All the King's Media
The elite press, like any narcissistic politician, tells a heart-warming myth about itself. Reporters, it is said, dig out the hard facts to share with the people by locating anonymous truth-tellers inside government. They then protect these sources from retaliation by refusing to name them, even at the cost of going to prison. That story line was utterly smashed by this scandal. Reporters were prepared to go to jail to protect sources who were not exactly whistleblowers cowering in anonymity. They were Libby and Karl Rove--the king's own counselors at the pinnacle of government. They were the same guys who collaborated on the bloodiest political deception of the Bush presidency: the lies that took the country into war. So, in a sense, the press was also protecting itself from further embarrassment. The major media, including the best newspapers, all got the war wrong, and for roughly the same reason--their compliant proximity to power. With a few honorable exceptions, they bought into the lies and led cheers for war. They ignored or downplayed the dissent from some military leaders and declined to explore tough questions posed by anyone outside the charmed circle. The nation may not soon forget this abuse of privileged status, nor should it.
Leaks and whispers are a daily routine of news-gathering in Washington. The sweet irony of President Bush's predicament is that it was partly self-induced. His White House deputies enforced discipline on reporters and insiders, essentially shutting down the stream of nonofficial communications and closing the informal portals for dissent and dispute within government. This was new in the Bush era, and it's ultimately been debilitating. It has made reporters still more dependent on the official spin, as the Administration wanted, but it has also sealed off the king from the flow of high-level leaks and informative background noises that help vet developing policies and steer reporters to the deeper news.
The paradox of our predicament is that, unlike the ancien régime, US citizens do enjoy free speech, free press and other rights to disturb the powerful. In this country you can say aloud or publish just about anything you like. But will anyone hear you? The audible range of diverse and rebellious voices has been visibly shrunk in the last generation. The corporate concentration of media ownership has put a deadening blanket over the usual cacophony of democracy, with dissenting voices screened for acceptability by young and often witless TV producers. Corporate owners have a strong stake in what gets said on their stations. Why piss off the President when you will need his good regard for so many things? Viewers have a zillion things to watch, but if you jump around the dial, with luck you will always be watching a General Electric channel.
How did it happen that the multiplication of outlets made possible by technology led to a concentration of views and opinions--ones usually anchored by the conventional wisdom of center-right sensibilities? Where did the "freedom" go? Where are the people's ideas and observations? Al Gore, who found his voice after he lost the presidency, recently expressed his sense of alarm: "I believe that American democracy is in grave danger. It is no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse." The bread-and-circuses format that monopolizes the public's airwaves is driven by a condescending commercial calculation that Americans are too stupid to want anything more. But that assumption becomes fragile as other voices find other venues for expression. This is an industry crisis that will be very healthy for the society, a political opening to rearrange access and licensing for democratic purposes.
For the faltering press, the bloggers will keep sharpening their swords, slicing away at the established order. This is good, but the pressure will lead to meaningful change only if the Internet artisans innovate further, organizing new formats and techniques for networking among more diverse people and interests. The daily feed of facts and bile from bloggers has been wondrously effective in unmasking the pretensions of the big boys, but the broader society needs more--something closer to the democratic "conversations and seminars" that Gillmor envisions, and less dependent on partisan fury and accusation.
As an ex-Luddite, I came to the web with the skepticism of an old print guy. Against expectations, I am experiencing sustained exchanges with many far-flung people I've never met--dialogues that inform both of us and are utterly voluntary experiences. This is a promising new form of consent. Democracy, I once wrote, begins not at election time but in human conversation.
Establishment newspapers like the New York Times face a special dilemma, one they may not easily resolve. Under assault, do editors and reporters align still more closely with the establishment interests to maintain an air of "authority," or do they get down with folks and dish it out to the powerful? Scandal and crisis compelled the Times to lower its veil of authority a bit and acknowledge error (a shocking development itself). But while the Times is in my view the best, most interesting newspaper, it always will be establishment. For instance, it could be more honest about its longstanding newsroom tensions between "liberals" and "neocons." What the editors might re-examine is their own defensive concept of what's authoritative. It is not just Bush's war that blinded sober judgment and led to narrow coverage. In many other important areas--political decay and global economics, among others--the Times (like other elite papers) seems afraid to acknowledge that wider, more fundamental debate exists. It chooses to report only one side--the side of received elite opinion.
Readers do understand--surprise!--that the Times is not infallible. A newspaper comes out every day and gets something wrong. Tomorrow, it comes out again and can try to get it right. In essence, that is what people and critics already know. They are more likely to be forgiving if the newspaper loosens up a bit and makes room for more divergent understandings of what's happening. But as more irreverent voices elbow their way into the "news" system, the big media are likely to lose still more audience if they cannot get more distance from throne and power.
What will come of all this? Possibly, not much. The cluster of scandals and breakdown may simply feed the people's alienation and resignation. The governing elites, including major media, are in denial, unwilling to speak honestly about the perilous economic circumstances ahead, the burgeoning debt from global trade, the sinking of the working class and other threatening conditions. When those realities surface, many American lives will be upended with no available recourse and no one in authority they can trust, since the denial and evasion are bipartisan. That's a very dangerous situation for a society--an invitation to irrational angers and scapegoating. It will require a new, more encompassing politics to avert an ugly political contagion. We need more reliable "news" to recover democracy.