The media

Jose G. Perez jgperez at
Mon Oct 11 21:34:24 MDT 1999

    There is often on the left a very simplistic view of the bourgeois
press that I think some posts on the list have tended to reflect, which is
that reporters, editors, producers and correspondents get together with the
CIA to figure out what lies to print. The results can often make it seem
like this is the case; but in fact the mechanisms are much more complicated.
There are all kinds of reasons why the stuff in the press and on TV is
false; but, usually, conscious lying by people in the media is not it.

    I think it is dangerous to equate today's major media outlets with those
of the Vietnam War and Watergate era, or either of these with the media up
through WWII or Korea.

    In the 1800s, U.S. newspapers were openly partisan, they all printed
"their" truth. This changed and evolved over the years until by the early
1900s, in the US, at least, there emerged broad consensus among a whole
series of bourgeois publishers to carry out "objective" journalism.
"Objective" journalism supposedly does not try to interpret or analyze or
take sides; it just reports, as dispassionately as possible, what it is told
happened. Opinion is reserved for the editorial pages.

    The troops that carried out this "objective" journalism were
more-or-less ordinary workers. Reporters were not considered
"professionals" and not paid as such. A caste of editors rode herd on this
unruly mob of rank-and-file reporters. The secret to making "objective"
journalism work is, of course, in the editing, first and foremost in
deciding what is "important" (like a speech by President Eisenhower) and
what is not (like some crazy bus boycott by a bunch of "n_______" in

As the competition among print outlets and then between print and radio (at
first) and print and television intensified, journalism became
"professionalized." J-schools were invented, the seedy "hacks" of the 1930s
by the 60s were being replaced by the young "professionals" you see depicted
in All the President's Men. That was, in a sense, the "golden age"  of
bourgeois "objective" American reporting. The underpinning for it was the
ideological homogeneity of the early cold-war period. The great
Murrow/CBS reports, like the one on the Army-McCarthy hearings and the one
on migrant farm labor "Harvest of Shame" (still well worth watching; things
have not changed much in 40 years) never went outside an implicit,
unchallenged, unchallengeable bourgeois framework. Indeed, their underlying
ideology was that capitalism was too great a system to allow it to continue
to be disfigured by these sorts of deformations.

    In Vietnam, bourgeois reporting was all over the map. The best of it has
stood the test of time; if you can get at them, Peter Arnett's AP dispatches
on the war as it was actually occurring on the ground are marvelous, as is
some of the TV reporting on the ground by Morley (sp?) Safer, "uncle" Walter
Cronkite and others. Much or most of it is garbage, being simply recounting
what the American high command and its Vietnamese puppet regime were saying.

    The utter, arrogant incompetence of McNamara's war, and the subsequent
split in the American ruling class on what to do about the war, provided
further latitude to young reporters imbued by J-schools with the idealistic
spirit of reporting things as they saw them and letting the chips fall where
they may.

    The culmination of this was the Watergate scandal but it was also the
beginning of the end of it. For Woodstein became celebrities, and the rise
of the star reporter began in earnest, fueled above all by television.

    In the early days of CBS/Murrow fame the news division was always viewed
as a money loser. However, the increasing production values and star
salaries of entertainment programming reversed this situation. News
programming became relatively CHEAPER to produce, eyeball for eyeball, than
dramatic or comedy series. This meant that anchors and reporter who came
across well on TV and attracted a slightly larger  audience began to command
higher and higher salaries. Those salaries also began to drive up the
salaries of the top tier of print journalists, columnists and so on.

    At some point, someone discovered that, if doing news shows was
(relatively) cheap, doing shows where people TALKED about the news was even
cheaper.  Moreover, each network's stable of on-camera "talent" provided a
suitable core of people to staff those shows; and leading lights from the
print world were also recruited (often for more than they made in their
"day" jobs) to add the sense of seriousness, the gravitas that only column
after column of gray type could impart to these tabloid gab-fests, something
that was considered absolutely essential until four or five years ago.

    Thus we have now in the U.S. a journalistic establishment dominated by
scores of celebrities who make high six-figure and in many cases
seven-figure yearly salaries. Their top producers, executive
producers and writers have also been elevated into that range. Moreover, all
these people are now "too valuable" to allow them to waste their time
actually finding out what is going on. That is STILL done by grunts who
earn, roughly, skilled worker's wages. But those grunts are NO LONGER the
ones who tell the viewer what is going on. It is filtered first by the
Bigfoot correspondent's editors and producers, and eventually, by the
Bigfoot correspondent himself.

    The result has been a cataclysmic decline, even collapse, of
journalistic professionalism and integrity by strictly bourgeois standards.
Those who want to see it documented, day after day, week after week, can
check out the "Daily Howler," a web site that, strictly from the point of
view of defending traditional bourgeois journalistic standards, shows just
how utterly lying, irresponsible and stupid MOST reporting on BIG issues by
FAMOUS bourgeois reporters really is. Those who want an in-depth
deconstruction of how this phenomenon has manifested itself can check out
Gene Lyons's book, Fools for Scandal, which demonstrates how the famous
"Whitewater" "scandal" was a complete fabrication from day one. In
particular, Lyons, an Arkansas "hack" of the old school, exposes the utterly
irresponsible reporting of one Jeff Gerth, the star investigative reporter
of the New York Times.

    Mr. Gerth, some people will recall, is still at the Times. His most
recent contribution to bourgeoisie investigative journalism is the silly
China atom-bomb spying scandal and in particular, the accusatory articles
against one scientist at Los Alamos which proved beyond a shadow of a doubt
that this scientist MUST HAVE BEEN engaged in treason, since he was Chinese.

    The country's journalistic agenda, so to speak, is now dominated
completely by a layer of people who identify completely with the
Three decades ago, it would have been unthinkable to invite the likes of
Woodward and Bernstein, or even their more established colleagues, to the
latest activities of the Washington elite. Today, not just publishers, but
editors, correspondents and producers, are routinely included in the list of
invitees to
even the most Tony White House events.

    This accounts for the dreadful sameness of the major media in the U.S.;
the conventional wisdom gets hashed out at dinner parties on Friday and
Saturday night, and gets regurgitated the next day on the Sunday morning
talk shows, setting the tone for the next week's gabfests. The Monica
Lewinsky "scandal" is a case in point. What the national media reflected was
the hypocritical viewpoint of this narrow, arriviste, nouevau-riche layer
mortified at the thought that their friends on the Washington cocktail
circuit would think that if an attractive, vivacious 21-year-old intern
threw herself at them, they would not turn her down flat. The big majority
of people in the country could have cared less; they knew Clinton was lying
from day one because, under similar circumstances, that's what they would
have done.

    Moreover, as the "scandal" progressed, most people, and especially
working people, lined up on Clinton's side. The reason for this wasn't hard
to understand: most people didn't like the idea of a smarmy,
holier-than-thou special prosecutor, his congressional acolytes, and the
hypocrites in the press corps using all the forces and resources of the
bourgeois state to investigate their own sex lives. Yet day after day, week
after week, month after month the bourgeois gasbags on the Lewinsky
talk-show circuit pronounced themselves totally befuddled by this
inexplicable phenomenon, that Clinton's popularity remained high "despite"
the scandal.

    The truth is Clinton's popularity got a BOOST because of the scandal.

    In international coverage, the situation is even worse. The veteran
foreign correspondent who knows the country he covers like the back of his
hand has largely disappeared, both in print and in broadcast. They have been
replaced by "stringers," part-time reporters, usually adventurous J-school
graduates who know next to nothing about the world or bilingual local
people. These stringers vary tremendously in skill and reliability. The
correspondents themselves fly in on a very occasional basis, usually only
for big crisis.

In television, getting pictures and reporting stories have been largely
divorced from one another. The pictures come from all sorts of sources,
including national camera crews, free lancers, as well as agency or network
crews especially sent in.  It is not unusual for the person writing the
voice over to the story not to have been physically present when the
pictures were shot; the pictures might not even come from their own news
organization, but provided by one of a couple of major agencies. In the case
of the big entertainment networks, often the correspondent is not even in
country or have barely arrived when he files the report. And this is true of
the all-news networks as well when a story first breaks, although they are
better staffed.

    When pictures are distributed by the big agencies, they're accompanied
by a shot sheet purporting to describe what the pictures show and to give
you the background. These sheets are not prepared by a reporter but by the
camera crew, which, obviously, has many other preoccupations than
researching and writing an accurate report. They will generally put down
unquestioningly what it is they imagine they've been told. Often language is
a barrier.

    When big events take place, especially under dangerous circumstances,
the ones most likely to be there first are  free-lance crews working in
concert with one of the agencies.

    This jerry-rigged structure is extremely easy to "spin" for anyone with
access to either the bottom of the chain or the Bigfoot correspondents at
the top. It may well be that, in the case of an armed clash or shooting
incident, the camera crew (which is typically filming the aftermath)  will
take the word of those claiming to speak for the victims for good coin -- or
they may be more conscientious and report contradictory statements and
information. But their main job isn't to "report" but to shoot the footage
and get it back as quickly as possible. If they try to double and triple
check, find additional witnesses, and so on, they'll get beat, and after a
few incidents, they'll get fired.

    The correspondents are in charge of reporting, and if they do so
it will be by calling the U.S. ambassador or CIA station chief (the famous
"western diplomats in such and such a country"). The Bigfoot correspondent
thus will get the "straight story" from the "horse's mouth." Various and
sundry people, producers, editors, copy editors and even interns might be
involved in getting this fact or that detail. But the general drift of the
story will come from the correspondent.

    The changed socio-economic status of the journalistic upper crust
re-enforces this phenomenon. The people telling the reporters these things
are their friends, they party together, their children go to the same
schools, they are all part of the permanent Washington establishment.

As in everything, there are exceptions. But the handful of reliable
correspondents whose personal integrity and capacity for even handed
reporting is beyond reproach cannot compensate for a monstrous media machine
that, as a whole, seems specifically designed for the purpose of getting
things wrong.

One might get the impression that, with the explosion of media, there are
now many more people out in the field reporting. This is not true. There are
proportionately much FEWER people in the field than ever before. There are
just many more layers  between them and the end viewer or reader. Thus, for
example, the Bigfoot Network News (BNN) web site,, appears to be
this huge "print" site. But in fact as such has absolutely no people
in the field. All it is doing is recycling and rewriting information
received from its own correspondents and from the AP, Reuters and other
services. The same is true for Bigfoot's radio news network, and so on.

So any time you see stories about some conflict somewhere, pay very, keep in
mind you're probably getting a third or fourth hand account relayed by a
camera crew more interested in sending the pictures than in the accuracy of
the accompanying information, filtered through Big Name correspondents who
in the best of cases have talked to three or four Washington types. Sounds
goofy, I know, but that's the way it is actually working.



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