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Breaking the News: Time To Make The Doughnuts— Er, The News, The Mass-Media Way

John Nichols and Robert McChesney

Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy

Author:John Nichols and Robert McChesney
Release Date:2005
Publisher:The New Press

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 12/21/2005

When the subject is the state of America’s news media, you can’t fault an author for sounding frustrated and angry. In Tragedy and Farce, co-authors John Nichols and Robert McChesney argue their case—summed up in the subtitle—as if they’ve been waiting 10 years to get it off their chests. They take a mere 203 pages to chronicle the corporate subversion of U.S. journalism and chart the national media’s culpability in the schemes of the Bush administration. The prose is dense, not terse. To quote one key sentence:

The reality is that the contemporary structures of broadcast media ownership and regulation, as well as recent patterns of consolidation of newspaper ownership and the pressure on all media to turn ever-increasing levels of profit, conspire far more effectively than Karl Rove and Dan Rather ever could to undermine journalism and, ultimately, to constrain the flow of facts, ideas, and debate that is the lifeblood of democracy.

Another, more shapely line follows: “Media today treats Americans as consumers, not citizens.” Nichols is a journalist and editor; McChesney is a media critic and communications professor. Your guess as to which author wrote what.

The authors’ basic arguments will be familiar to any center-to-left reader who pays attention to the news biz. Anyone who reads the once-proud Sun—now a franchise of the Chicago-based Tribune Co.—knows firsthand what’s happening to journalism under investment-driven corporate ownership. For their national and international news, dailies all over the United States increasingly depend on syndicated material and corporate hand-me-downs. When The Sun recently cut back on its foreign bureaus (among other things), it was following a dangerous xenophobic trend that was blazed by broadcast news decades ago. Throughout the mass media, news is increasingly circumscribed, homogenized, and staggeringly superficial: The authors invoke “Michael Jackson’s trial, Martha Stewart’s probation terms, and Natalee Holloway’s disappearance.”

More controversially, the authors argue that the trends in media ownership have driven the news to the right. The authors’ main targets are not the flamboyantly right-wing pundits and talk-show warlords, despicable though they may be. Overt partisanship, they say, is preferable to what they see as covert bias pervading media outlets that present themselves, unwinkingly, as balanced. As to the “liberal media” stereotype, Nichols and McChesney allow that a majority of reporters nationwide have liberal politics, but the reporters work for companies that are directed by conservative business interests. (The Washington press corps, they note, is generally more conservative than the general public.)

To evade the scarlet letter “L”—and to do without the profit-pinching trouble of investigative reporting—professional journalists have become increasingly dependent on official sources and experts from government, industry, and elite think tanks. Relationships blossom, and next thing you know, you have what Theodore Dreiser called the “kept press.” Nichols and McChesney speak of editorial “dig here, not there” directives that limit the permissible fields of reportage; they recite, on one breathless page, 18 questions about the invasion of Iraq that the media should have asked but never did. The once-mighty Rather is quoted admitting to a “heavy prejudice” in favor of giving the president “the benefit of the doubt, and for that I do not apologize.”

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, the stripped-down, dumbed-down media offered a near-perfect vehicle for the dissemination of Bush administration propaganda, even in its least subtle forms. Tragedy and Farce catalogs the administration’s news-bending techniques: “embedding” reporters with troops in Iraq, ostracizing members of the media who ask tough questions, spreading rumors and leaking secrets about perceived enemies, planting hoked-up stories and paying pet columnists to write positive op-eds about administration policy. The right’s media wizards (Karl Rove at their lead) applied the same techniques to selling the war that they did to winning the presidency.

In their analysis of the 2004 presidential election, the authors argue that the corporate media had it in for Rove’s least favorite Democrat, Howard Dean; they fault nominee John Kerry for failing to confront the smear tactics of his opponents; they blast CBS for bungling, then aborting, the story of George W. Bush’s Vietnam-era junket in the Air National Guard. As the book progresses, the authors write with less restraint and more rhetoric. They finally boil over—and frankly, can you blame them?—on the subject of Baltimore County’s own Sinclair Broadcast Group: “[T]he main product of Sinclair’s media mill during the 2004 campaign was a spew of right-wing dogma drooled from the lips of Mark Hyman, the company’s vice president for corporate relations.” Well, yeah.

By this point in the book, it’s apparent that T&F wasn’t written to persuade the undecideds out there. Switching from invective to advocacy in their final chapter, the authors declare that their real purpose in writing the book was to inform and inflame a movement for media reform—a movement that, they say, already exists in fragments. The authors’ exhortations are all valid but come as an anticlimax after their slashing critique. More and better media criticism, more independent media, bring back limits on media ownership, unify the fragments; keep up the good fight, work union. As to the much-vaunted new media, the authors see the internet as a mixed blessing. They probably understate the political importance of small-time blogs, list servers, and informal sharing of news via e-mail—which happen to be this writer’s daily lifeline to “alternative” journalism.

If it accomplishes nothing else, T&F organizes and summarizes in book form a discussion that’s been going on for many moons in periodical literature and online. (A good sourcebook, though, should have an index; T&F, annoyingly, lacks one.) The best passages of the book have the efficiency of a criminal indictment, with extended sequences of fact and assertion that build damningly to the authors’ charges. As for the angry tone of all but the last chapter, readers will have to decide whether it helps or hurts the authors’ cause. This is serious stuff; I humbly congratulate both men for maintaining their sense of outrage in a time when atrocities and absurdities are bumped to page A27.

With more supporting detail, anecdote, and example, there would be grist here for a book three times as long, and perhaps twice as readable and persuasive. A sense of humor might help, too; the best these authors can do is rueful irony. On that note: Nichols and McChesney dismiss the subject of political satire in a single paragraph, yet they saw fit to leaven their text with a handful of apt cartoons by Tom Tomorrow. If you’ve been following Tom Tomorrow for a while, this book holds few surprises.

Since this time-sensitive book went to print, Hurricane Katrina blew away much of the Bush administration’s credibility, which was already battered by the war in Iraq. The New York Times’ Judith Miller (who personified much of T&F’s “kept media” complaint) has fallen from grace, and national media are reporting, albeit superficially, on several scandals affecting the White House and the Republican Party. It’s hard to guess exactly what Nichols and McChesney would have to say about the latest run of events, but it’s doubtful they’d give corporate media much credit. Bush and the gang may yet claw their way back to respect and public esteem, but they’ll need big media’s help to do so. It may be that corporate America has decided that Bush isn’t so good for business after all.

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