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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Jonathan Ladd, Why Americans Hate the Media and How It Matters

Welcome Jonathan Ladd and Host Spocko

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]

Why Americans Hate the Media and How It Matters

Here are a few fascinating things I learned in Jonathon Ladd’s book, Why American’s Hate The Media and How it Matters.

  • Our Founding Fathers and their buddies often started their own newspapers to support them.
  • The Gazette of the United States was Washington’s.
  • When a rift developed between Washington’s Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson and Treasury Secretary Alexander  Hamilton, Jefferson started the National Gazette.

The stated purpose of  The Gazette of the United States was,  “to be the organ of the government.” Its editor, John Fenno, was kept on the Treasury Department’s payroll as a way of  subsidizing and keeping control of the paper.  (So when Roger Ailes pitched GOP-TV, aka. Fox News, to Richard Nixon, he was just following a historical precedence.)

The role of the political parties and their supporters’ outright funding of the press has a long history in the United States. Ladd writes:

Yet in guaranteeing freedom of the press, politicians at the time did not have in mind protections for a profession called journalism, because such a profession did not exist. In Timothy Cook’s words, “[t]he job of a reporter, as we know it today, was nonexistent.” Nor did they have in mind an important political institution that would wield power independent of government and politicians. To the extent that those who produced newspapers and pamphlets were involved in politics at all, political elites (and likely the mass public as well) saw them as useful tools for politicians and political movements with little independent agency.

It was an unusual confluence of low political party conflict, the economics of publishing and broadcasting and a rise in  journalism as a profession by 1972 gave us  Walter “the most trusted man in America” Chronkite.

But during this “trusted journalist” era a group of powerful interests and politicians figured out that creating distrust of a trusted independent media could benefit them.  So they started, “working the refs.” [cont’d.]

The methods of sowing distrust came in many forms and from many people. In his book Ladd gives classic examples like Spiro Agnew’s ” nattering nabobs of negativity,” and backs it up with data showing just how wildly successful this effort was. He shows who was doing it in the 1970’s, who is doing it now and who pushes this distrust of the MSM the hardest.

Just how successful?  A 2004 Chronicle of Higher Education poll found that only 10% of Americans had “a great deal” of confidence in the “national news media,” about the same as lawyers, in whom 9% of Americans had “a great deal” of confidence.

It was no surprise to me that talk radio attacked the “MSM” the hardest and that its attacks were also the most influential.  In the comments I’m going to ask him to describe what the research shows in this area.

When I spoke to Ladd about this book salon I explained why I cared about  a working media. In the book he explains some of the reasons why and how it matters.  My friend Allison and I have talked about this a lot, we want and need “the media” to do their job because it is important for the future of the country.

In the book he explains how:

..a lack of faith in the institutional press leads to a significant information loss for the citizenry. Those who distrust the press are more resistant to new information about the state of the nation in major policy areas. This occurs through two different mechanisms. These individuals are both less influenced by the informative messages they receive from the mainstream press and more likely to augment these sources with less conventional, more opinionated sources of news.  As a consequence, they are not simply less informed but less informed in systematic ways that reflect and reinforce their partisan predispositions.

There is important work the MSM does and in some areas they are good at it. The question is, will the forces that do not want “the media” to do a  good job, overwhelm them?

I explained to Ladd that I consider myself an activist and when I read about the media I want to understand it so I can DO something about it.  Either I want to understand how the right wing media and Fox News work their magic so I can bust them or replicate it elsewhere. I want to understand how the economics of talk radio work so I can bust them.

Some people want to understand how an influential partisan media work so they can use if for “our side”.  To plug this into current events we can talk about Current TV.  Here we have <strike> President </strike> Al Gore and his supporters founding a media entity, just like Presidents Washington and Jefferson did.  Gore  pulled in a powerful opinion maker and subsidized him, just like Washington and Jefferson did with the editors of their papers.

Roger Ailes hires the presidential candidates and powerful opinion makers and pays them to be on Fox TV as “analysts”.

Although we won’t know what happened with Olbermann for days, I’m interested in looking at this event historically from Washington and Jefferson and their “organs of the government” through Nixon, Rodger Ailes and GOP-TV to Bush/Cheney and the Fox News era.

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