Week-end Follow-up

by digby

I have a couple of fascinating articles to recommend for you today if you're looking for something to think about besides a picture of a burning car. (Don't you think it's a little irresponsible for the press to fail to report all the good news in Glasgow today?)

The first is this great article by Rick Perlstein in the Columbia Journalism Review about the phenomenon of the "average American" which the likes of David Broder and Melinda Henneberger have made into their special professional niches.

In my post about Henneberger's rather dishonest anti-choice op-ed, I discussed this notion of elite reporters making anthropological forays into the exotic heart of middle America and inevitably returning totally reassured that all those good-hearted average Joes and Janes were actually just, like, them. I noted that I preferred cold, hard polling to such self-serving delusions, but after reading Rick's piece, I'm informed that polling about the average American carries a bias as well --- as do academic studies.

Indeed, any attempt to figure out what the "average American" thinks is a fools errand. The only thing you can be sure of is that this allegedly average American thinks very much like the person who's telling you about it. And more amazingly, even if the Average American is portrayed in all his or her complicated humanity, the reader or listener will see this average American as a reflection of their own biases too --- the Average American is just like them and guess what? He's a terrific guy.

Naturally, Perlstein gives us the historical evidence, and I particularly enjoyed this bit about the "Middletown" study in the 20's:

“This was looking at yourself in the mirror,” Good Housekeeping’s reviewer enthused, and, as another review suggested, people liked what they saw: “More cities like Middletown are needed here—good, sane, substantial, hard-working communities that breed the best citizens.” The only problem: that was the opposite of what the authors intended to convey. The Lynds worried that the typical Middletowner was shallow, irrational, and greedy—and yet their book was systematically misread through a prejudice: if they’re writing about the typical American, they must mean to describe a decent American. But Middletown was larded with Veblenesque scoldings: “More and more of the activities of living are coming to be strained through the bars of the dollar sign.” Even religion “served the instrumental function of furthering social status.” What’s more, whenever the Lynds revealed the Middletowners’ core values as inadequate or untrue, there would be “a redoubling of emphasis upon the questioned ritual and a cry for more loyalty to it.”

You might say, if you were being ungenerous, that the Lynds stumbled into a mess of their own creation. They had found in Muncie what they thought was the typical U.S. city, even if, as Igo points out, it was a “demographic curiosity,” “populated largely by farm-born factory workers . . . more ‘old stock’ . . .than any other city in the Midwest of its size, apart from New Albany, Indiana.” To further their scientific quest for pristine homogeneity, the Lynds decided to include no answers from African Americans in their tabulations—though Muncie’s black population was proportionally larger than those in Detroit and Chicago. They were trying to make themselves scientists, but they ended up endorsing a mythology: that the typical American was native-born, midwestern, and white—when a truer social science would have shown that that was no longer true.

The kind of place that social critics like the Lynds, Gallup, and the others took to be “typical” resembled the towns depicted by those with no such social scientific agenda: the novelists Sinclair Lewis (Main Street; Babbit) and Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio). It was also the same kind of town with which the Good Housekeepings of the world saturated their pages—only to idealize it, rather than to criticize it.

I would just add that there was another big influence at the time, which was motion pictures. The idealized midwestern American town of countless movies, with the white picket fences and the beautiful little town square and all white population was largely an invention of a bunch of Russian Jewish immigrants who were just giving the people what they figured they wanted. And they were right.

It's important to always remember that there are no "Real" Americans. There are only Americans. And while there might be some sociological or literary value in trying to discern certain common traits among all Americans, it is highly unlikely that it will be done successfully by other Americans since they will almost always believe that their countrymen are, at heart, just like them. (I think we can all agree that David Broder is no Alexis de Toqueville.)

In my other update, some of you will remember that last week I also wrote about Ken Silverstein's undercover investigation of lobbyists. Today he has responded to the astonishing criticism he's received at the hands of the media elite for his ethics. (I know... they are just shameless.)He writes in today's LA Times:

Now, in a fabulous bit of irony, my article about the unethical behavior of lobbying firms has become, for some in the media, a story about my ethics in reporting the story. The lobbyists have attacked the story and me personally, saying that it was unethical of me to misrepresent myself when I went to speak to them.

That kind of reaction is to be expected from the lobbyists exposed in my article. But what I found more disappointing is that their concerns were then mirrored by Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz, who was apparently far less concerned by the lobbyists' ability to manipulate public and political opinion than by my use of undercover journalism.

"No matter how good the story," he wrote, "lying to get it raises as many questions about journalists as their subjects."

I can't say I was utterly surprised by Kurtz's criticism. Some major media organizations allow, in principle, undercover journalism — assuming the story in question is deemed vital to the public interest and could not have been obtained through more conventional means — but very few practice it anymore. And that's unfortunate, because there's a long tradition of sting operations in American journalism, dating back at least to the 1880s, when Nellie Bly pretended to be insane in order to reveal the atrocious treatment of inmates at the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island in New York City.

In the late 1970s, the Chicago Sun-Times bought its own tavern and exposed, in a 25-part series, gross corruption on the part of city inspectors (such as the fire inspector who agreed to ignore exposed electrical wiring for a mere $10 payoff). During that same decade, the Chicago Tribune won several Pulitzer Prizes with undercover reporting and "60 Minutes" gained fame for its use of sting stories.

Today, however, it's almost impossible to imagine a mainstream media outlet undertaking a major undercover investigation. That's partly a result of the 1997 verdict against ABC News in the Food Lion case. The TV network accused Food Lion of selling cheese that had been gnawed on by rats as well as spoiled meat and fish that had been doused in bleach to cover up its rancid smell. But even though the grocery chain never denied the allegations in court, it successfully sued ABC for fraud — arguing that the reporters only made those discoveries after getting jobs at Food Lion by lying on their resumes. In other words, the fact that their reporting was accurate was no longer a defense.

The decline of undercover reporting — and of investigative reporting in general — also reflects, in part, the increasing conservatism and cautiousness of the media, especially the smug, high-end Washington press corps. As reporters have grown more socially prominent during the last several decades, they've become part of the very power structure that they're supposed to be tracking and scrutinizing.

Chuck Lewis, a former "60 Minutes" producer and founder of the Center for Public Integrity, once told me: "The values of the news media are the same as those of the elite, and they badly want to be viewed by the elites as acceptable."
And like the good boot sniffing courtiers to power they are, they immediately call for the smelling salts when an enterprising reporter actually gets a real story about how their little world operates. Do they have any self-awareness at all?

Silverstein's story was a real expose of one of the filthiest, unpatriotic practices in American politics. It showed a side of the lobbying industry that should make everyone in Washington who participates (and plenty do, on both sides of the aisle) hang their heads in shame. That the biggest criticism coming from the political establishment is toward the reporter goes a very long way toward explaining why 77% of the population feels this country is on the wrong track. It is. And this is why.