Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Complicit Media and the Censored Message

If there is ever a time when the politicians need the press more than the press needs the politicians, it's during campaign season. How else are the sleazebags going to get their lies out to the public if not through newspapers and TV? Media coverage is free, unlike the expensive ads.

So I was kind of (but not really) surprised to learn that our current crop of professional journalists is so cowed by the presidential candidates and their operatives that they have pretty much agreed to let the campaigns vet all quotes before they get published! You read that right. The media, upon whom we rely to present the unvarnished truth, lies and colorful language of those seeking public office, are ready, willing and able stenographers. And, in a piece by Jeremy Peters published in yesterday's New York Times, they ruefully admit that they are nothing but craven shills. And just like the unnamed government sources they are so fond of appeasing and enabling, they themselves would only make their admissions anonymously.
Quote approval is standard practice for the Obama campaign, used by many top strategists and almost all midlevel aides in Chicago and at the White House — almost anyone other than spokesmen who are paid to be quoted. (And sometimes it applies even to them.) It is also commonplace throughout Washington and on the campaign trail.
The Romney campaign insists that journalists interviewing any of Mitt Romney’s five sons agree to use only quotations that are approved by the press office. And Romney advisers almost always require that reporters ask them for the green light on anything from a conversation that they would like to include in an article.
This is pretty shocking. Do these so-called reporters really believe that they will be denied access if they refuse to go along with this ridiculous censorship? When I was a reporter a long time ago and covering Hugh Carey's New York gubernatorial campaign, one of his sons came up to the press gaggle with "instructions" about what paragraph of Daddy's speech to put in our leads. We just laughed in his face. We had the power of the pen, and there wasn't a damn thing the pols could do about it. Once they win their elections, of course, media manipulation becomes de rigeur. But while they're desperately trying to win? The press should own these clowns.

But according to Peters, it's only getting worse. The campaign control freaks are freaking out over every last swear word and gaffe. If Obama farts while telling dirty jokes on Air Force One, or Romney lets loose with an F-bombing tirade, we the people will never find out about it. The journos' lips are sealed. Peters' article continues:

Those who did speak on the record said the restrictions seem only to be growing. “It’s not something I’m particularly proud of because there’s a part of me that says, ‘Don’t do it, don’t agree to their terms,’ ” said Major Garrett, a correspondent for The National Journal. “There are times when this feels like I’m dealing with some of my editors. It’s like, ‘You just changed this because you could!’ ”
It was difficult to find a news outlet that had not agreed to quote approval, albeit reluctantly. Organizations like Bloomberg, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Reuters and The New York Times have all consented to interviews under such terms.
“We don’t like the practice,” said Dean Baquet, managing editor for news at The New York Times. “We encourage our reporters to push back. Unfortunately this practice is becoming increasingly common, and maybe we have to push back harder.”
The Obama campaign declined to make Mr. Plouffe or Mr. Messina available to explain their media practices. “We are not putting anyone on the record for this story,” said Katie Hogan, an Obama spokeswoman, without a hint of irony. She pointed to the many unrestricted interviews with campaign officials every day on television and when the press corps travels with the president.
Jim Naurekas of FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) scathingly calls the campaign press corps a bunch of "brain-picking zombies." He takes the Times article a giant step forward, noting that

He (Peters) doesn't spell out the implication, which is that journalists are thereby serving as PR agents, packaging the messages of political professionals at their direction rather than independently reporting the news.
Responsible journalists shouldn't have to be told that it's wrong to allow your sources to edit their quotes, but apparently the sort of journalists who work for national news outlets do need to be told that. In fact, they need to be told that by their editors, so that when their sources propose such a deal, they can say–sorry, we're not allowed to do that.
At which point, the political strategists can respond in one of two ways: Maybe they'll realize that they need the press more than the press needs them, and they'll allow journalists to do their jobs without interference.
The only thing worse than covering Rotary Club lunches is covering campaign season. The operatives will try to spin you in a thousand different directions. The trick is to Just Say No. The candidates are desperate, people! This reminds me of another time when I was working the graveyard shift at the local rag and the guy trailing in the polls in the State Assembly race showed up at the locked office, banging frantically on the door and waving yet another press release. Begging, begging, begging for an interview. Now the roles are reversed and reporters are the ones begging and maybe even banging for access. Fourth estate, my ass.

But that was then and this is now. I guess since corporations and billionaires are allowed to contribute anonymously and without limits to the campaigns, the candidates themselves are smugly secure in their own new-found anonymous corrupt miasmas. The Disclose Act, which would have forced political donors to reveal their identities, has just died a filibustered death in Congress.

So -- candidates and their PACs don't need no stinking reporters when they have millions of anonymous dollars to spend on TV attack ads. According to Bloomberg News, just about nine out of every ten political ads now being run are negative. Instead of getting unspun information and substantive policy discussions, we're getting caught in the middle of an unfettered food fight, a non-stop bash-o-rama gone wild. Even the fact-checking organizations are getting attacked for daring to disclose their inconvenient facts.

And just think, only sixteen more weeks of this to go. All we can do is shut off the TV, and try to stay sane.


Denis Neville said...

“I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best.” - Herman Melville, "Bartleby the Scrivener"

Too many reporters are merely scriveners.

Jay Rosen asks, “Suppose a major party candidate for president believed we were in a ‘post-truth’ era and actually campaigned that way. Would political reporters in the mainstream press figure it out and tell us?” He answers, “No, they would not.” Because it, “Exposes the press to criticism...Messes with the ‘both sides do it’/we’re impartial narrative that political journalists have mastered and deeply believe in. Romney will be fact checked, his campaign will push back from time to time, the fact checkers will argue among themselves, and the post-truth premise will sneak into common practice without penalty or recognition, even though there is nothing covert about it.”


Witness the claim of CNN’s David Gergen, who has benefited financially from his connections to Bain, that “Facts don't support Obama's charges against Romney.” “Facts” verified by Gergen’s friends at Bain!

As Karen says, “Instead of getting unspun information and substantive policy discussions, we're getting caught in the middle of an unfettered food fight…”

Rosen again, “The hidden agenda is not to aid or attack one ‘side’ or the other; rather, it is to present the press itself as a superior observer, above politics and innocent of it….If the opposition calls out the post-truth campaign through ads and speeches and interviews, it actually furthers the agenda of the post-truth-ers…Accuse the other guys of it first. Wait for their attack. Count on the audience to dismiss it as a schoolyard spat, or the journalists to beef up on their “both sides” bona fides by pointing out the tired symmetry of it all…”

“Being a reporter is as much a diagnosis as a job description.” - Anna Quindlen

Jay - Ottawa said...

Sigh. So it's come to this: Back to Wolf Blitzer.

4Runner said...

It's not only the acquiescent "reporters", but where the heck are any MSM muckrakers? I'm reminded of a song from a few years back "You, Me & TV" with its lines "Don't forget that the mainstream/Is where all the little tributaries flow."

Denis Neville said...

4Runner asks, “where the heck are any MSM muckrakers?”

So many vital issues today cry for hard-hitting investigative journalism and widespread mass media coverage. But MSM provides only stories that don't rock the corporate or political boats.

Ray Stannard Baker, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, and Ida Tarbell exposed corporate and governmental crimes, turning local issues into national issues and local protests into national crusades. If they were here today, they would be exposing our corporate media and the lack of true muckraking.

There hasn’t been a similar era of investigative muckraking journalism since. Several exceptions come to my mind: I.F. Stone and George Seldes.

"The newspaper game for me is something like the thrilling thing it is in fiction. But from the first day to the last there was censorship, there was suppression of news, there was distortion and coloring of the news, there was always an attempt by someone to mislead the public." – George Seldes

Sampling of 1940's headlines from George Seldes’ In Fact, his weekly newsletter of investigative reporting and criticism of the press:
• "How Money Talks in Congress"
• "Industry Does Not Want Full Employment"
• "Jim Crow in the Navy"
• "Link Cancer-Tobacco"

“The attempt to mislead continues unabated. George Seldes was an early and fearless rider of a horse that is bucking still. Today's deception is more sophisticated than in the first half of the century but no less insidious. Pick your topic: human rights abuses in China and elsewhere, the overwhelming influence of the great corporations on public policy here and abroad, the grotesque abuses that permeate the criminal justice system, racial injustice, the degradation of the environment around the world, the continuing multibillion dollar triumph of big tobacco.” – Bob Herbert,"The Truth Teller," NY Times, February 24, 1997

“Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press” is a 1996 documentary film that was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. The film opens with a cartoon character, Truth, being chased and fired upon by an enraged mob.

Greg L said...

Scanned your post and agreed with your take on the press. George Bush II pioneered embedding the media to silence critics of the war in a manner very similar to the presidential campaigns. We've never had an absolutely free press in the country, but the press of today is a complete joke and anyone who relies on it for information is sorely misinformed.

Denis Neville said...

Where are today’s social photographers?

There are so many images in our nation today that cry for photojournalism’s visual reporting of facts, the truth, and not MSM manipulation of images.

Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine were among the first social reformers to use photography.

Lewis Hine used photography a powerful means of recording social injustice and labor abuses and achieving social reform:


“The 1912 photograph of a boy who injured his hand working in a textile factory by social reformer Lewis Hine made the boy, Giles Edmund Newsom, the face of child labor in the U.S. Sympathy for his circumstances spurred efforts to safeguard children from such work.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/17/giles-edmund-newsom-grave_n_1679656.html

Jacob Riis, who was regard by Lincoln Steffens as a mentor, photographed the living and working conditions of the poor:


Riis once said, “The reason charity has been discredited is because it has worked with the broken fragments, the drunken and the shiftless, helping as it could, mourning that such things must be, but never asking the reason why or knowing anything of the honest, thrifty poor who live lives of heroism such as we cannot live."

alan said...

And yet,... Here I am, not only reading all of this, but reading Realtychex, and Naked Capitolism, and Taibbi, all of it, and responding to it, having my response to it all published, with nothing more than a "smart" phone. No t.v., no internet, and I find, stupid as I am (and I am, believe me)that I am way better informed, about pretty much everything, than most of the people I'm surrounded by... Not exactly sure what my point is, something about the Msm, with notable exceptions, are news announcers, not info desseminators, and there has to be a better more efficient way of getting people the info they need about stuff that's important to them if I can find you K.G. through the comments section of nyt why can't others? Info is available and it's not that hard to use these as of 10 yrs ago unthinkable machines to get the word out. Although it did take me 15 minutes to write this, reply box kept freezing up. But jesus, now I'm a published " author"!!!!, sort of....
It seems they mostly suck at the political stuff, right? Is that at all significant?