Friday, September 26, 2008

Big Media & Bad Criticism

by Ken Sanes

One of the more interesting publications on the Internet right now is Slate magazine, which has shown itself willing to take on the journalistic establishment, including the New York Times and the dominant television news networks. But last month, Slate took a wrong turn when its deputy editor, Jack Shafer, offered a column that reads like a work of propaganda for the giant companies that now dominate the media.
As the headline -- "Big is Beautiful" -- suggests, Shafer's purpose in the column is to convince us that the big media so many love to hate is actually good for America. In fact, he suggests, big media has helped make this a golden age of journalism because only it "possesses the means to consistently hold big business and big government accountable". Shafer also acknowledges that there are media abuses, but he believes the system is self-correcting because news organizations and other providers of information are exposing the wrongdoing in the media industry.
As he puts it, we now have a system in which: "Big media strives to be ethical for the same reason big government and big business do: New technology prevents it from controlling information the way it used to, and being exposed by others hurts too much."
According to Shafer, big media is also saving the day when local news organizations (whether owned independently or by larger chains) fail to expose wrongdoing in their own backyards, such as police brutality or contaminated groundwater. When that happens, he says, in a description that sounds like it is drawn more from Mighty Mouse than media reality, "the big media New York Times or 60 Minutes can parachute in and do the story without fear or favor. Hurrah for big media!"
But Shafer doesn't only offer this counter-intuitive insight on the benefits of big media. In addition, he serves up a dose of pretension-deflating mockery aimed at a handful of critics who oppose the big media he claims is so benign. He sets the tone for his assessment of these critics in the first paragraph, informing us that, after AOL and Time Warner announced their merger plans, "the nation's media reporters autodialed the usual critics of media conglomeration: Robert A. McChesney, Tom Rosenstiel, Ben Bagdikian, and Mark Crispin Miller. Their collective complaint, known to every reader of The Nation, was duly recorded: Media conglomeration is bad for journalism and society."
In opening this way, Shafer's message is unmistakable, if not openly stated: the critics' complaints are a product of the left, like The Nation magazine, he suggests, and the media's decision to air their ideas is an exercise in mindless journalism. Not being familiar with the work of all four of these critics, I can't vouch for the correctness of the first part of that innuendo (although I know a number are on the left). But I do know that Shafer leaves something else unacknowledged, which is that his counter-intuitive insight on the benefits of big media is itself shaped by the ideology of the other side. In place of a genuine discussion of the subject, it offers a sophisticated form of big media boosterism that makes just the arguments the media companies, and many other business interests, want us to believe.
A good example of how Shafer's column repeats the media line can be seen in his claim that today's open system undermines any effort by large companies -- or other powerful interests -- to control information. As he puts it, the critique of big media offered by writers such as McChesney, "misses the long-term trend that started with Gutenberg and is accelerating with the Internet: As information processing becomes cheaper, so does pluralism and decentralization, which comes at the expense of entrenched powers--government, the church, the guild, nobility, and the magazines and TV stations that Big Media God Henry Luce founded".
Like many of Shafer's claims, that is a half truth, even if it is a half truth that is now frequently repeated by others in the industry. What is really taking place is that we are seeing two contradictory trends that may well be on a collision course. On the one hand, as Shafer would argue, new technology, particularly the Internet, is making it possible for millions of people (me, for example) to become media, and it is giving smaller news organizations a larger voice. The result is an explosion of high end journalism and media criticism that will be discussed further down.
But, at the same time, a small group of giant companies that are masters at appealing to people's emotions and desires are grabbing most of the audience -- and they are in the midst of a worldwide expansion. What the rest of us do matters somewhat and sets limits on what the big companies can get away with. But, so far, most of the audience most of the time is inside the media bubble created by a few companies.
Shafer also suggests that this new, more open system is self-regulating (although he doesn't use that term) since, when media companies misuse their power, they tend to be exposed. As he puts it, ''Any sustained effort--conscious or unconscious--by a media conglomerate to slant the news in favor of its holdings will only damage the long-term value of its journalistic properties". He also notes that when the Los Angeles Times became involved in an unethical deal, it was a small alternative weekly that first exposed it and reporting by big media that ultimately damaged it, which is obviously intended as an example of how large and small media both help to control the system.
Shafer is correct in the sense that there is now some critical reporting by the media about the media, particularly when there are blatant violations. But 99 percent of the information on the media's abuse of power is still concealed because most news organizations still refuse to define most of what their industry does as news. Instead, they focus on what politicians and similar newsmakers say and do, which is a clever act of slight of hand that directs our attention where the media wants us to look and away from both its own actions and those of other large corporations.
What is it, specifically, that our attention is being directed away from? For starters, most of the media encourages us not to notice that much of the news is shaped by the needs of entertainment, politics, marketing and personal self interest. It clearly doesn't want us to see the way this has distorted contemporary journalism, giving us such corrupt media products as simplified and exaggerated news stories designed to hold an audience; news stories that are forms of propaganda for one position or another; news stories that are disguised advertisements; letters sections and ombudsmen columns that routinely pull their punches, and so on.
The news media has also failed to give adequate coverage to what may be the most massive invasion of privacy in history in which both media and non-media companies, (and other kinds of organizations), are tracking the American people with everything from video cameras to cookies. And it is distracting us from the pervasiveness of deceptive sales and marketing that has surrounded us with a con artist culture. Nor has it invited us to take a close look at the failure of many companies -- particularly in the computer industry -- to provide adequate customer service, which has turned this into another age of "Let the buyer beware."
The news media can't reveal much of this information for the obvious reason that it would be exposing itself. It does give us some news about all of this, of course, but, given the shaping influence these trends have on society and the ethical issues they raise, all of this deserves to be covered in detail and on a daily basis, the way the actions of politicians are covered.
Shafer, however, has another argument that presumably should reduce our concerns. The desire of the big media companies to be profitable, he tells us, needn't drive them to engage in bad journalism. On the contrary, he says, good journalism can be very good business. Here is how he puts it, again referring to the ideas of Robert McChesney : "As for McChesney's 'good journalism is bad business' formula, I can only offer a horse laugh. Only a fool would say that the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post haven't paired editorial quality with financial success. Nor does McChesney acknowledge that as USA Today has become a better paper, it has become more viable as a business."
The obvious response to this claim is that most of those news organizations are part of the upper strata of the market, intellectually -- and they are all newspapers. And even they are failing to reveal most of the abuses in their own industry. Below them is a much larger group of companies -- especially on television -- that produce a more degraded form of journalism because lowering standards is often good for business. These companies produce exaggerated news stories that play on our emotions and that take us on the equivalent of a theme park ride, with special effects and sci-fi style TV newsrooms, precisely because these techniques are known to generate excitement and hold an audience.
To a significant degree, these companies see news as another product to be sold, alongside toys, books, music, and so on. In essence, they treat audiences as consumers rather than citizens, while they "commodify" news and shape it according to the needs of marketing. Shafer, however, sees little danger in this. He tells us that "the McChesneyites" criticize big media for treating its audience "like consumers, not citizens", and responds, "Like WTO critics, the McChesneyites hate anything that doesn't conform to their idea of democracy". In other words, this system is okay for democracy, just not the kind of democracy anti-business critics approve of.
But, Shafer reassures us, we have still another protection from media abuse of power because the media has less of an ability to influence the public in its own favor than is generally believed. In essence, this is the same argument that has been made to convince us that depictions of sex and violence in the media don't influence people's behavior. There, too, we are told the media has little actual effect on what people do. The refutation of both of these claims is the same (and has been given before, in one form or another): if the media has so little ability to influence behavior, why do the rich and powerful spend billions of dollars placing advertisements, devising media marketing strategies, and inventing pseudo-events for reporters to cover? As critics of media manipulation have long told us, it is because media representations have a tremendous power to shape our actions and perceptions, so much so that they are the single most important force behind the sexual revolution that has changed the lifestyles of millions of people. The media's ability to influence the public is obviously limited in complex ways, but that shouldn't blind us to its true power.
And let's not forget, the media has used that power not merely to sell itself and its ideas, but also to ruin those it sees as opponents or appealing targets. While there has been a good deal of criticism of its actions, in this regard, the media continues to turn this into a culture of information savagery in which the pack migrates from one human target to another. In fact, this is a perfect example of how the needs of the system generate not only bad journalism but malevolent journalism. After all, the media's reputation predators turn humiliation into a spectacle because doing so allows them to hurt opponents; create exciting stories that will hold an audience; and elevate themselves to center stage.
Most of Shafer's other arguments are similarly flawed. His claim that "only big media possesses the means to consistently hold big business and big government accountable" is oddly off target, since there is no reason we need $350 billion media companies in order to investigate the way corporations and politicians use their power. That isn't an argument for stopping these companies from forming or for breaking them up, but it certainly isn't a reason to see them as beneficial.
Perhaps Shafer makes his most effective argument when he says: "As a reader, I care more about the newspaper I read than who owns it," meaning that we should be more concerned with the content and integrity of the news product than the pattern of ownership. Of course, he is correct in a limited sense since what matters is the integrity of the actual news product. And, of course, if we have a choice between big news companies run by journalists with integrity or small operations with little integrity, we should choose the former.
But what we are getting is ever-larger companies with ever more effective techniques of manipulation. What is even more disturbing is the fact that the same strategies of manipulation cross company boundaries so that virtually all media companies, large and small, act alike. They all know the formula for success in an age of high-technology manipulation; they all know what the system will allow, and they behave accordingly.
Given that Shafer misses so much, the obvious question is -- how should we read it and its author's intentions? The answer, I think, is that Shafer's column is a response to the larger and more diverse media landscape we have, today, in which there is not only more media and more kinds of media, but in which news organizations are escaping their local confines and becoming part of a national and global system. In this new system, we now have national editions of newspapers (as Shafer mentions); a proliferation of national cable channels that even cover the more exciting aspects of local crime, politics and catastrophes; and extensive talk radio commentators with national followings. In this new landscape, audiences have far more national media sources to choose from, although most of what they choose is held by a few owners.
Of all of these changes, the most significant recent development is obviously the emergence of the Internet as a second national and global stage for news and entertainment that can challenge the dominant media of television (even if it eventually merges with it). Among other things, it is giving us a growing industry of high end journalism and a new tradition of media criticism. This change is taking place because, odd as this may sound, the Internet is the television for print, in the sense that it is allowing writing from many sources to appear together in the same virtual "space", the way television lets video and movies appear in the same space of the television screen. That means all the journalism and media criticism that print makes possible is now available to anyone who can access a computer monitor, vastly expanding choice and creating all kinds of opportunities for role modeling, competition, dialogue, and mutual critique between writers and news organizations. Now, when journalistic organizations do something wrong, many of the offending stories and the subsequent critiques are immediately available to millions of readers, and not merely to a limited audience.
At the same time, of course, the Internet has a potentially limitless number of channels (unlike television), giving many voices a chance to be heard, as Shafer alludes to in his reference to the growing role of "pluralism and decentralization" in the media.
But we should remember that this period of enhanced media reporting and criticism on the Internet (and, to some degree, print), is a victory that had to be won. It happened because various critics had the courage to take on the media, which reviled many of them and, in some cases, tried to undo them. The critics who played this role are a diverse lot, from the Republicans and business interests that tried to get the press early on to abandon some of its liberal biases (as well as some of its independent reporting) to the work of the Columbia Journalism Review and Ben Bagdikian to the more recent decision by journalist, Steven Brill, to break away from the media code of silence and start the magazine of criticism, Brill's Content. Ultimately, the media became so powerful, and its abuses so egregious, the voices of criticism could no longer be ignored and others in the media began to do more reporting on the subject, as well.
But the dominant medium, television, which is controlled by the big companies, is worse then ever. It offers an ever-more extreme caricature of news and entertainment, because the limited number of channels makes it possible for it to be controlled by a few and because visual images encourage TV producers to increase immediacy at the expense of reflective ness. In addition, of course, the tyranny of the clicker has left much of television trying to hold an audience on a minute by minute basis, in an industry where costs -- and the stakes -- are often high. (The tyranny of the mouse hasn't yet had a comparable effect.)
Television now has a new tradition of media criticism, as well, but much of what it offers is a kind of faux criticism, full of commentary and reporting that is careful not to reveal too much in a way that might challenge those in power. And it frequently repeats the abuses of the industry, protecting allies, revving up the hype, unfairly attacking others, and covertly conveying various forms of propaganda. The fact that it devotes attention to some of the media scandals that have to be covered shouldn't divert us from its true nature.
Of course, we also see these problems in print and the Internet, offset at least by a growing collection of better web journalism.
Unfortunately, what we still aren't getting is a true debate and public education process on the role of the news business, because the big media companies won't allow it on television; because much of the mainstream print media is still timid in its coverage, and because Internet media coverage is still in an early stage of evolution. As a result, we are being prevented from taking collective action to correct our course. If the media had dealt with environmental issues this way, it would have failed to sensitize the public to the dangers and America might not have acted in time to avert some of the problems it was able to avoid.
But you would never be aware of this from Shafer's column. Instead, he tells us that, "Critics of big media suffer from the Fallacy of the Golden Era. They think things were better in the past...." and "The critique of big media invariably romanticizes small, independent newspapers." He then spends much of his column refuting these two ideas as he sings the praises of the system of big media as it is now.
But questions about whether the past or small newspapers are being idealized are irrelevant to most of the issues raised, here, none of which are based on a yearning for a time that never existed. It is true that these issues have to do with the behavior of media companies, whatever their size. However, the size of these companies is clearly bound up with their actions, since they use their enormous wealth and power to buy up alternative voices and silence criticism, and they produce a hyped up virtual journalism in an effort to dominate the marketplace.
And yet, it would not be accurate to say that Shafer is an apologist for big media. On the contrary, some of his other columns have offered blunt criticism of the misuse of media power. Since he posted the column defending the current media system, he has gone after pro-McCain bias in New York Times news coverage. And he has exposed the way some television news channels are making deceptive statements on primary days, to glide over the fact that they already know the voting results from exit polls but are participating in an embargo against revealing the information until the polls close.
So Shafer presents an interesting paradox -- he defends the dominance of big media companies, while he exposes their wrongdoing. The answer to the paradox turns out to be revealing since what Shafer is telling us is that we should leave the overall pattern of media ownership alone but aggressively expose the wrongdoing of media companies to force them to be good citizens. His column becomes, not a description of an existing golden age, even if that is the way it is phrased, but a statement on how we can bring one about. The column is also, of course, a justification for his own work and that of Slate magazine, which is owned by the big media company, Microsoft, and which is taking on the media in its writing in a way that could help change the way journalism is practiced.
Shafer thus offers us a particular "ideological" position when we look not merely at this one column but at all of his recent work. Although this is a simplification, one can say that, to the left of him are the critics of the big media system who challenge ownership. To the "right" are the media critics who challenge neither ownership nor unethical conduct, except in limited or distorted ways.
The good news is that we can expect to see more good criticism in coming years, now that demands for reform have momentum and a growing audience. The bad news is that the giant companies on the other side are using their control over communications to suppress the cause of reform so they can continue violating the public trust.

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