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Hullabaloo


Tuesday, March 22, 2005

 
Competing Realities

Responding to Kevin Drum's post of the other night and mine which followed, Michael over at Reading A1 has posted an interesting piece extolling the virtues of partisan media and reminding us that this idea of a "objective media" is fairly new:

... to Kevin and Digby I say, stop worrying. A little historical perspective works wonders here. The simple truth is that, for most of its proper existence—from the beginnings of mass-distribution journalism in the mid-nineteenth century to roughly the start of World War II—the American press has been explicitly partisan. Newspapers were often the overt organs of political machines; when they weren't, they differentiated themselves for their audiences based on ideology and partisan identification. Competition was fierce, and was very often a competition over what facts were actually facts, and over what sorts of things ought to be reported. (Strangely enough, this situation was understood by no one during the period as some sort of "postmodern" hell. Nor was it considered a challenge to the very possibility of democratic self-government.) The neutral, "objective" press that we now think of as a natural property of democratic civil society is, broadly speaking, an invention of the corporate, managerial capitalism of the twentieth century, and tracks its growth.

As I've written previously, the elevation of the "objective" press to almost an institution of state, a semi-official fourth branch in the American constitutional system, is a phenomenon of the post-World War II period. Like so much of what we regard now as the natural order of political things, in other words, the constitutional place of our so-called mainstream press is an artifact of the Cold War. In its pose of objectivity, the corporate press had a central role to play during that struggle: both in the maintenance of the internal consensus necessary to confront the Soviet Union over a long period, and as a support for, and embodiment of, the claim of Western liberal democracy (over against Communism) to represent a universal, historically unconditioned solution to the question of political and social freedom.


I think this is largely true but I would take issue with a couple of things. I'm no expert, but my understanding is that the partisan press began to die out around the turn of the last century with the commercialization of the press and the big media barons (along with the general revulsion amongst the population at the corruption of the parties.) And I think that journalism reacted strongly to the new field of public relations in the 20's and 30's by developing this professional code of objectivity quite a while before the cold war. However, there is no doubt that there was a general disgust at the propaganda of both the fascist movement in Europe and the Soviet regime that propelled this new fetish for objectivity in the American press into the cold war consensus. And certainly our current lame definition of objectivity as "he said/she said" is thoroughly modern.

It appears to me that some of the conditions that created the concept of "Objective Journalism" in the first place have strongly re-emerged. The right is not running a partisan press. It is running a corrupt partisan propaganda machine based on the techniques of public relations and paid for by big money interests. That's why I was a bit rueful in my piece the other day. I don't particularly want to be part of a propaganda machine. I have no problem being a fiery partisan and working hard to persuade people to my side. But outright lying for the cause turns my stomach. And that's what the other side does.

But at this point I am resigned to the idea that we are going to have a partisan media battle for the forseeeable future so I'm not fighting it. It may, as Michael suggests, turn out to be a good thing in the long run, revitalizing our political system and getting people engaged. In the meantime, however, I would very much like the allegedly non-aligned media to come out from behind their absurd notion that they are objective because "both sides complain so they must be doing something right" and simply report when people are not presenting the facts accurately. That's all I want. When you have the government, business and the radical right consistently cooking the truth you really need somebody, somewhere who can be an honest broker of the facts. The mainstream press is the logical institution to do that, but they seem to have lost their ability to sort through the right's sophisticated propaganda.

Perhaps if they just concentrated on the simple reporting of the who, what, when where and get that right, we partisans could fill in the "why." Without that, I doubt very seriously that our modern society can rationally cope with what is shaping up not as competing political visions but competing realities. If that continues I think we are paving the way for demagoguery to become the default mode of political persuasion.



Update: Booyah. Read this superb post by Avedon Carol on this subject. I think she needs to be put on the rolodex for one of these media panels, stat.



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