Friday, November 07, 2003

THE 'LIBERAL MEDIA' CHARGE MISSES THE POINT

I was reading a BBC piece on Diane Sawyer's interview with Jessica Lynch. According to the piece, "the 20-year-old criticised the release of false information about her capture by Iraqi forces." And noted additionally, "She said she was grateful to the American special forces team which rescued her but, asked whether the Pentagon's subsequent portrayal of her rescue bothered her, she said: 'Yes, it does. They used me as a way to symbolise all this stuff. It's wrong.'"


Now obviously people can draw their own inferences regarding the Department of War's propaganda campaign. Lynch speaks with more authority than I certainly can. But my observation is this. You'd think that the so-called "liberal" media that has such an supposedly large ax to grind with the Republican administration would make a huge deal out the story. "Rescued soldier said Pentagon manipulated her story" would've been an easy headline, especially for a media allegedly so pre-disposed to hating the Bush administration. Yet the story is only a minor aside on the three network news websites, CNN.com and the Fox site (at least two minutes ago when i checked all of them). Or how about the story of how Saddam's regime made a last ditch offer before the invasion to let American inspectors scour Iraq for weapons of mass destruction. Coverage of this in the "liberal media" will certainly lag behind Laci Petersen and Kobe Bryant.


The reason is because allegations about "liberal" bias, even if true in the case of individual journalists, entirely miss the point. Newspapers and newsmagazines, as institutions, tend generally to belong to the liberal establishment. But, they are establishment first and liberal second. When the two come into conflict, the establishment part always triumphs. Witness The New York Times vitriolic crusade against Ralph Nader's candidacy in 2000. A crusade essentially reversing Voltaire's maxim, "I may agree with what you say but will oppose to the death your right to say it."


Television news, as institutions, belong to the entertainment industry and are run as such. They are driven by ratings, not by any political agenda as such. Some would cite Fox News [sic] Channel as a counter but I disagree. FNC is filling a perceived vacuum. A lot of the people who really do believe the media as a whole has a liberal bias flock to FNC. If the perception was of a conservative media bias, FNC or someone else would invent a liberal alternative. It's just business.


The so-called mainstream news' media, print or broadcast, wants easily catergorizable voices. They want "standard liberals" and "standard conservatives" to make a prima face, superficial "balance," even if neither says anything substantive. Challenging readers/listeners isn't a priority and, in some circles, seems to be viewed as a DETRIMENT to ratings. Alan Keyes or Pat Buchanan is as unlikely to be given a fair treatment in a news story as Michael Moore or Noam Chomsky.


The New Republic ran an interesting piece on this very topic. Jonathan Chait, the article's author, notes a point I've made before. The Jayson Blair scandal (and its predecessors) serve as a excuse for the media to avoid true self-critique. They round on the most egregious offenders and pass this off as self-flagellation. When it's really a convenient diversion from the more fundamental problems of how journalism is practiced today. As long as coverage of politics is treated either as either celebrity fluff ("Does the candidate wear boxers or briefs?") or as a horse race ("Who's more likely to win?" rather than "Why we should care if x wins vs y?"), then political coverage will be increasingly irrelevant to the average citizen.

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