The very strong reaction to NY Times' public editor Arthur Brisbane's ill-considered question about whether the New York Times should act as a "truth vigliante" (yes, it does sound Onion-esque) was a welcome one, reflective of a changing journalistic landscape in which the gatekeeper media is now accountable in unprecedented ways to a sharp, demanding, public readership. But though the overwhelmingly negative response to Brisbane was warranted, the episode itself illustrates the degree to which major political forces have already succeeded in bending the mainstream media to its will -- the result of which has been the triumph of a stenographic view of journalism that absolves media institutions of responsibility for holding public figures accountable for what they say and do.
This victory has both a partisan character and a non-partisan one. On the one hand, Brisbane's toe-in-the-water query about rigorous fact-checking demonstrates the degree to which the decades-long Republican strategy of "working the refs" has paid such massive dividends. To take only one recent of countless examples, Greg Sargent has laid out the Romney campaign's "big lie" strategy in which the likely GOP nominee has been test-driving serial fabrications with what must be very pleasing results. Whether it's blatant falsehoods about Obama's views of free enterprise or the allegation that the president has gone around the world "apologizing" for America, the Romney campaign has banked on the fact that facts are not job one for the mainstream media. Instead, mealy-mouthed genuflections toward "balance" and "objectivity" in the form of he-said, she-said reporting have substituted for actual rigorous investigation of politicians' claims. When he said/she said is the operative practice of major news organizations, the incentive to lie is clear. So far, so good for the Romney campaign, as mainstream media outlets have commonly repeated his falsehoods without noting that they are, you know, false. The recent "lie-of-the year" fiasco involving the often-useful but politically-cowed Politifact -- Politifact preposterously deemed the lie of the year to be the basically true claim that Paul Ryan's proposed plan for Medicare would, in effect, end the program as we know it -- is emblematic of this larger Republican triumph. That the public editor of the supposed high-church of journalistic liberalism could pose the question he did is an especially telling illustration of the extent of that triumph (as Glenn Greenwald has repeatedly made clear, the stenographic model of reporting has clearly served both Democratic and Republican presidents, particularly in the realm of national security issues).
There is also a non-partisan element to this story, one with profound implications for how Americans understand and political forces respond to the extraordinary concentration of wealth and "risk shift" to ordinary Americans that has transpired in the United States over the past three decades.
As I wrote in 2009, the professional groups that most directly shape the national conversation about these issues are overwhelmingly populated by people who live secure and often affluent lives, far removed from the concerns of ordinary Americans. A long time ago, media critic Howard Kurtz wrote a pretty good book, Media Circus. Kurtz argued that some of the key failures of modern journalism were attributable to the changing class composition of that vocation. Kurtz noted that journalism had been considered, at one time, a blue-collar field, populated substantially by folks who saw as their job to "get city hall" and advocate on behalf of those who had the least access to the corridors of power. Kurtz argued that the professionalization of journalism, particularly from the 1970s forward (including the advent of journalism schools at elite institutions of higher education), had important implications for what journalists considered significant and urgent, as the economic distance between them and the public grew.
This sociological shift -- in combination with larger political forces that have so decisively re-directed public policy in the interests of the wealthy -- has militated against providing concrete, incisive analysis about the political context for understanding human suffering. Examinations of the devastation of losing a job, or how a factory shipped overseas could destroy a community, or a health catastrophe could engulf a family are transformed into human interest stories, often shorn of an analytical context that might require media outlets to "take sides" and ask such uncomfortable questions as what deeper structural forces are actually responsible for the devastation in question. And this is due, at least in significant part, to the fact that the concerns and priorities that shape our national discourse overwhelmingly reflect the class position of the people who most influence that discourse including -- in no particular order -- star media pundits, captains of industry, elected officials and amply compensated academics, especially economists from elite institutions. Hence, at a time of massive economic decline, resulting in concrete suffering for millions, much of our elite discourse has been taken up with hectoring about deficit spending and inflation, despite the lack of evidence that these things really imperil our economy. Thanks in significant part to Occupy Wall Street, there has been a palpable shift in popular discourse in recent months about those issues and a usable term for the stratum that dominates our economy, political institutions and mainstream media -- the one percent.
Those elite professional strata most responsible for shaping our political and economic discourse (with exceptions, of course) have at once grown richer and, predictably, have increasingly articulated an ideological worldview justifying their privileged positions. The priorities they've articulated -- business-friendly economic policies (including a generally knee-jerk hostility to unionism and uncritical support for "free" trade), a mostly indulgent attitude toward expansions of the national security state and deference to government prerogatives in prosecuting the "war on terror," moderation and prudence in addressing major social problems (with a tendency to focus on the necessity of individual behavioral changes and discomfort with significant government intervention in the economy except when it comes to bailing out major financial interests), a concern for bi-partisanship and civility in elite discourse -- make perfect sense for people who enjoy full material security and all of the perks associated with professional prestige and opportunity. And stenographic journalism is a good fit for that worldview. A rancorous press corps, unafraid of losing access and committed to stirring up trouble and to provoking the powerful might open the floodgates to a much more contentious, wide-ranging debate that would examine the real roots of wealth and power in America. By contrast, he-said/she-said journalism, while it does convey clearly (if in a fundamentally flawed way) the deeply polarized nature of our partisan politics, works well to obscure the deeper divide between the one percent and the ninety-percent. Brisbane's apparently sincere uncertainty about being a truth vigilante illustrates well the unarticulated assumptions of a journalistic ethos calibrated to serve the one percent.
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