Thomas Jefferson periodically expressed support for a free press as essential to an "enlightened citizenry," but when the reality of political life settled on him during his presidency and beyond, Jefferson had harsh words for it. The newspapers, he complained in 1803, "present only the caricatures of disaffected minds." In his "retirement" a decade later, Jefferson deplored the "putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them." The press' capacity for mischief was ravenous, Jefferson complained. The media of the day, he said, was "like the clergy, [who] live by the zeal they can kindle and the schisms they can create."
Jefferson never met 21st-century radio and television, with their volatile contributions to the media mix. Today, the media largely offers us the irresponsible, shoddy, pernicious zeal and schisms he so deplored and feared. Recently, Maureen Dowd channeled Jefferson's criticisms with her searing characterization of her colleagues as "spreading fear and disinformation that is amplified by the poisonous echo chamber that is the modern media environment."
The mainstream media marches on, duly disseminating all the managed news fit to print or speak. Witness the reporting on the forthcoming November elections. "Forthcoming elections" have equal urgency, whether we are talking 2010 or 2012, and the electoral process provides fertile feeding grounds for the media. "Politics all the time," MSNBC trumpets in promotional spots, while archrival Fox merely politicizes everything. The marathon that was the 2008 election might have left us politics-exhausted, but did not.
Since 2008, the media have relentlessly pursued political happenings (and non-happenings), with reporters duly repeating partisan handouts as if they offered "news," reading tea leaves or ratcheting up the noise and placards of tea parties. We are bombarded with tales of unrest, anger and disaffection among the natives, anxious to march to polls to toss out the "rascal," that is, incumbents.
All this, we are to believe, is grassroots democracy, with folks spontaneously gathering to air their grievances. It offers all the spontaneity of a pointillist painting.
A year after Barack Obama's election, a year of apparent grace for the president, media pundits turned attention to the 47 percent who did not support him. His victory left many angry and disaffected, and their hostility soon turned to a visceral hatred, quite often blatantly predicated on race. What else could be the meaning of all the signs and speeches proclaiming a determination "to save the Republic" and "to get our country back?" And along came "tea parties," a symbolic heralding of "revolution," not out of nowhere, but well-funded and choreographed by familiar political operatives and ideologues in search of a new vehicle.
Pros, not amateurs, lead this movement. They well know that hostility, disaffection and anger are red meat for the media, anxious to pursue "new" story lines, and an easy avenue to disseminate their anti-Obama line. Glenn Beck, of course, provides a divine afflatus. He would have us believe that he decided to hold a "political rally," but "God dropped a giant sandbag on my head" and told him he had to awaken America.
Relatively predictable, our recent minor primary elections largely resulted in victories by familiar or very wealthy faces, and largely devoid of the doomsday scenarios as promised. The opponent of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, profited from internal Republican feuds and from well-financed marginal groups, particularly the anti-abortion crowd, who made their clout count within the confines of a primary. Silly Sarah's endorsement of Murkowski's opponent seemed inconsequential during the campaign; now, of course, her role has been puffed out of proportion.
The elections largely reflect local contexts; nevertheless they fuel shrill, raucous and often wrongheaded media rants that dominate the national conversation. Meanwhile, more weighty matters go unreported or escape any critical analysis. The media obscures and ignores important stories, with little reporting or understanding of facts, their meaning and their significance. We have no facts, only shrill opinions.
How are we so easily fooled, so easily deluded? Media obsessions provide the media with an ability to ignore more momentous events. The media fostered a raging obsession over a New York real estate problem, elevating it to national importance and tying it to the electoral fortunes of congressmen, governors and even state representatives.
And at what cost to an "enlightened citizenry"? Consider the pattern of reporting on the recent withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq and the linkage to the Forever War in Afghanistan. MSNBC, our "liberal" channel, carried live broadcasts of Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow to compete with their Fox News Nemesis, and dutifully reported that the "last" American combat troops had left Iraq and crossed into Kuwait. The television moment provided a triumphal exit.
Those troops will not return to the United States as conquering heroes in "victory parades." Will they remain in Kuwait? Perhaps; after all, we never know when our Kuwaiti "ally" and its sea of oil might be threatened again. More likely, the combat troops will be distributed to Afghanistan or sent to reinforce some of the 800 or so American bases abroad. And what of the more than 50,000 American troops still in Iraq, left behind ostensibly to "train" Iraq police and militia, and -- surprise -- protect the new American bases in Iraq? We are to believe that these "noncombatants" are out of harm's way and free from casualties by roadside bombs, suicide bombers or open hostilities.
The promises for our "noncombat" role are as thin and vacuous as the now long-forgotten promises of Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle -- remember them? -- that American troops would be welcomed with garlands of flowers as liberators by the Iraqi people, much as they were in Germany and Japan in 1945.
Almost simultaneously, the military leadership has launched a new PR offensive for the war in Afghanistan. Like his friend, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Gen. David Petraeus likes to talk to the media, although he is far more polished, skilled and circumspect. But in fact, Petraeus uses the media -- certainly a willing enabler -- to preach a similar opposition to his civilian leaders, if in less colorful terms.
In a one-day media blitz he made clear the direction of our efforts in Afghanistan: Make no mistake, they will expand and accelerate. In a lengthy New York Times interview and an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" Petraeus clearly opposed any immediate, rapid pullout in Afghanistan. He forcefully emphasized that we would "succeed," and he did not intend to lead a "graceful exit." He consistently undermined Obama's earlier promise that our drawdown would begin next July. In the same breath, he argued he would more vigorously pursue the war in Afghanistan. Now, he said, "for the first time we will have what we have been working to put in place for the last year and a half." Petraeus emphasized that the president wanted his "best professional military advice," and for the general that emphatically included advice to delay the president's promised July 2011 drawdown.
After Petraeus' day in the media sun, we have had little awareness, little discussion and little understanding of what he said and meant, however essential to the future course of our Afghanistan policy. Instead, by the next day, the media anxiously resumed reflecting the national screams over an Islamic site, some blocks away from the sacred grounds of the former World Trade Center.
Meanwhile, the empire rumbles on with little prospect for retrenchment. An enabling media uncritically cheers or silently acquiesces while ignoring very real, profound problems raised by our imperial overreach, as well as the myriad of our domestic ills. Our 21st-century media is a skewed monument to all of Jefferson's concerns and criticisms.
Stanley Kutler is the author of The Wars of Watergate and other writings.