American media in the firing line

Godfrey Hodgson
8 June 2005

The revelation, more than thirty years after the Watergate scandal brought down President Richard M Nixon in 1974, that “Deep Throat” - the conduit of secret information to journalists pursuing the story - was none other than Nixon’s acting director of the FBI, W Mark Felt, ought to have been a moment to celebrate the finest traditions of the American press.

Instead, it is yet another reminder that the American model of amicable interaction between responsible media and transparent government is going badly wrong, in two ways: the media have been failing to do their job, and the Bush administration and its attendant heralds have refused fully to accept the legitimacy of media scrutiny.

It was the Felt family, through the inevitable lawyer, that had taken the initiative to break the Deep Throat story. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and their beloved boss, Ben Bradlee, had kept the faith. They had lived up to the journalist’s creed and kept Felt’s secret.

Also by Godfrey Hodgson in openDemocracy:

“The Senate’s filibuster deal: only a truce in the culture wars”

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It ought to have been a celebration, but somehow it wasn’t quite. Some simply mocked that the Washington Post, legendary champion of investigative journalism, had been beaten to its own greatest story, and by Vanity Fair. Some wondered how it came about that the 91-year-old Felt and his family were in penury, not a word that could be used to describe the Post or its reporters. Others again asked whether today’s mainstream journalists would take on government as Bradlee’s and Katharine Graham’s Post did in 1972-3.

Liberals and cannibals

The truth is that America’s “mainstream media” — meaning primarily metropolitan daily newspapers and network television news — are today in all kinds of trouble.

For a start, conservative critics relentlessly deride and accuse them of the one fault they have always tried to avoid: bias, in this case systematic liberal bias. Indignantly as they deny the charge, and hard as they genuinely strive to avoid it, there is no getting away from the fact that the tone of the most influential pieces of the news media industry – the New York Times and the Washington Post, Newsweek and Time, CBS and NBC and even CNN – has been set for decades by people, the great majority of whom see themselves as progressive, who vote Democrat and belong unmistakably to what conservatives see as the liberal elite.

It is also true that, far more even than in the 1950s, and certainly more than in the 1960s and 1970s, any such liberal bias is now aggressively challenged by institutions and journalists that do not bother to deny that they too have a bias. The most successful television news provider, Fox News, is unashamedly conservative. Talk radio is dominated by coarse, often abusive rightwing voices.

The supposedly liberal mainstream, moreover, increasingly offers a guaranteed outlet to professional conservatives. The New York Times, presumably in an effort to offset the charge of liberal bias, employs avowedly conservative columnists such as John Tierney (successor to a fellow conservative, William Safire) and David Brooks, while the Washington Post has Robert Novak and Charles Krauthammer, predictable champions of the right.

On television talk shows, a whole menagerie of shrill voices denounce liberalism with all the fervour of the “bawl and jump” preachers of the southern boondocks, coated with the accents and smooth vocabulary of the Ivy League. The once supposedly liberal mainstream mirrors the political scene: conservatives without an ideological doubt in their heads confront progressives who, with few exceptions, seem timid and hesitant.

This is not altogether surprising, given the series of incidents that have exposed complacency and incompetence in once revered newsrooms. The reputation of the New York Times is taking time to recover from the revelations of dishonest reporting by Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg, twin scandals that brought down an editor, Howell Raines, and his right-hand man, Gerald Boyd. That was poor editorial control, with a suspicion of political correctness (Blair and Boyd are African-Americans, Raines and Bragg southern liberals). The conservative Wall Street Journal has appointed a new “readers’ editor”, while USA Today has problems controlling reportorial imagination.

The troubles extend to broadcasting and magazines, where a scandal at CBS forced the departure of Dan Rather after his producers fell for a (blatantly) fraudulent document that seemed to confirm charges that President Bush dodged the Vietnam draft. More recently Newsweek (owned by the Washington Post company) had to retreat from a story alleging that a government report would support allegations that guards at Guantànamo stuffed a Qur’an down a toilet.

The alarming thing is that both CBS and Newsweek were disgraced for reporting that was inaccurate in detail but may well have been substantially true. The president did avoid going to Vietnam, however bogus the supposed proofs CBS cited. Qur’ans, it turned out, were indeed kicked in the direction of toilets, and splashed with urine by insouciant guards. Ideologues of the right, it seems, may write what they please: their opponents on the left are to be pilloried if they make the smallest mistake.

Silence and suspicion

The fact is that the great American news organisations, once proud to the verge of arrogance, are now running scared. The Bush administration, in the post-9/11 climate, has to a frightening extent succeeded in intimidating them. Its operatives have been caught in a number of dirty tricks, including putting bogus “journalists” on the public payroll.

I myself had a spooky experience that may or may not reveal the hidden hand of government news and opinion management. In summer 2004 I published a book, More Equal than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century, that was critical of the administration’s policies and of conservative dogma. While on a book tour to promote it, I was invited to do a one-hour interview for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) with the respected television journalist and former official in the Lyndon B Johnson administration, Bill Moyers.

A whole hour on national television, discussing my book! You can imagine how pleased I was, all the more so when the taping went well. You can also imagine how disappointed I was to be told the interview would not be used. Some not-very-epoch-making news event had bumped it off the schedule. Besides, said the bright young producer, two elderly liberals agreeing with each other, what’s new?

Not being of a suspicious nature, I accepted this explanation and licked my wounds in silence. But then Moyers’s show, Now, was taken off air. The chief executive of PBS, Pat Mitchell, is a woman of a liberal persuasion; but Kenneth Tomlinson, chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and, in effect, Moyers’s boss at the network, is a Bush administration appointee. He hired a senior White House aide to draw up guidelines to review the content of public radio and television broadcasts!

Was my precious hour of exposure stifled with a pillow somewhere in the corridors of power? I don’t know. But Bill Moyers, one of the most reliably intelligent and serious producers and interviewers on American television, as well as one of the most staunchly liberal, has lost his show. (He has been shunted off to another, safely non-political slot.) At a conference in mid-May, he spoke out. “The more compelling our journalism, the angrier became the radical right of the Republican Party,” he said. “The one thing they loathe more than liberals is the truth. They want your reporting to validate their belief system, and when it doesn’t, God forbid.” Moyers said he has come to understand that “news is what people want to keep hidden and everything else is publicity.”

Propaganda and piety

The background to these pressures and tensions is the headlong polarisation of American politics – between conservatives with no doubts and liberals with no confidence. But it is also the increasingly precarious position of those classic bastions of media freedom: daily newspapers and television network news departments.

Most American newspapers are still immensely profitable, mainly because most of them are monopolies. In all but a couple of dozen of the roughly 1,400 newspaper markets in the country, if you want to rent a house or buy a car, you have only one newspaper management to turn to for classified advertising. By one calculation, only the pharmaceutical industry has delivered a higher average return on capital.

But circulation is declining. Many newspaper executives, and many journalists, fear that it is only a matter of a few years before their beloved product will be squeezed out between freesheets, blogs, radio and TV. The result will be that the newspapers will duplicate the worst features of these competing media and become increasingly unadventurous, parochial, obsessed with gossip and celebrity, and pre-packaged by public relations firms – some of which can threaten to withdraw advertising from publications that print stories they don’t like.

It is not only timid media executives that are to blame. The public, even where not converted to conservative dogma, must share responsibility. “An unconscious people”, says Moyers,

“an indoctrinated people, a people fed only partisan information and opinion that confirm their own bias, a people made morbidly obese in mind and spirit by the junk food of propaganda, is less inclined to put up a fight, ask questions and be sceptical”.

The administration and its followers have persuaded many Americans that what they once saw as the “mainstream media” are the partisan liberal media. If that were still the case, it would be surprising indeed that so few challenge the administration’s tax policies, its bullying tactics, its take on the war in Iraq, or indeed its sophisticated campaign against the constitutional guarantees of press freedom.

The Bush administration is not very skilful at balancing the budget or administering Iraq. But, helped by a certain complacency in the newsrooms, it has been very skilful at building a culture of euphemism by time-honoured tactics: the suggestion of the false and the suppression of the true. And the worst of it is that the administration passionately believes in the divine nature of its mission. As a Victorian-era radical said of the pious William Gladstone: it was not the fact that he had the fifth ace up his sleeve that was so infuriating, it was his insistence that the Almighty had put it there.

Further Links


New York Times:

Washington Post:

Fox News:

Time magazine:

Overview of US media:

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