Rage Against the MSMachine

Rage Against the MSMachine

The Yearly Kos Convention revealed a blogosphere whose media critique is hampered by its political ambitions. Why can’t progressives repair the press, not dismantle it?


“You people obviously still don’t get it, but you will soon,” wrote right-wing blogger Jerry Hurtubise in an irate letter to the Columbia Journalism Review, sounding the death knell of the mainstream press. “It’s over, you clowns. Now, when you lie, we will report it, every time.”

The army of die-hard “Kossacks” assembled in the Riviera’s ballroom to hear Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas Zúniga couldn’t have agreed more. They roared in approval as Moulitsas spent nearly half his keynote address repeatedly deriding “the media elite.” At the Yearly Kos convention in Las Vegas in early June, the attacks on journalists–invariably described as lazy, incompetent toadies of the ruling elite–came fast and furious, a close second to those on the Bush Administration. Slamming the press was a guaranteed applause line.

The media rage on the left–at least among those politically active online–now matches that on the right.

In one sense, all political bloggers, conservative or liberal, define themselves in opposition to mainstream journalists, who are viewed as elitists determined to marginalize the true will of the American people as represented by the bloggers themselves. As Moulitsas put it in his speech: “Unlike the out-of-touch establishment in DC, we actually know what it’s like to live day-to-day in George Bush’s America. Chris Matthews may say that only the kooks don’t like George W. Bush, but we, like the rest of the country, know better.”

But where the right-wing blogosphere accuses journalists of ideological bias, the progressive netroots view them as corrupt and compromised.

“Their view is: ‘You’re part of the establishment, you’re part of the problem. You’re scared that if you write the truth, you’re going to get kicked out of the club,'” says Jennifer Palmieri, vice president of communications at the Center for American Progress. This blistering assessment is hardly surprising since the very creation of the progressive blogosphere is directly linked to an institutional failure of the press. Enraged at the media for failing to represent their views in the aftermath of 9/11, and more so in the lead-up to the Iraq War, people like Moulitsas decided, as he put it, “to stop railing at Fox News and our so-called ‘liberal’ pundits, and start publishing those rants on the web.”

Journalists have therefore been assigned a very specific role in the netroots narrative about the ascendance of the right, which in turn enabled the wrongs of the Bush Administration. They’re marked as “collaborators” who either because of cowardice or greed delivered this country into the hands of right-wing tyranny.

As progressive bloggers are quick to point out, there is a vital difference between them and their right-wing counterparts when it comes to goals. Kicking off a panel titled “Political Journalism: Problems and Solutions,” Matt Stoller declared, “One of the things that differentiates what we do from the right-wing echo chamber is that they are, in my opinion, trying to destroy journalism as an institution, and we are trying to remedy its failures.”

Whereas progressives view the press as vital to a healthy democracy, the right assaults journalism, aiming to undermine its legitimacy and watchdog role. Under the Bush Administration the steady drumbeat of accusations of bias reached a new crescendo, accompanied by an all-out effort to essentially decertify the press as irrelevant to politics. As White House Chief of Staff Andy Card told The New Yorker, the media “don’t represent the public any more than other people do. In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for election.”

The Administration’s attack on the press as an institution is part of its broader political strategy. “The Bush forces went after the press because they went after every check and balance on executive power,” says New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen. “Bush intuitively understands that every force that is trying to document facts on the ground is in the way of their project.” As the past six years have made clear, the failure of the mainstream press to fight back has had serious consequences for the American people.

Progressives therefore face a more difficult challenge than the one confronting conservative media-bashers: to advocate for a strong independent press able to do its job effectively and without partisan favor, while pushing its members to represent progressive issues and views. What this suggests is that in the area of media activism, borrowing from the Republican playbook–a favored strategy among progressive leaders these days–may not be quite as easy or desirable.

There is no doubt that bloggers have made media criticism matter. Their aggressive and lightning-quick fact-checking skills expose the shoddy reporting, shallow prognosticating and knee-jerk pro-establishment bias that are the hallmarks of mainstream coverage these days. They’ve helped reintroduce Big Media and its members to the pesky concept of “accountability”: that freedom of the press carries with it the burden of responsible journalism.

Blogs have also powered a dramatic transformation in the very creation of public knowledge. The reader no longer has to wait for some kindly editor to publish her letter or issue a correction. An article in the newspaper or segment on a TV news show is now merely the first step in a broader, richer and more inclusive online debate. “The democratizing of knowledge and information and criticism is always a good thing. The ability of people to point out mistakes and balance inaccuracies is great, even if it is done in a meanspirited way,” says New York Times Magazine writer Matt Bai. “I hope that eventually it’s going to make the media more responsive and responsible about the mistakes that we make.”

But despite the progressive netroots’ intense focus on the media–which Media Matters’s Jamison Foser recently described as “the defining issue of our time”–there is no clear sense of exactly what’s wrong with the media system. Smart, perceptive, well-meaning bloggers can outline at length and in great detail the flaws in press coverage, but they can’t say why the coverage is so fatally flawed. “I don’t know where it’s coming from,” says FireDogLake blogger Christy Hardin Smith, “and I really don’t know what it would take to support good journalism.”

Even a media maven like Paul Waldman–who founded the now-defunct online magazine The Gadflyer and is a senior fellow at Media Matters–sounds a little unsure: “I don’t think the left has yet defined what its problem with the media is.” Various bloggers subscribe to a number of theories. The more popular among them claim that reporters are privileged members of the “cocktail weenie circuit”; afraid of the Republicans; slaves to the corporate fat cats who pay their salaries; or all of the above.

At least part of the rhetoric is less about the press itself than about bolstering the bloggers’ self-identity as outsiders, which offers the emotional comfort of victimhood. “The notion of the press being in the pocket of the Bush Administration is definitely overdrawn, but it feels good,” says Rosen. “This way you can feel even more marginalized.”

The netroots media critique, in its tendency to rely on implicit or explicit accusations of bad faith on the part of the reporter, sometimes reflects a poor understanding of journalism. Media Matters, according to Foser, sidesteps this problem by focusing on “the end product of journalism: actual news reports. We don’t try to guess what the journalists in question were thinking, or why they reported the things they did. We focus on content, not intent.” Still, the liberal blogosphere’s general lack of interest in understanding the internal dynamics of news reporting was apparent in the marked paucity of actual journalists on the numerous journalism-related panels at the Yearly Kos convention. “It can be so patronizing. Somebody at Yearly Kos–a guy I know and like–said to me, ‘We just want to help you be better at your job,'” says Bai, one of the rare journalists invited to speak at the convention. “It’s like me walking into the emergency room and telling the doctor how to do a better job. Based on what?”

There’s also a significant downside to the language used by many bloggers. They may not all resort to name-calling–whores, jerks, idiots–but many adopt a manner that is derisive and sweeping. Despite his self-pitying tone, New Republic editor Franklin Foer wasn’t far off target when he wrote that conservatives “want to weaken the press so it will stop obstructing their agenda, a motive that liberal bloggers seem to have forgotten. By repeating conservative criticisms about the allegedly elitist, sycophantic, biased MSM, liberal bloggers have played straight into conservative hands. These bloggers have begun unwittingly doing conservatives’ dirty work.”

But others point out that the lesson of the Bush strategy of simply treating the press as irrelevant is that it actually worked, at least until reality–be it in the form of Katrina or the Iraq War–intruded. “I haven’t convinced myself that progressives need to treat reporters with the same hostility, but being nice is not working,” says Waldman. “And being hostile has been pretty effective for the right. So I think we need to take a close look at that.”

The greatest challenge to the netroots role as would-be media reformers is their other function as a political “noise machine.” Bloggers are most powerful when they are able to influence the very mainstream media they despise. As blogger Peter Daou (who now works for Hillary Clinton’s campaign) pointed out, “Simply put, without the participation of the media and the political establishment, the netroots alone cannot generate the critical mass necessary to alter or create conventional wisdom.”

Grabbing the media’s attention can therefore also require playing to their endless appetite for sensationalism and confrontation. On a panel titled “The Culture of Journalism: Getting a Story ‘Out There'”–a panel that Stoller, the moderator, jokingly described as “the blogger ethics panel”–John Aravosis described getting CNN and ABC to cover a story about privacy violations by taking Wesley Clark’s cell phone records and putting them online without his permission. He explained the secret of his success by saying, “Press coverage isn’t enough. You want a feeding frenzy. So it has to be either funny or shocking: a hooker or Watergate.”

Stoller describes these actions as part of “working with the press,” which he says “doesn’t necessarily mean you are giving in to those values” or compromising your credibility. There is no doubt that an effective political strategy requires mastering the rules of the media game, flawed as they may be. But it’s striking how the netroots filter all their actions through the prism of political gain. The top political blogs are consumed by the desire to win. Therefore, consciously or otherwise, media activism is valued more as a political strategy than as a means of reform. There seems to be little recognition among the netroots that progressives, unlike the right, are invested in the task of figuring out how to restore a badly battered press. As Rosen points out, the question for liberal bloggers who are most immediately concerned with scoring points for their side is why progressives or Democrats should support reporters in a fight with the Bush Administration if all they get in return is “balance.” “That’s where their beliefs as progressives are tested,” he says.

Waldman is unequivocal on the need for the left to take its cue from the Republicans, who “integrate a media critique into their whole view of politics, no matter what the issue is, be it Iraq or Social Security.” He argues that the left’s more complicated or sophisticated critique of the media is in fact a disadvantage. “It’s useful if you can reduce it to one simple idea, just like the ‘liberal bias’ [accusation] functions for the conservatives,” he says. “Five reasons why the media is flawed is four too many because the average person isn’t going to get it.”

While progressives have no intention of manipulating reality à la Karl Rove, that doesn’t erase the important difference between mending the media system and gaming it to your advantage. The concept of the noise machine views the press as an institution that has to be lobbied, pressured and at times bullied into serving our political goals. Media reform advocacy, however, views the press as an institution that must be strengthened so as to better serve democratic–not Democratic–ends.

What was clear at the Yearly Kos convention is that the task of political spin–which includes messaging, controlling the narrative, creating an echo chamber, etc.–is in danger of subsuming the agenda of media reform. If progressives’ problem with the media is simply about getting bad press, then a couple of wins in the electoral column will do the trick. Imbalance in mainstream coverage has less to do with the might of the Republicans than with horse-race journalism, which reflects a Beltway bias toward power. “If you’re a minority party that doesn’t control any branch of government, you’re more likely to be ignored,” says Palmieri. “I think a lot of the bloggers are just mad that right now the horse-race story doesn’t work in our favor.”

But the deeper flaws in political journalism that paved the way for the excesses of the Bush Administration won’t simply disappear. “Any journalist who says that we’re doing as good a job on politics, on national affairs or international affairs as we were doing ten or fifteen years ago is out of their mind,” admits Bai. This deterioration reflects the triumph of market values more than that of Republicans, per se.

Some, like journalist and blogger Micah Sifry (a longtime Nation contributor), argue that the very technology that powers the blogosphere will radically change the media landscape, making it democratic, diverse and participatory in ways still unimaginable–with or without the efforts of the netroots. He may be right, but for the foreseeable future the national debate in this country will continue to be shaped by the traditional press, as it’s now clear even to its most ardent advocates that the blogosphere will not replace journalism. In other words, though we have to retool our agenda to address new issues (broadband access, net neutrality, the digital divide) in the twenty-first century, media activists’ old-fashioned preoccupations with access, substance, representation and ownership will continue to be our best bet as we fight for a more democratic future.

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