Eclectic commentary from a progressive voice in the red state

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Understanding media failure through history

Alyona Minkovski, a bit of an over-achiever at age 30, published an article on the Huffington Post on Nov. 11. The title, “Want Better Journalism? You Have to Support It,” really isn’t about that. Her analysis of the media failure is shallow and lacks an understanding of the historical context.

To understand the media landscape that brought us to this point, Minkovski needed to harken back to before she was born, when Rush Limbaugh launched his right-wing program from a station in Sacramento, Calif. He went national a few years later. If she could have listened to him then, Minkovski would have heard his nascent attacks on the mainstream media. The first weapon was tapping into the confirmation bias, a notion about which you are correct, with lies of commission and omission. His rhetorical technique was a classic one in this regard — start a sentence but not fully complete the thought, letting the already biased listeners fill in their blanks.

The second weapon drew on what we learned about public relations from Edward Bernays and Josef Goebbels. That was a steady drumbeat of lies designed to undermine the credibility of such stalwarts as The New York Times and the Washington Post. It’s known as “The Big Lie.” The Times and Post didn’t do themselves any favors with reporters like Judith Miller, Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke, either.

Once Limbaugh started, others followed: Michael Savage, Art Bell, Glenn Beck and others. And so, the drumbeat got louder.

Parallel was “The Dumbing Down of America.” It was outlined well in a revealing book by Charlotte Thomson Iserbyt, a former senior policy advisor in the United States Department of Education. Other books followed, including John Timan’s “100 Ways America Is Screwing Up the World,” which pointed the finger at several social trends, including but not limited to, corporatization, anti-intellectualism, anti-science and conservative Christians zealots. His was a summary of things started by the so-called Moral Majority in the 1970s. Meanwhile, the cult of celebrity rolled on. Youth no longer aspired to be great doctors, or teachers or scientists. They aspired to be celebrity singers, rappers, athletes and entertainers of all types. Ah, yes, it was now bread and circuses.

Yes, the chattering class, helped by the changes in the media landscape, became famous and insular. And Limbaugh and his confreres stoked the fires of separating the media from its constituents. Where Minkovski is correct is that some of the media itself started taking themselves more seriously than the news they were tasked to cover. You know one of the definitions of journalism is to publish things that others don’t want revealed. But the corporatization of the media meant that the good reporters’ very bosses were part of that world of the corporate takeover of our government — the very corrosion in our nation needed revelation. Sure the revenue models have changed, and for the for-profit media, it was a combination of incompetence and greed that diluted investigative reporting. Filling the void are the non-profits like ProPublica, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Texas Tribune.

Now, this is the short version of something that has unfolded for some 40 years. We are at what historians call a watershed moment. As the son of Jews from Austria who left Europe in time, and as some students of history like me, the parallels to the rise of the Third Reich are frightening. To others, who wish to discount the obvious fascism, the Trumpsters throw out “Goodwin’s Law” in an attempt to discount our observations with the claim citing Hitler invalidates our view. They argue there are no roundups, concentration camps and gas chambers. My response is, “Not yet. But keep going and you’ll see.”

How the media handled this election can’t be understood and how the U.S. got to this point can’t be understood without the historical context and an understanding that corporatist elites own the government. Both 2016 candidates are elites. One tapped into the dark side of the U.S. and the other into the naïve side of the U.S. Ultimately both candidates are corporatists. Without a different kind of revolution, corporatist choices will continue. How and what unfolds remains to be seen, of course. But given what we’ve done to America’s intellect, I fear the worst.