The Elite Media Still Don't Know They're Being Played

Kurtz and the Washington Post still don't understand the difference between the conventions of overt partisan media and mainstream online criticism.
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I have never been much for blog triumphalism. Aside from being self-aggrandizing, it didn't seem to me to be particularly ralistic that blogs would replace the mainstream media. But I am actually beginning to think that what we know as the mainstream press might end up going the way of the Dodo bird after all. It's not because alternative media is so great or even that we are capable of doing what they do. It's because they have been manipulated for so long that I'm not sure they can function properly anymore.

Regarding complaints about the hiring of Ben Domenech, Howard Kurtz writes:

John Amato at Crooks and Liars says: "The Washington Post continues to become more and more a mouthpiece for the GOP by hiring a rightwing blogger."

I don't get it. One conservative blogger? It's not like The Post doesn't have a left-leaning blogger, or liberal columnists. Is the New York Times a GOP mouthpiece because it employs David Brooks and John Tierney? If people don't like what Domenech has to say, don't click on him. It's not like you can say "cancel my subscription!" since the Web site is free.

Of course we don't have to read him. But we do have to consider the fact that despite their protestations to contrary, because of pressure from the White House, Kurtz and the Washington Post believed they needed a blatantly partisan Republican blogger to "balance" an allegedly left leaning White House critic. That they still don't understand the difference between the conventions of overt partisan media and mainstream online criticism like Dan Froomkin's column is painfully clear. And that this particular partisan blogger has been exposed virtually overnight as a probable racist and proven plagiarist shows that they had no idea how the right wing media works. Still.

But then, Kurtz didn't understand the difference between rightwing talk radio and mainstream media either, even more than a decade after it was clear to listeners all over the country:

"Sure, he aggressively pokes fun at Democrats and lionizes Republicans, but mainly about policy. He's so mainstream that those right-wingers Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert had him on their Election Night coverage."

Neither he nor those vapid NBC anchors apparently knew that Rush Limbaugh commonly fantasizes about "policies" like kicking half the Democratic party out of the country:

LIMBAUGH: We just had Stephen Breyer saying, oh, yeah, totally appropriate, we must import what they're doing around the world in other democracies, it will help buttress their attempt to establish the rule of law, and we might learn something, too. Well, here's something I'd like to import. I'd like to import the ability that the Brits are doing to export and deport a bunch of hate-rhetoric filled mullahs and imams that are stoking anti-American sentiment. Wouldn't it be great if anybody who speaks out against this country, to kick them out of the country? Anybody that threatens this country, kick 'em out. We'd get rid of Michael Moore, we'd get rid of half the Democratic Party if we would just import that law. That would be fabulous. The Supreme Court ought to look into this. Absolutely brilliant idea out there.

Tthe mainstream press appears to be so enveloped in the warm, cozy womb of the DC establishment that they either don't know what is going on around them or they've been willingly co-opted. I saw that same kind of wide-eyed, naive wonder on the face of Bob Woodward recently, when he realized that junkyard dog Patrick Fitzgerald wasn't actually a slavering liberal determined to expose all of his Republican sources going back to Deep Throat. It's in the defensive posture of Jim Brady as he recoiled in horror at unwashed liberal masses daring to criticize his ombudsman's glaring error. It's demonstrated by the fatuous guilelessness of the NY Times creating a "conservative beat" in the year 2005, as if they just discovered Rock and Roll or bell-bottoms.

They are like sheltered children. They can't trust their instincts. They do not know when they are being played. Indeed, they don't even seem to know the game exists.

Perhaps it would be useful, then, to try to figure out how this happened, and strange as it may seem, it can be traced to a specific moment in 1968 when, after the police beat up protestors and newsmen alike at the Democratic convention in Chicago, Joseph Kraft, the Richard Cohen of his time, wrote:

"Are we merely neutral observers, seekers after truth in the public interest? Or do we, as the supporters of Mayor Daley and his Chicago police have charged, have a prejudice of our own?

"The answer, I think is that Mayor Daley and his supporters have a point. Most of us in what is called the communications field are not rooted in the great mass of ordinary Americans--in Middle America. And the results show up not merely in occasional episodes such as the Chicago violence but more importantly in the systematic bias toward young people, minority groups, and the of presidential candidates who appeal to them.

"To get a feel of this bias it is first necessary to understand the antagonism that divides the middle class of this country. On the one hand there are highly educated upper-income whites sure of and brimming with ideas for doing things differently. On the other hand, there is Middle America, the large majority of low-income whites, traditional in their values and on the defensive against innovation.

"The most important organs of and television are, beyond much doubt, dominated by the outlook of the upper-income whites.

"In these circumstances, it seems to me that those of us in the media need to make a special effort to understand Middle America. Equally it seems wise to exercise a certain caution, a prudent restraint, in pressing a claim for a plenary indulgence to be in all places at all times the agent of the sovereign public."

The "Middle America" that expressed such horror at the events in Chicago in 1968 did go on to elect Richard Nixon twice. (The Republicans have always had a direct line to the nation's id.) But the forces that were pulling at the country then resulted forty years later in both a more conservative politics, a more liberal culture and an electorate as divided as ever. The elite media have never been able to wrap their arms around any of that. And they have never admitted that the insecurity that descended upon the establishment at that moment has been relentlessly exploited for maximum effect by the Republican party.

When the poobahs of the GOP read Kraft's column they smelled blood and they haven't let up since. Today, prudent restraint has become cowed submission to every Republican complaint and an overweaning desire to please them with narratives of Democratic fecklessness. The Washington Post hears that Dan Froomkin, White House critic, is disliked by Republicans. Writers themselves feel uncomfortable with (and jealous of) the free-wheeling, critical tone of his online White House column, an irreverent style that is common in modern online journalism (see: sister site Slate.) They solve the "problem" by hiring the rabidly partisan 24 year old son of a Bush administration official.

This goes beyond bending over backwards. It's gymnastic contortionism. They are as bewildered by the grassroots fervor of this modern polarized culture ( and cannot see the forces creating them) today any more than they could see them in 1968.

Yesterday all the networks began indulging in another tiresome round of self-flagellation over this mind-numbingly predictable Republican campaign, (documented in this thorough report by Peter Daou) to convince the public that the liberal media is to blame for the country's bad opinion of the war in Iraq. Howard Kurtz once again dutifully steps up to the plate and takes the first pitch right in the middle of the forehead:

BLITZER: ...Howie, is it true, based on your observation of the news media, as the president, the vice president continue to maintain that the negative -- all of our mainstream media reporting has tended to be on the negative?

HOWARD KURTZ, CNN'S RELIABLE SOURCES: Well, certainly not all of it, Wolf, and I don't agree with that woman in West Virginia who said that journalists are doing this because they don't agree with the Bush policy.

But I've look very carefully in recent weeks from the time of those mosque bombings through the third year anniversary stories of the U.S.-led invasion, and the tone of a whole lot of this coverage has been negative, has been downbeat, has been pessimistic, in part that's because a lot of the news out of Iraq has not been good. But I think we may be reaching kind of a tipping point here that we saw in Vietnam where the press coverage seems to tilt against this war effort.

BLITZER: So you've seen a change in recent weeks? Is that what you're saying?

KURTZ: Absolutely compared to say a year ago or two years ago. I think it's not unconnected to the public opinion polls. I think journalists are finding it easier to ask aggressive questions of President Bush, to frame the stories more negatively in terms of the American presence there because they know a majority of the country now questions or disagrees with that war effort.

I do think, however, that a lot of journalists make an effort to talk to ordinary Iraqis and to report on signs of progress. But, let's face it, in our business, the car bombing, the suicide attack, the attack on a police station, those tend to be top of the newscast, top of the front page kinds of stories. The other reconstruction efforts are less dramatic and tend to get pushed back.

BLITZER: It's the same basically covering any story. Here in Washington, D.C., if there's a major incident, let's say a shooting incident, whatever. We don't report, you know what, 99.99 percent of the kids went to school today, businesses were open, things were flourishing. But if there's a horrible shooting incident, we're going to report that in local media as well.

KURTZ: There certainly is a bad news bias in that sense. We cover plane crashes. We don't cover safe plane landings.

But the additional complicating factor here, Wolf, as I know you know, is that it's very dangerous for journalists in Baghdad. We've seen that with some of the deaths and injuries of journalists there. Most recently ABC's Bob Woodruff. And so journalists are frustrated that they can't tell more of the story of ordinary Iraqis and what they think about the U.S. presence there because they have to curtail their travels or travel with security details.

So when you add that to the natural tendency to play up violence, the dramatic pictures that television, of course, loves, I do think we are seeing more negative coverage now. And, obviously, it's in the political self-interest of George Bush and Dick Cheney to highlight that because they are trying to make the case that things are not as bad as they seem in Iraq and the media are a handy target.

BLITZER: Very briefly, is there any sign of a backlash against the mainstream media because of our coverage of what's happening in Iraq?

KURTZ: Yes, among conservatives, among military family members and others. A lot of people, as we saw that woman from West Virginia, blaming us for the situation there.

You can smell panic coming off the media in waves. In 2006, there is nothing that screams "Middle America" (or perhaps the more accurate "Real America") than the phrase "military families." (Watch this video at Crooks and Liars of the modern Mencken, Jack Cafferty, having none of it and exposing Kurtz's analysis for the sophistry it is by pointing out the obvious: the news is getting worse because the war is getting worse.)

Today, Howard Kurtz continues to blindly defend Ben Domenech even as partisan Republican bloggers are starting to ease away under the weight of the evidence. And CNN is now showing a non-stop montage of "fallen heroes," returning soldiers and testimony about all the good news in Iraq, some of it even set to music. And, on a loop, we see that angry Army wife at Bush's town hall meeting admonishing the media --- with its huge roar of approval from the military families ("Middle Americans" ) whom the elite media are easily persuaded they are failing when they dare to tell them uncomfortable truths.

Those journalists who haven't taken the easy way out and simply adopted the GOP worldview (and there are many of them) are so paranoid that they can't trust their own eyes and ears. They are perpetually vulnerable to the manipulations of a cynical Republican establishment that has been pounding the trope for forty years that if a journalist tells a story that is critical of conservatives, he or she is a liberal who is out of touch with the people.

The country is in the middle of several "wars" in both the literal and metaphorical sense. If it was ever called for, the time to "exercise a certain caution, a prudent restraint, in pressing a claim for a plenary indulgence to be in all places at all times the agent of the sovereign public" is long past. The public isn't crying out for "balance," particularly when those who claim to provide it have no earthly idea even how to define it. They are looking for truth. Plain, simple truth.

If the mainstream media hope to even be relevant, much less pressing a claim of plenary indulgence to be agents of the sovereign republic, they must wise up quickly and stop being agents of the right wing propaganda mills. If they don't, they will finally lose the patience of their readers who will turn to the many alternative means of finding information.

I have very mixed feelings about how our country will fare with such a system. I think a thriving democracy needs a vital mainstream press. But since the mainstream press keeps getting punked over and over again by the right wing machine, you have to wonder if it really makes any difference anymore.

Hat Tip to Rick Perlstein for the Kraft column.

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