The Decay of American Media
Toward a Poor Journalism
One evening a half-dozen years ago, I stayed at the house of Albert Maysles, the noted documentary filmmaker, in upper Manhattan. I had just flown in from Hong Kong, where I was living at the time. This was my first trip back to the States in some years.
Something strange—strange to me—happened over dinner. We had not quite finished when someone looked at the kitchen clock and exclaimed, “The Colbert Report is on in three minutes!” In half that time the table was empty and we all had seats around the television set. No one—no one other than I—seemed to think this abrupt migration needed explaining.
I had never before seen a show such as Stephen Colbert’s. I knew nothing of the commonly understood genealogy: Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show begat The Colbert Report, even as it has more recently begotten John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. “Fake news” is now a broadcasting genre. I confess I still do not watch these programs much. But I go back to that evening, when the phenomenon came at me all at once. “First thought best thought,” Ginsberg used to say. And my first thought about this new kind of humor—comedians cast as news presenters—disturbs me as much now as it did then.
Fake news shows are a particular kind of satire. They are political, plainly, but this did not strike me, and does not now, as their salient feature. They are first of all media satire. They are about an official version of the truth, and the media’s participation in the production and dissemination of this untrue truth. They are finally about what we, consumers and users of information, know to be the true truth—or at least a truer truth—and the distance between this truth and the official version. As a friend explained that evening in a truth-telling filmmaker’s living room, “It’s humor, but it’s where we get ‘the news.’ It’s funny because it’s so far from what the media tell us. That’s ‘the joke.’”
“You’ll get used to it,” someone else added.
I never have. As I went upstairs that night, that first thought was, “This is what the Czechs, Poles, and Hungarians did during the later Soviet period.” All was text and subtext: This was their joke. Authentic communication was openly secret, buried within the orthodoxy. Satire was more than a comic device: It was a mask one wore to preserve some shred of authenticity in public space. If all culture is subculture, as I have long thought, the East Europeans gave a perfect example. And our mainstream media, where these programs appear, have entered their East European phase. The Czechs did not use the term “fake news,” surely. But for them it would have been a misnomer, upside down, as it is for television-viewing Americans in the early 21st century. The fake news is what is satirized, the satire is the real.
It is treacherous to posit the golden age of anything, and especially so if the topic is the American press. Doris Kearns Goodwin, the hagiographer of “great Americans,” recently assigned the label to the Progressive Era, and Bill Keller, the former executive editor of The New York Times, called Kearns’s book “a pretty grand story” in his review of it. It is that—a story—but it does not hold up otherwise. The noted muckrakers of the time—Steffens, Tarbell, Sinclair Lewis—wrote an alternative truth in opposition. There was nothing otherwise golden going on. Mainstream journalism was Hearst and Pulitzer, who fear-mongered among white Americans with the “yellow peril” theme and got war fever going as Roosevelt made up reasons to start the SpanishAmerican War. This was the story, not the sidebar, and good enough to begin a critique of the press as we have it with mention of this period. Relations between the media and power have rarely been healthy since.
Even without some golden age as reference, American media are well on in a critical period of decay—critical to any paying-attention practitioner and also to what little remains of American democracy. Readers of this magazine will not find the thought that mainstream media are unreliable at all surprising. But the betrayal of ordinary readers and viewers has reached an extreme—so generating a deserved mistrust that is probably without precedent. A startling proportion of people are at least faintly aware that they are being misled, incessantly treated to lies as to events, causality, responsibility, and motive. There is as much or more misinformation and disinformation as at the height of the Cold War decades.
There is very much more of what I call “the power of leaving out,” the untruth of omission. This one finds in every edition of every major newspaper, on every wire service, and in every broadcast news report. It is especially prevalent in coverage of foreign affairs. Washington’s authorization of last year’s coup in Egypt has had one mention in the mainstream American press, and this appears to have been a slip of the tongue, never repeated. The Obama administration backed a coup in Kiev and now backs a government that is the first anywhere since 1945 to equip and field Nazi militias. Mention of these too-large-to-evade facts are so few and so attenuated that reality is deprived of any reality. This is the power of leaving out.
The extreme just noted is alarming and has come upon us over the past dozen years. Since 2001 American media have committed themselves to totalizing what now amounts to a parallel reality. Ukraine, wherein this extreme has worsened measurably, is a textbook example. The coup earlier this year and the war that followed had little to do with democratic principles and everything to do with (1) wresting Crimea’s Black Sea naval installations from Moscow’s control and (2) gaining access to natural gas resources for Chevron and other energy corporations. These realities are documented; I have seen not a single mention of either in mainstream American media.
We have seen this elsewhere and read our Orwell and must put aside what versions of “it can’t happen here” may linger within us. This is a capitulation to a pernicious assignment: to transform the national discourse into spectacle. Thinking in terms of public space, we now live in a strategic hamlet. “We are destroying the village to save it” was the thought behind the Pentagon’s Vietnam-era euphemism. We can borrow it in that our media have all but destroyed our public space in the name of preserving it. I would defend these assertions against any charge of exaggeration.
* * *
There are things to do in response to this new circumstance. But before proceeding to them it is best to understand the pathology that has led the press and its users into this moment of crisis.
Since 1945, after which American primacy reached its high point, the nation’s media have had two moments when they faced the same fundamental choice. These came in 1947, when the Truman administration started the Cold War by backing the Greek monarchy against a democratic insurgency, and in 2001, when the second Bush administration declared its “war on terror.” In each case the media were forced into a choice they never should have accepted or made. This was between their professional standards and ethics, however well or badly they lived by them, and patriotic loyalty. In each case they made the mistake of choosing, and twice they chose wrongly
The Cold War decades were without question the single most shameful passage in the modern history of the American press. This is why so little is ever said today about what newspapers and broadcasters did during this time. The record is clear and perfectly available. But one finds no desire to examine it with the intent of learning from error. I have often argued in our post-2001 context that the best way for a journalist to be a good American is to be a good journalist. With exceptions, this thought was absent from the 1950s through the 1980s. Fear ruled, not less in the press than in film and elsewhere. One was a patriot first, only then a professional. In effect, a journalist following this dictum was neither, of course. The Watergate period was one exception, but the power the press exercised, and the independence it displayed, led quickly to a reconsolidation of power over it once Reagan assumed the presidency. American media had a very bad Cold War, in short, and in my view they have never recovered.
Now to the second decisive moment.
Last summer, after she was fired as Bill Keller’s successor at the Times, Jill Abramson gave a speech at the Chautauqua Institution, an old convocation of well-intended self-improvers in upstate New York. In it, Abramson described and then explained the media’s response to the September 11th attacks in New York and Washington. She was the Times’ Washington bureau chief when, immediately afterward, Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, convened every influential editor in the capital on a conference call. This was the defining encounter, as Abramson described it:
The purpose of his call was to make an agreement with the press—this was just days after 9/11—that we not publish any stories that would go into details about the sources and methods of our intelligence programs. I have to say, that in the wake of 9/11, all of us readily agreed to that.
A minute or so later on the podium, Abramson reflected thus:
It wasn’t complicated to withhold such information. And for some years, really quite a few years, I don’t think the press, in general, did publish any stories that upset the Bush White House or seemed to breach that agreement.
Elsewhere in her presentation, Abramson offered a personal view that stands as the clearest example I have ever heard or read of the error I described above: “Journalists are Americans, too,” she said in defense of all the withheld stories and all the leaving out that flowed from the pact with Fleischer. “I consider myself…to be a patriot.”
The second moment of decision was a straight-ahead reprise of the first, which is what you get when you refuse to look at the past and learn from it, and the years since speak for themselves. In each case, there was a question of identity: What is the media’s relationship to power? Is it, in the old spirit of “the Fourth Estate,” a freestanding pole of power, or is it an adjunct of political and military power and the power of prevailing ideology? In our context, consider simply the consequences had the American press resisted (as others outside America did) Bush’s definition of the war on terror as war. A critical distance would have been restored, and it is very possible we would now have a government less violent and reckless abroad and less intrusive everywhere.
As it has happened, the mainstream press now fails its public incessantly. There is a straight line with many markers between its indefensible coverage of the WMD fabrications preceding the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the lapses in coverage of the NSA, coverage of the coups in Egypt and Ukraine, of Syria and across the Middle East and elsewhere. As this list suggests, the betrayals of principle and responsibility are worst in cases of events abroad and national security. To me, this reflects our historical moment: In America’s late-imperial phase, the preservation of power and primacy now becomes an ever more desperate project. Given the identity they have chosen for themselves at critical moments, the media must make their commitment to official text total—so creating the elaborate subtext, a vast unsayable next to the sayable. This is a distinction most of us know and make even if we are not consciously aware of it.
* * *
In her post-Times pose as media critic, Abramson speaks often of “our mandate to keep all of you informed,” as she put it in the Chautauqua lecture. The phrase is only apparently innocuous. In it we find the original sin that now leads media on their course of self-destruction. To understand this we have to go back to the 1920s and two of the period’s prominent thinkers, Walter Lippmann and John Dewey.
Dewey, the noted social reformer, and Lippmann, the journalist and public intellectual, were concerned with the same new question. America was busy industrializing, urbanizing, and corporatizing. Power in the post-World War I era was suddenly more complex and opaque. What is the fate, then, of the citizen in a mass democracy? How could people keep up with all that occurred around them? And what, therefore, was the proper function of the press?
What comes down to us as the Lippmann-Dewey debate is well-known among journalism professors and a few thoughtful journalists. Oddly, the two never debated: They simply published different positions on these questions. Lippmann, high priest in the American cult of the expert, had little faith in a democratic citizenry. Political affairs and policy were to be the preserve of a sequestered elite. Journalists were to be part of this elite, their task being to convey information downward from the mount—“to keep all of you informed,” in Abramson’s phrase. She and almost all her mainstream colleagues are Lippmannites, in a word.
Dewey was with Lippmann in more respects than is commonly understood. Neither thought the average citizen able to grasp current events beyond those of very immediate interest. But he was suspicious of any notion that the press was to act as the tribune-like bearer of news from the cloistered universe of experts outward to the less capable masses. Dewey, of a communitarian bent, saw the press as public space wherein took place an infinitely sided exchange. Its job was to give readers all available perspectives, so enabling them to judge independently of interests. Between Dewey and Lippmann, roughly speaking, lay the difference between popular and elite democracy, Jefferson and Hamilton.
There is a large irony here. Lippmann, like many a disillusioned socialist after him, advertised himself as a democratic realist. But his faith in the integrity and disinterest of a trained elite was hopelessly idealistic. Dewey was an idealist, but his argument that the press should be embedded in its community and stand at a distance from political and corporate power was and remains unassailably realistic. Implicitly, Lippmann posited a passive citizenry, Dewey one of activists. Many commentators have weighed in on Lippmann-Dewey over the decades. Among the better of them is E.J. Dionne, the Washington Post columnist, who took up the topic in his 1996 book on progressive Democrats, They Only Look Dead: “Journalism ought to be where facts, convictions, and argument meet…The press, by seeing its role as informing the public, abandons its role as an agency for carrying on the conversation of our culture.”
This abandonment is now more or less complete. We live amid the inevitable outcome of the two moments of decision described earlier, when media sealed their fate as Lippmannites. Standing at the far end of the second of these decisive moments, it is easy to see where it has led the profession. The stance of the journalist in the face of power must by definition be adversarial. For any reporter or editor who assumes the Lippmannite position, the job description changes from journalist to clerk. And this is what American journalists, by and large, have made of themselves: With notable exceptions, they manage the bulletin boards of the political, policy-making, defense, and security cliques wherein American power now resides.
* * *
It is impossible to look upon this impasse and leave it without response. Who will carry on the conversation of our culture? As anyone who travels outside America knows, our press has left many Americans strikingly ignorant relative to others as to the world around us and our nation’s place in it. This is perilous. How to replace this ignorance with knowledge and understanding?
My answers begin with this: The place of alternative media such as CounterPunch has already begun to change fundamentally. Among mainstream media we see a hollowing out in which no future is apparent: They retain influence as they surrender credibility. All mainstream journalism, on and off the battlefield, effectively becomes “embedded journalism.” This process will continue, influence ever dwindling. And it places a new weight of responsibility on so-called alternative media. I have never cared for this term, and now, ever more plainly, these media provide not “alternative” narrative and interpretation but authentic versions of the same. They publish and broadcast less “against” media more powerful than they but “for” perfectly ordinary, discernible truths. They are the antidote to ignorance.
There is also the responsibility all of us bear, but journalists in particular, to history. Mainstream journalists do not often produce history’s first draft, as the old adage goes, however much they may or may not have done so in the past. Journalism in our time and by the evidence in many others, is the first draft of the accounting of things power intends to deploy to keep truth out of the history books. It is important now for journalists outside the mainstream to recognize the burden this places upon them. They are the historian’s true friends and bear the duty the historian imposes. Plainly and simply, this means forcing the great unsayable into what is said. It is to push the naked emperor squarely into the conversation. And this is done whenever journalists speak the unspoken language. This is the task of those truly responsible among them.
* * *
It will be evident by now that I advocate a top-to-bottom renovation. By this I mean an act of restoration accomplished over a period of time, a recovery of journalism as an autonomous institution. How and where this is done is an insideoutside question. In the “where” box, the job might get done within established media, but this is far from certain and a generational project even in the best outcome. And alternative media are again essential in any case: Only in their presence will mainstream organs accept any obligation to evolve.
As to the “how”—what exactly re-imagined media might look like—there are countless answers. We already have numerous examples of the process in motion, but there is a lot of territory still unexplored. My own thinking draws from an unlikely source. Some readers will remember Jerzy Grotowski, the Polish theater director and theorist prominent in the late 1960s. His most influential book, published in 1968, was called Towards a Poor Theater, and I name my thesis in tribute: I urge journalists to work toward a poor journalism.
Grotowski’s project rested on a radical stripping away. Theater by his time was encrusted with convention, artifice, and “plastic elements”—elaborate costume and makeup, lighting, sets, and so on. Lots of distracting junk at the expense of purity, in short. With naturalism the principle, the proscenium had become a prison, confining actors and audiences alike. Performers wore “life masks,” alienated not just from their audiences but, more poignantly, from their own thoughts, emotions, and bodies. A play, in short, was mere spectacle. This Grotowski called “rich theater.”
Poor theater arose from the simple question, What is theater? When all not essential is taken away, what remains? Grotowski’s answers were two. When rich theater’s furnishings were removed, including the proscenium, it transformed the performer-audience relationship: They entered into the rawest kind of direct contact possible. Two, there was performance, the actors. In his Polish Theater Laboratory, Grotowski trained them for years—in movement and muscle control, psychological and emotional training—to equip them to connect, above all and as honestly as possible, with themselves—and only then with an audience. This was poor theater, the object being “to cross our frontiers, exceed our limitations, fill our emptiness.” (Anyone who saw Beck and Malina’s Living Theater at this time, or Joe Chaikin’s Open Theater, has an idea of what Grotowski meant.)
We borrow and bend Grotowski’s question, then. What is journalism before it is anything else? A few dozen journalism graduates scattered around the world will know my answer: It is seeing and saying, at bottom nothing more. Scrape away the superfluous and the conventions and you have reporting, observation, and writing or speaking or filming. All the rest is eligible for removal, and the craft’s accreted encumbrances are simply too numerous to name. Many derive from unhealthy relationships with power—political power, corporate power, financial power (via the stock market listings of media companies), bureaucratic power, the power of editorial hierarchies, the power of embedded ethical corruptions. All these must be scrubbed clean. The journalist as seer and sayer discards almost all of the intricate conventions familiar to anyone practicing the craft. There is no beholden-ness to come between the journalist and the work.
Among the too-numerous-to-list problems, three are egregious. One is the corrupting of accuracy and honesty in exchange for access. No journalist alive does not know the unwritten rules of “the access game.” All offers to bargain on the point should be withdrawn. Two is the self-censorship transmitted throughout the system. This has been prevalent and customary for so long as to be more pernicious than the overt variety. Once journalism reclaims its proper place, this can recede and disappear.
Three concerns language. To assume the language of institutions and the language of sources and those covered—civilian casualties are “collateral damage,” flesh-and-blood soldiers are “boots on the ground,” the coup in Egypt last year was “the restoration of democracy,” and so on infinitely—is to work in false language. It is to make the journalist a collaborator. It is the single most effective device forcing journalists into the state of alienation from self that is common among them. The language of obscurantist bureaucrats is required at one or another organ according to its proximity to power, the Times being Exhibit A. Orwell described the way false language devastates our ability to think clearly—precisely its purpose—in “Politics and the English Language,” published in the spring of 1946, and the problem as we have it is seven decades’ worth of worse.
I describe a cleansing process only in brief, but its point should be plain. Rich journalism creates distance between readers and journalists and—miss this not—between journalists wearing the “life-masks” of the profession and themselves—what they truly know and think and think should be said. These distances—journalist from reader, journalist from himself or herself—are now fixed in the culture of the craft. Fake news programs, returning to our starting point, are satires of an alienation that cannot be mentioned. Poor journalism is intended to erase these distances and this alienation—to discard the proscenium, we can say, and make the journalist whole, integrated, not a stranger to himself—filling our emptiness, in Grotowski’s phrase.
This may come across as an angelic idea of what can be done to remedy a dysfunction in our media culture now not short of dangerous. I usually quote Bergson in response to these kinds of charges: “It is no use maintaining that any leap forward does not imply a creative effort. That would be to forget that most great reforms appeared at first impracticable, as in fact they were.” Any journalist who may read this essay can think of it this way: To the extent this project seems impractical is precisely the extent it needs to get done.
* * *
One other aspect of this renovation project—of the many I cannot cover here—must be mentioned briefly. To introduce it, this:
A dozen or so years ago the Overseas Press Club, a long moribund and lately revived institution in New York, gave one of its annual prizes to Amy Goodman, noted host of Democracy Now! Tom “Greatest Generation” Brokaw was the master of ceremonies at the awards dinner, attended by several hundred correspondents and editors. Goodman took the podium, refused the prize, and began to explain why in the admirably direct manner she is known for. Brokaw instantly intervened to force her away from the microphone: “No, no, no…, We don’t accept this kind of…, You can’t…,” and so on. Not until numerous of us shouted him down was Goodman able to finish.
A disgraceful display by any measure, and here is the point of the tale: Journalists have to get poor in the ordinary meaning of this term if the profession is to reclaim its integrity. I do not refer to reporters and editors paid ordinary salaries for (the best of them) honorable work that would be more honorable were the craft cleaner. I refer to the upper ranks—the Brokaws, Bill Kellers, and so on. As Brokaw’s outburst made perfectly clear, these people are vastly too invested in the elite they aspire to join and defend. Whatever they may have been as they came up in the craft, too much money and aggrandizement has ruined them. Their work is purely clerical.
In a single word, journalists must become and remain unincorporated, and this I mean in all senses of the term. “Disenfranchised” will also do. The unique place they occupy, in society but not altogether of it, must be observed— honored, even. This requires mechanisms allowing them a significant distance from power so that they can remain faithful to their own consciousness of themselves and their ethics. Money does not serve this purpose; modest living does. And power here includes the power of media owners. In my view, a system of tenure would be one mechanism addressing these specific problems. The journalist would have the economic security he or she deserves and distance—as in protection— from the people writing the checks.
To some this may come over bitterly. My responses are two. First, I was in the mainstream media for decades and know the power of the poisonous paycheck, as I call it, only too well. Second, I mention what I was told long years ago at one of the New York tabloids (with pride on the part of the teller): Back then the Bureau of Labor Statistics classified journalists as blue-collar workers. And this is just where we should be if we are ever to be free enough to do unsullied work. It is the precondition of authentic disinterest and immunity from intimidation. The adversarial position in the face of power, mentioned earlier, requires this—a kind of disinvestment. Let all aspiration and imagination soar, I argue, but the work and clean hands are the rewards, not places at high table, where the food is processed anyway.