This week, President Obama made news when he called on Sam Stein of the Huffington Post at his first press conference. It was, indeed, a significant occasion, a milestone in loosening the death grip that old media has had on our nation.
Examples of this death grip are legion. A few of the biggies include Whitewater, the multi-million dollar manufactured media scandal over a decade-old failed land deal. The media-assisted suppression of scientific evidence that global warming is a real and serious threat to human civilization as we know it. The media-assisted theft of the 2000 election. The media-assisted lie-based invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the arch-enemy of bin Laden. These are not minor failures. Indeed, they're not failures at all: they are evidence of old media's true function, which is not to inform, but to deceive, and to do so in the interests of powerful reactionary elite interests.
I'm planning on writing about several major examples this weekend, but I thought I'd start off with something seemingly minor, a single story highlighted by Media Matters for America (MMFA) earlier this month. Because sometimes it's easier to grasp a problem by seeing it in minuature. And because one sees such seemingly minor examples virtually all the time.
|It's routinely argued that old media--particularly newspapers--are superior, because they do "orginal reporting" while bloggers are merely parasitical on what newspapers reporters do. Of course, this is very often the case, just as most opinion column are parasitical on newspaper reporters, too.
But it's not necessarily the case, and it's likely to be less and less the case as time goes by. With the vast online publication of information from primary sources, government, scientific and professional reports and the like, the value of traditional journalists largely revolves around their ability to see the same things that anyone online can see, and then to ask the right questions to penetrate beyond what was originally presented. And this is precisely where they routinely fail, not just falling short, but often amplifying the very lies and distortions they should be stripping away.
So, here's MMFA:
AP compared Obama's hiring of progressives at DOJ to Bush administration's alleged illegal hiring practices
Summary: In an article about criticisms of President Obama's nominations for Justice Department positions based on the nominees' "backgrounds" and "past clients," the AP's Devlin Barrett wrote: "Accusations of political manipulation at the Justice Department are not new. Over the past two years, the Bush administration has been investigated and excoriated by Democrats for making firing and hiring decisions based on political considerations." But there is no comparison between Obama's appointment of progressives to political jobs at DOJ and the Bush administration's alleged illegal use of political criteria to fill career DOJ jobs.
Indeed, the Bush politicization of the DOJ goes far beyond simply politicizing the process of hiring career staff using political criteria. The whole point of hiring conservative Republicans was not simply to give them cushy jobs they weren't qualified for (although some possible were qualified, but those didn't need their help). No, their purpose was to use the DOJ as a political weapon to attack, and attempt to destroy, the Democratic Party. This is how a whole range of improper and illegal practices all tied together. So MMFA is merely focusing on the most minimal aspects of what's required for accurate reporting here.
Here's the key passage from the AP story itself:
Accusations of political manipulation at the Justice Department are not new. Over the past two years, the Bush administration has been investigated and excoriated by Democrats for making firing and hiring decisions based on political considerations.
Tom Minnery, a vice president at Focus on the Family, charges that through the nominations, the new Democratic administration is not depoliticizing, but re-politicizing the Justice Department.
"They take our breath away the more we learn about these people," said Minnery. "This is left-wing politicization of the Justice Department. This is not a Justice Department that looks like America."
In it's critique of the AP story, MMFA relied entirely on the July 28, 2008 DOJ report from the Office of Inspector General (OIG), titled "An Investigation of Allegations of Politicized Hiring by Monica Goodling and Other Staff in the Office of the Attorney General." (PDF) In the natural course of standard journalistic practice, this is the sort of crucial document that a beat reporter would have read. That's precisely the sort of intimate understanding that reporters are supposed to bring to their jobs, which the rest of us are supposed to lack. MMFA did not "engage in reporting" according to the standard narrative. They were "just blogging."
And yet, MMFA managed to unearth and highlight the most fundamental distinction between political appointees and career attorneys (something every beat reporter ought to know like the back of their hand), and present it using compelling quotes from an unimpeachable authoritative source.
In short, although MMFA was "just blogging" while AP was doing "real reporting", it was MMFA that produced a sound journalistic product while AP did not.
Now, as noted above, there's a great deal more that could be said about this subject. Indeed, when I did a two-part story on the historical context behind the DOJ scandals for Random Lengths News, I interviewed former DOJ officials in the Civil Rights Division going back as far as the 1960s, to get a long-term perspective on the relationship between political and career attorneys and the roles of ideology and partisanship. Significantly, while ideology intruded sharply into the picture during the Reagan Administration, I discovered that partisanship did not, and this was the truly unique difference between the Bush Administration and all others that had gone before it in modern times.
In short, there is something quite unique about the Bush Administration--not just partisan Democratic claims--and there is nothing unusual about the Obama Adminstration. This is not just my opinion. This is what every person I interviewed told me, and it is reflected in all the written material I gathered during my research as well.
There is nothing really unusual about this AP story. That's the point. Reporters routinely present their reporting within the generic "he said/she said" frame, with no regards whatsoever for the underlying factual reality. They make no distinction between when someone is lying or when someone else is telling the truth. There can be 20, 30, 40 years of history on one side, versus a newly spun lie on the other. Makes no difference. A quote is a quote is a quote.
But as this example makes clear the impact of the "he said/she said" frame is not just on the foreground presentation of the story, it impacts the entire process of framing the news, including the most fundamental decision of what constitutes "a story." Here, a totally bogus rightwing claim is being made. What makes that a story? Rightwingers make bogus claims every hour of every day of the week. What's the news here? There is none, really, if your grounded in the historical reality of the beat you are covering. But if you're grounded in the "he said/she said" ethos, then anything that's said can be the basis for a story, and the wilder the claim, the farther removed from reality, the more of a story it is likely to be.
As this small example of a story illustrates, that formula directly undermines the claim that newspaper reporting is fundamental, and blogging is merely parasitical. What is fundamental is conveying an historically accurate account of significant occurances, and AP quite simply failed to do this. Such failures are endemic throughout the M$M on daily, hourly and story-by-story basis.