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Neutrality, Gaslight, and the Truth: The State of American Media

Gaslight Movie Card

Considering FDL's role in the process of remaking and reforming journalism — a role highlighted by the signally excellent work done by Jane and Marcy and Company in liveblogging the Libby trial — I thought it might be appropriate to do a long, rambling post on how American journalism came to be in such dire need of reform.

So settle down, kick off your shoes, crack open a cold one and read on for a highly non-neutral, un-balanced, but scrupulously fact-based (at least, I think so) account of how the American press came to be playing Charles Boyer to our Ingrid Bergman in a decades-long remake of Gaslight.

When I was in college, one of my English classes discussed literary theory. The teacher started us out with Leavis and Lacan, finishing up with the late Canadian author Northrop Frye, who — quite literally — wrote the book on the subject. So we dutifully read and absorbed what Leavis and Lacan and Frye had to say about neutrality and balance and the rest, and when it was done we felt ourselves ready to go out and inflict literary and journalistic criticism on the world. And then the instructor introduced us to Terry Eagleton's book Literary Theory.

Remember the first time you read Joseph Conrad? Remember that amazing sensation of seeing all sorts of comforting veils ripped from your mind, the strange sort of harsh three-o'clock-in-the-morning floodlit-crime-scene-video clarity that makes your inner eyes squint from the unaccustomed harshness?

That's what Terry Eagleton was like for me.  I didn't agree with everything he said, but that didn't matter — he got me and everyone else in that classroom to think, seriously think, about the underlying assumptions of the cultural matrix in which we lived, had grown up and were nurtured.

The first thing Eagleton did was to step right up and say that he was a Marxist, and an unabashed one — something that caused a frisson of tittering amongst the students, in this era when Marxism was a dirty word and liberalism would soon join it on the dirty-word heap.

The second thing he did was to say that there was no such thing as "neutrality" in the Northrop Frye (and Western journalistic) sense of the word. Everyone has a viewpoint and a bias, we cannot exist otherwise, and the honest thing to do is to state the biases clearly so people can use them to gauge what you say.  In Eagleton's view, "neutrality" as stated by Frye and by the Western media establishment was a cop-out used to avoid confronting various uncomfortable truths about Western society.

Which brings us to American journalism, circa 2007.

As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but they are not entitled to their own facts. However, in the name of "neutrality" — or "balance", as it's more commonly called, especially by FOX News — the facts have been shoved aside by opinions much if not most of the time in what passes for top-flight journalism.

Much of this is because of a genuine desire on the part of journos to be even-handed and fair, and to show all sides of an issue even when one side is clearly in the wrong. This is often a sign of genuine lefties — the willingness to bend over backwards so far that occasionally their spines snap.  But all too often, I fear that this desire for fairness is window dressing — conscious or internalized — on the imperative to please their bosses, the conservative owners of the conservative corporations who own most of our major media outlets, and which benefited mightily from Republican givebacks.

What sorts of bennies did they get?  Well, there were such things as the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine under Reagan, the massive corporate tax cuts under Bush, and the gutting of much of the FCC's regulatory authority, particularly its anti-trust regulatory authority.

This, to me, is the main thing that explains the increasingly repeated failure of our big-ticket press corps to see what is right in front of their noses.  It is very sad to see this — especially since the American press, after the yellow-journalistic nadir of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had been intent on improving itself and shaking off the pernicious influence of William Randolph Hearst.  (A discussion of the influence of Hearst on the US press would take up at least two posts in itself.)

How did the press get neutered?   What made them regress back to Hearst-esque yellow journalism?  How were they conditioned to reject calling 'em as they saw 'em in favor of "fairness" and "neutrality" and "balance" — a "balance" that keeps getting shoved to the right?   

The answer lies in the work of none other than the late William Simon, who some of you may remember as the disgraced ex-President Nixon's "energy czar" in the early 1970s. (His son has connections to Enron, by the way. But I digress.)

As a conservative Republican, Simon was deeply, deeply enraged over the fact that Nixon was laid low. He wanted revenge. More than that, he wanted to engineer a conservative takeover, not just of American media, but of American colleges, legal foundations and research institutions — the very places most commonly associated with determining what is truth and what is not.

The first stage: Convincing his fellow conservatives to stop giving money to mainstream institutions, and to instead set up or give their money to conservative institutions. Institutions such as colleges (such as Jerry Falwell's Liberty University and Tom Monaghan's Ave Maria College), professional societies (such as the Federalist Society, the conservatives' answer to the American Bar Association), and of course Big Media outlets (such as Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times, Rupert Murdoch's FOX News, Jack Welch's NBC News — remember, former Republican National Committee Chair Roger Ailes ran NBC's news division before Murdoch hired him to start FOX News in the US — and most of the AM radio dial after the Fairness Doctrine was killed in 1987).

The second stage: Getting the majority of Americans to accept these conservative outlets as the real arbiters of truth and to discredit the non-conservative versions as "liberal" — and to do this by muddying the waters where truth is concerned. Their chief weapon: The deliberate confusion/conflation of truth with "balance" and "fairness".

By the time of Bill Clinton's second term, Stage One was all but complete, and Stage Two, especially in the radio part of the media, was well advanced. "Liberal" was now just as much a dirty word as "Communist" or "Nazi" in the American lexicon, and few leading Democratic politicians seemed to be interested in reclaiming it. (Or if they were, the media wasn't about to let us know they existed, unless they could be depicted in an unflattering way: "Hey! Look! There's Fat Teddy Kennedy, spouting off again! Aren't his jowls funny?  And John Conyers is such a cranky old Negro!")  The alliances between the Republican Party and Big Media were rock-solid, so much so that when the GOP Congress sent the Office of the "Independent" Counsel off on its famed fishing expedition against the Clintons, Big Media happily enabled it.

It didn't matter that the Whitewater real estate scam, which the OIC was supposed to be probing, had already been investigated repeatedly and the Clintons shown to be victims, not instigators; the Whitewater probe was just the cover the Republicans wanted to go digging into Bill Clinton's underwear drawer. (The original OIC chief, Robert Fiske, was forced out of the job by the Republicans before he could shut down shop and issue his findings exonerating the Clintons; Kenneth Starr was selected to replace him, and the rest, as they say, is history.)

And when the OIC found evidence of a sexual affair by Bill Clinton, and looked for ways to criminalize it (they finally settled on trying to create a perjury trap, except that the trap was doomed from the start in that the statement in question had nothing to do with what the OIC was supposed to be investigating), they and their media partners thought they had finally hit on the Conservatives' Holy Grail, the revenge for Watergate that they had sought for so long: The toppling of a Democratic President.

Except that they neglected to consider one thing: The rise of online journalism.

Sure, they knew about the internet. Hell, they even used conservative web gadfly Matt Drudge to put questionably-sourced OIC leaks "in play" so people like Michael Isikoff could crib from them and call it reporting.

But they didn't know about the rest of the internet. Specifically, they didn't know about Salon.com.

Back in early 1998, Salon was just about the only place one could turn to for a concentrated and thorough recital of the actual facts concerning The Hunting of the President — or CoupGate, to use another term for it.  It was just about the only major media source in the US that didn't depict Ken Starr and his crew as knights in shining armor. 

Through the coverage provided by Murray Waas and Mollie Dickenson and Joe Conason and a few other brave souls at Salon and elsewhere, we learned things about the OIC that the GOP/Media Complex were at pains to conceal — such as the connections between Michael Isikoff and Ken Starr and the OIC , who fed him patently illegal grand jury leaks that were often pushed through their mutual friend Matt Drudge so as to put them into "media play".  (And let's not even go into Steno Sue Schmidt , who should have asked Ken Starr for a paycheck considering how assiduously she stenographed his agenda for her readers.)

The first flush of Salon's journalistic flower didn't last long — the burst of the dot-com bubble eviscerated Salon's newsroom — but it lasted long enough to push back the right-wing coup efforts a couple of years.   And that in itself bought us enough time to get Air America and Democracy Radio — talk-radio aimed at those people who weren't already listening to Pacifica or Democracy Now! — off the ground, and for the reality-based part of the blogosphere to come into its own.  (And it's having an influence on how journalists in Big Media view their methologies and philosophies — as this blog by Eric Black of the Star Tribune shows.)

And as the castle of lies erected by the Bush Junta comes crumbling down, the people who were Bush's enablers are losing credibility and customers:  FOX News' ratings have been on a steady downward slide, the righty blogs of the bigotsphere have lost readers even as the reality-based blogs gain in readership and influence, and we've seen people like Bob Woodward and Judith Miller and Tim Russert, the toasts of their fellow Big Media steno pool members, revealed to be hacks and shills and sell-outs.

We're still outmanned and outspent and outgunned.  But our numbers are growing, and we have a big advantage in that it's far less effort to tell the truth than to constantly weave and reweave lies.  And as Charles Boyer found out in Gaslight, even the best lies eventually fall apart of their own sheer weight.  

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