The Problem

by tristero

There has been a lot of discussion recently clustered around Jay Rosen's post, Audience Atomization Overcome, including on this blog. While I tend to agree with Bob Somerby that Jay's post is old news and omits or de-emphasizes some key characteristics of modern mainstream discourse - roughly speaking, they include journalistic incompetence, laziness, and the knowing distribution of unadulterated bullshit - I think Bob misses a crucial point. Jay's post is an extremely well-written introduction for newbies to get a grip on how the bizarro world of our public discussions happens. It's certainly not the whole story, but it's a good place to start (and the jargon doesn't grate on me as it does on Bob).

What often intrigues me are less the egregious examples of media bias, distortion, omission, and obtuse reporting but the hot air that wafts by, completely unnoticed, even by those of us who make a point of lambasting the msm. This is a crucial component of the situation Hallin/Rosen describe. These tiny belches of media gas are so numerous they form what pop musicians call a" pad," a thick cushion of undifferentiated sound in the background that fills up the perceptual space and helps, unconsciously, to set the mood. It can be something like a New York Times gossip columnist complaining of boredom because she's been forced to sit through an entire evening listening to Al Gore talk about global warming (scroll down to "Letter to the Times"), for example. We skim crap like that, we don't really notice the hidden assumptions, but it affects our perceptions nevertheless.

Here's a very recent example which touches upon one of Jay's main points, that there are some assumptions that are so widely accepted that the press simply can't understand when they're criticized for it. It also illustrates Bob's observation about the pervasive existence of prime-grade bullshit in the mainstream discourse. I'll be the first to admit that it's a very tiny thing, but that's the point. The corruption of the discourse is deep.

In a nearly tossed-away aside last week, Nick Lemann of the New Yorker reminded us:
...Bush adeptly, if briefly, harnessed the hunger for leadership that always follows a major crisis. In those days [9/11 and its aftermath], incredible as it may seem now, Bush was often compared to Lincoln.
As I said, it's hardly anything, just a mundane observation that's been made again and again. Yet, the way Lemann described the situation post 9/11 seemed a little off and it got me thinking.

Lemann's not talking about a bunch of average folks shooting their mouths off in a bar. That's not his beat; he usually (always?) reports on influential political players. And Lemann is absolutely correct. I saw people on TV compare Bush to Lincoln or Churchill or (name drop an Unquestionably Great Man here) in the days and months following the 9/11 attacks.

But Lemann neglects to include a crucial qualifier, indeed the most important point of his anecdote: No one competent at reality testing or possessing a nanogram of integrity has ever compared Bush favorably to Lincoln, not even in the days following 9/11. Problem was, hardly anyone competent at reality testing or with a nanogram of integrity could get remotely near the mainstream media in those days. Problem was, the media were overrun by the kind of clowns who actually would shamelessly compare Bush to Lincoln. Problem was, that kind of preposterous comparison was acceptable mainstream opinion.

The problems remain. To this day, those who got it wrong - perhaps even worse, those who gave the incompetent bullshit-slingers a free ride - retain their access to important media. Case in point: Nick Lemann. Yes, it's a small, tiny, trivial detail but Lemann could have easily inserted at the end of the last sentence "by people who really should have known better." He didn't and it probably never occurred to him to do so. In fact, serious reporters like Lemann regularly coddled those who ridiculously asserted Bush=Lincoln and failed to report the opinions of those who insisted upon remaining intellectually honest. Lemann's not Tom Friedman or Bill O'Reilly, he's not incredibly stupid and he's certainly not a malicious rightwinger. He's just, well... his mindset's typical.

I can never forget this astounding article he wrote on the odious Project for a New American Century on the eve of the catastrophe known as the Bush/Iraq war. In many ways, it was a terrific piece. Lemann introduced his readers to PNAC's longstanding plans to invade Iraq in order to remake the Middle East. But, after going into considerable detail about PNAC's notorious paper "A Clean Break" and David Wurmser's book, which speculated that a positive domino effect would sweep the Middle East if Saddam was toppled, Lemann wraps up with this:
A few things should be said about this vision of the near-term future in the Middle East. It is breathtakingly ambitious and optimistic.
Again, Lemann was absolutely right. A few things absolutely should have been said about PNAC's plan and Wurmser's book. Problem was, and is, that Lemann said the wrong few things.

PNAC"s plans weren't "breathtakingly ambitious." They were absolutely nuts. As in screaming yellow bonkers nuts. The notion that invading Iraq would lead to Iran abandoning its nuclear ambitions wasn't "optimistic." It was unhinged from any remotely conceivable future reality.

That's what Lemann should have said (and, btw, I wrote him back then about this). He didn't. Worse, by phrasing his reaction the way he did - "breathtakingly ambitious and optimistic" - he signaled, if not exactly approval, then that these bold, audacious ideas were worth serious discussion. They weren't.

Now, there were people who said the Bush/Iraq war was crazy back in February, 2003, before it happened. And we said it loudly. Millions of us, here in the US and around the world. But we weren't merely dismissed as dirty fucking hippies, and serious journalists like Lemann didn't simply ignore us. No. We were literally erased from American public discourse (scroll down to the post entitled "The Incredible Shrinking Protests".)

Nick Lemann is the head of Columbia Journalism School. He is considered a Very Important Journalist, in some cases rightly so. (Full disclosure compels me to tell you we have friends in common and my wife is a partime teacher at the J School.) But in February of 2003, Lemann was quite irresponsible. After describing to us some of the craziest foreign policy ideas any American president has ever seriously entertained, Lemann went beyond failing to note the obvious: he rhetorically admitted these nutso notions to the realm of serious discussion.

Today, Lemann still can't admit, or perhaps discern, the true nature of mainstream American political discourse. It is a tale told by idiots, signifying catastrophe. It's not that he's unobservant. Rather, he works in a media environment in which it would never occur to him to challenge, let alone, ignore people so foolish and/or compromised as to compare Bush to Lincoln. And it never occurred to him or anyone else in the mainstream, until it was too late, to pay serious attention to those of us who, from the getgo, rightly compared Bush to Ed Wood.

"Breathtakingly ambitious." Jeebus.