge is one of the most ardent supporters and promoters of American Exceptionalism, and it is the establishment media's opinion that he "rules our world."::
Once a narrative has become a part of the media it is extremely difficult to expel. At this point, American Exceptionalism is so much a part of the media's worldview that, not only is it largely unquestioned, it is self-continuing. Each new example of effeminate, elitist Democrats becomes further support of the narrative's central values. But the media, for all its narcissism, is remarkable for its lack of self-awareness. American Exceptionalism would never have made it this far, were it not for a number of media fallacies, misconceptions, and missteps.
First of all, the media has become reliant on the party in power for its supply of information and values. Since the 1994 Republican Revolution, when Speaker Newt Gingrich led the Republican Party to control of the House of Representatives, the GOP has enjoyed a string of electoral victories. They were able to largely sideline Democrats and achieve control over the D.C. establishment. In doing so, they were in a unique position to push their narrative. Greenwald explained:
[J]ournalists--the way they function--rely upon the people in power, and for the last eight years, obviously, and even for, say, the six or seven years prior to that, beltway power has resided in right-wing and Republican circles. And so, reporters have cultivated relationships with people who are right-wing and Republican operatives and get their information and their ideas and their stories and are most interested in pleasing those people, which they do by circulating the kinds of stories and themes that those people like, so that those people--the ones in power--will continue to give information to those reporters that please them.
And, by complying with the narrative, the media helps to cement and continue Republican electoral victories, creating a cycle where the narrative becomes more and more entrenched in Beltway conventional wisdom. Gone are the days of the intrepid, adversarial journalist--the days of Deep Throat and the Pentagon Papers. Now, when investigative journalism results in counter-establishment stories, it is either lambasted or ignored. The New York Times was roundly criticized for breaking information on our government's warrantless wiretaps, and, though ABC reported that President Bush knew of and condoned senior administration officials discussing how many times our government could waterboard people, how long we could put them in stress positions, how much we could deprive them of sleep, etc., the media was too busy obsessing over flag-lapel pins and bowling scores to discuss this during the debates, or really much at all.
The second way in which the media sustains this narrative is through their narcissism. They assume, often incorrectly, that what they talk about is what is important. Glenn Greenwald wrote in a recent post that "one of the most pervasive journalistic fallacies" is the idea "that the choices the establishment press makes as to what they will cover and not cover is reflective of what `Americans' generally care about." Of course, this isn't necessarily true. The media has been yammering on about Obama's inability to connect with "regular Americans"--citing beverage selections, bowling scores, and out-of-context comments. But daily tracking polls have Obama in the lead for the Democratic nomination. Furthermore, in Pennsylvania--supposedly where his inability to demonstrate his manliness and normalcy is the strongest--he turned a roughly 20 point gap into a ten point one--not a bad showing for such an egregious elitist.
But, despite the lack of strong--or in some cases, any--evidence, the media continues to push stories that follow the narrative. And, in cases like Obama's supposedly crippling inability to be normal, they must find a way around the evidence in order to fulfill their narrative's objectives. In a recent Time article, Jay Newton-Small writes: "Barack Obama faces a major overriding challenge in tonight's nationally televised debate with Hillary Clinton at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center--to prove that he is a regular guy." The central claim here is really Americans think Barack Obama isn't a regular guy, and this is bad for him. But, as there is a distinct paucity of evidence for both claims, Newton-Small phrases it in positive terms, saying that this will be a problem. Why will it be a problem? Because the media is making it one. The debate moderators were attacking Obama because he isn't American enough, isn't normal enough, isn't man enough.
Later, in the same article, Newton-Small uses passive-voice reporting, another way of shielding media claims from the need for evidence. After discussing some remarks Obama made at a fundraiser, where he described small-town and rural voters as "bitter," Newton-Small writes: "But his efforts to explain the nuances of his meaning have largely been lost amidst an all-out assault by the Clinton campaign." Been lost by whom? Certainly, they've been lost by Newton-Small and the establishment media, which has been speculating on the effects of the remarks almost non-stop for the last two weeks. But it doesn't seem they've been lost on the American public--where his standing in the polls has been unaffected.
The media, believing both in its own objectivity and the narrative of American Exceptionalism, cloaks its essentially normative, value-leaden claims (Politicians should be real men, etc.) in positive terms. They will either--incorrectly--claim that the public believes politicians should be real men, or they will claim--correctly--that the candidate will receive media attention if he isn't a real man. The media makes claims about the viability of a candidate based on their own sick coverage of that candidate. Essentially, they pass off the analysis of their own coverage as the news. It's a cyclical and vaguely masturbatory system, divorced from the outside world. The more they cover something, the more it seems they should be covering it.
Of course, the media is our filter. What they care about does affect what we care about, but this is a far cry from saying that what they care about is what we care about. And, unfortunately, when the media latches onto a narrative as strongly as they have to American Exceptionalism, it's bound to affect the public. The sheer repetition and inanity could break down anyone's will given enough time. Since the media is content to ignore facts about what people care about (Obama's polling data, for example), it seems like a one-way relationship. The media can affect us, but we can't affect the media; the media lives in a bubble made of Teflon. How, then, can we change this narrative?
We could, of course, do what we've always done: ignore the corrosive coverage, and try to play by the media's asinine rules. It's produced disastrous results: just ask Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, really any national Democratic candidate, or flip on your television, and watch yet another vapid news cycle about the next non-issue, tailor-made to impugn the manliness and patriotism of a tireless public servant. We can't easily change the media. American Exceptionalism was birthed with our cultural ethos and proven in the electoral failures of Democratic icons. It seems intractable.
I asked Glenn Greenwald what we could do. He gave me two responses. We can "band together to shame and to disgrace and pressure the media for perpetuating these myths and for being so indifferent to the views of the American public." Or we can "create alternatives to the media establishment, so that one can stop caring about what it is that they perpetuate and disseminate and the myths that they embrace, because there are now alternatives to the establishment press that perform all its functions." Alone, neither of these responses can work. But, in concert, they can--with persistence--change the media.
We need not look too hard for an example. Conservatives used a network of highly partisan news media outlets to create and refine American Exceptionalism. At the same time, they pushed and bullied the media into covering their narrative. The lesson is: changing a narrative is difficult, but it can be done. The Internet has proved fertile ground for progressives and Democrats. They have carved out spaces where they can find and build narratives that might compete with Exceptionalism in the mainstream. At the same time, however, it does no good to push a new narrative into a sick media, into a vain and narcissistic media with, what Glenn Greenwald calls, a "junior high school-like mentality and social structure." Greenwald is right.
We--every American who believes in a sane news coverage--must "shame, disgrace, and pressure" the media. They have perpetuated a venomous narrative at the expense of reason and our cultural-political well-being, and it will take a concerted, active effort to undo the damage they have done and to foster a self-aware and responsible media.::
I don't have a solution. But any solution requires awareness and a pressing need. For every minute that our babbling, nattering media focuses on Edwards's hair, that is one less minute we're hearing about something that matters. It's one less minute we're hearing about our troops fighting and dying in Afghanistan. It's one less minute we're hearing about genocide in Darfur. It's one less minute that the media is actually doing its job. The first amendment comes first for a reason; a free press is our last check on government power. The media, in love with American Exceptionalism, has forgotten its duty.
And our government needs watching. The New York Timesreported recently that The Pentagon was coordinating the messages of the supposedly impartial military analysts in the news; The Pentagon was deliberately and deviously propagandizing the nightly news. Of course, the news media has stayed almost completely silent on this. I would call their silence Orwellian, but that word has been so overused in the last eight years, it has no doubt lost its meaning. It lost its meaning when "Big Brother" became a network reality show. It lost its meaning when our government started to hold people, indefinitely and extra-judicially. It lost its meaning when our government began the unchecked kidnapping (euphemism: extraordinary rendition) of our own citizens. It lost its meaning when we hired mercenaries (euphemism: contractors) to torture in our name.
The media's despicable silence--their cowering acquiescence--has allowed a terrifying dismantling of our most basic civil rights at the hands of a secretive and deceitful administration. The Roman poet Juvenal asked Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchmen? Our government needs watching, and the media, our erstwhile watchmen, failed us. They failed us because of their infatuation with a narrative gone wrong. They failed us because of their sickening, masturbatory vanity.
The next time you see Chris Matthews utter some pathetic fart of punditry, or watch Joe Scarborough asking the asinine, the next time you turn on the TV to the news and see the vapid, screaming heads of our media luminaries, remember: these are America's watchmen.