Journalists, Employees of Media Oligopoly

From Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism by Thomas E. Patterson (Kindle Locations 1270-1317):

“If truth were the test, the machinery of news would grind to a halt. Whole areas of public life would be walled off to reporters because judgments about them are speculative. When Woodrow Wilson said he had spent much of his adult life in government and yet had never seen “a government,” he was saying that government is a concept and not an object. 23 How can journalists claim to know “the truth” of something as complex and intangible as government? Political scientists spend their careers studying government without mastering the subject fully. How can journalists with much less time and specialized training somehow accomplish it?”

A very good question. The best journalists know a little bit about many things, but rarely do they know a lot about anything in particular. They aren’t experts in knowledge. Their expertise is simply in communicating, which means they translate and filter the knowledge of other experts. They are middlemen. Most of the time they don’t even understand what they are attempting to communicate, but they must always speak with the authority of the experts they claim to speak for.

“Journalists are asked to make too many judgments under conditions of too little time and too much uncertainty for the news to be the last word. “When we expect [the press] to supply a body of truth,” Lippmann wrote, “we employ a misleading standard of judgment. We misunderstand the limited nature of news [and] the illimitable complexity of society.” 24 3.”

The one thing journalists have little training in is how to communicate complexity. Most of them don’t even try. However, without complexity, there can be no truth.

“Almost alone among the professions, journalism is not rooted in a body of substantive knowledge. 25 The claim is not that journalists lack knowledge or skill, for that is far from true. Nor is the claim an entry into the perennial but ultimately fruitless debate over whether journalism is a craft rather than a profession. 26 The claim instead is a precise one: Journalism is not grounded in a systematic body of substantive knowledge that would protect its practitioners’ autonomy and inform their judgment. 1

“Medicine, law, and the sciences, even economics and psychology, have disciplinary knowledge that guides practitioners’ decisions, narrowing the choices and reducing the chances of error. Journalists have no such advantage. Although there is a theoretical knowledge of journalism, it is not definitive, nor is its mastery a prerequisite for practice. 27 Although a majority of journalists have a college degree in journalism, many have a degree in a different field and some have no degree at all. 28″

I’m constantly shocked that so many news reporters (I’m not sure the fancy word of ‘journalist’ applies to most) are seemingly ignorant about what they report on. Doesn’t curiosity ever get the better of them? You’d think they’d feel some moral compunction to inform themselves first. Instead, it seems like it is just a job to them. They go to the office and someone hands them a script. Or else they wing it and try to appear intelligent.

“Journalists are often in the thankless position of knowing less about the subject at hand than the newsmakers they are covering, a reversal of the typical situation, in which the professional practitioner is the more knowledgeable party. Only rarely do clients know more about the law than do their attorneys , whereas newsmakers normally know more about the issue at hand than the journalists covering them. During the Persian Gulf War, journalists who visited the Pentagon press office were greeted with a sign that read, “Welcome Temporary War Experts.” 29

“The knowledge advantage that newsmakers have over journalists is not simply that they are privy to what’s said in closed-door meetings or contained in briefing papers. 30 They are assisted by experts. The president would never rely on his own instincts across a host of issues without the advice of policy specialists; nor would any congressional committee chair, top bureaucrat, or lobbyist. To be sure, journalists acquire expertise as a result of being on the same news beat for lengthy periods, but this form of expertise does not compare with that of most professionals . Doctors, lawyers, and engineers are masters of their own house in a way that journalists are not.”

In some ways, it isn’t the fault of journalists. They are being asked to do the impossible. No one can know everything or even most things. That is why the author suggests that journalists should specialize and only report on what they are experts on.

“Journalists’ knowledge deficit does not appear to be a major concern within their profession. In 2008, the Knight Foundation created a blue-ribbon commission aimed at strengthening journalism so that it could better serve communities’ “information needs.” None of the panel’s fourteen recommendations spoke to journalism’s knowledge deficit. 31 Yet the public has a sense of it. In a Freedom Forum study, journalist Robert Haiman found that although the public “respects the professional and technical skills [of] journalists,” it feels that journalists “don’t have an authoritative understanding of the complicated world they have to explain to the public.” In the five cities where he held public forums (Nashville; New London, Connecticut; Phoenix; San Francisco; and Portland, Oregon), Haiman heard repeated complaints from local civic and business leaders who questioned reporters’ preparation. “We heard stories,” he writes, “about reporters who did not know the difference between debt and equity, who did not know basic legal terminology used in a trial, and who had little idea of how manufacturing , wholesaling, distributing, and retailing actually work and relate to each other.” 32″

Journalists know little about even the wealthy and powerful they report upon. It isn’t their job to understand because that might mean questioning. If the corporate owners and management of newsrooms wanted informed intelligent journalists, they would hire such people. The point is that news is about business, not knowledge and understanding.

These journalists live in their own media bubble. They know even less about those who aren’t wealthy and powerful. As a college dropout, I know more about many issues, from poverty to racism, than does the average journalist. Having a good looking face and speaking clearly, for the job of journalists, is more important than being informed and insightful.

“If journalists are, as has been claimed, “the custodians of the facts,” 33 their armament is sometimes akin to that of a palace guard. It is difficult to protect the facts in those instances when someone else commands them. 4.”

That is the whole point. Journalists, generally speaking, aren’t independent actors. Most of them are employees. And most of them are employed by big business. They work for corporations that are subsidiaries of a few holders of all of mass media. They are part of a media oligopoly.

“When it comes to a subject of more than average complexity, the truth in news typically comes from outside of journalism. The news media, Lippmann argued, “can normally record only what has been recorded for it by the working of institutions. Everything else is argument and opinion.” 34″

Journalists are just extensions of the organizations and mouthpieces of the institutions they are enmeshed in. Why would we expect anything different from them? Demanding higher standards of the employees of corporations is only meaningful if we demand higher standards of the corporations that employ them. The first higher standard we should demand is a breaking up of the media oligopoly.

The Stories We Know

It suddenly occurred to me where I might have first came across the idea of simultaneously knowing and not knowing.

This would have been almost two decades ago, sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s in the years following my graduating from high school in 1994. I probably was back in Iowa City, Iowa at the time and regularly visiting used bookstores, in particular the famous Prairie Lights. I was reading a lot of weird stuff at the time, both non-fiction and fiction. Along with reading the likes of Robert Anton Wilson, I came across Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. I then read some of Ellison’s own fiction collections.

In his book Strange Wine, he has his typical introductory comments that are typically entertaining. He told of an anecdote that had been shared with him by Dan Blocker, an actor from the show Bonanza who played the character Hoss Cartwright. Blocker pointed out that the incident was far from unusual and, based on that, Ellison explored the idea of knowing and not knowing, specifically in terms of the distinction between reality and imagination, between unmediated experience and media portrayals.

Here is Blocker’s anecdote as written in Strange Wine introduction (Kindle Locations 54-62):

“He told me– and he said this happened all the time, not just in isolated cases– that he had been approached by a little old woman during one of his personal appearances at a rodeo, and the woman had said to him, dead seriously, “Now listen to me, Hoss: when you go home tonight, I want you to tell your daddy, Ben, to get rid of that Chinee fella who cooks for you all. What you need is to get yourself a good woman in there can cook up some decent food for you and your family.”

“So Dan said to her, very politely (because he was one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met), “Excuse me, ma’am, but my name is Dan Blocker. Hoss is just the character I play. When I go home I’ll be going to my house in Los Angeles and my wife and children will be waiting.”

“And she went right on, just a bit affronted because she knew all that, what was the matter with him, did he think she was simple or something, “Yes, I know… but when you go back to the Ponderosa, you just tell your daddy Ben that I said…”

“For her, fantasy and reality were one and the same.”

Ellison sees this as representative of a change that has happened in our society because of the boob tube. He was writing in the 1970s and it was a time when nationalized mass media was really hitting its stride. He described all the hours people spent watching television and the state of mind it creates.

Before the Bonanza story, Ellison shared another story about a news reporter who shot herself in the head live on television. He sees this as indicative of how media has become our very sense of reality. Killing oneself during a live broadcast makes the incident more real. I think he goes a bit overboard on his diatribe against media, but he has a point. I would simply broaden his point and extend it back in time.

Mediated reality isn’t a new invention. Ever since written language and bound books, the world has never been the same. Christians were the first group to bind books. This allowed them to spread their mediated reality far and wide. Even though there was no evidence that Jesus ever existed, this messianic figure became more real to people than the people around them. Untold numbers of people killed and died in the name of a man who may have simply been a fictional character.

To understand the power of the Bible as mediated reality, take the experience of Daniel Everett. He once was a Christian who became a missionary living among the Amazonian Piraha tribe. These people didn’t understand Christianity because they didn’t understand reality mediated through books. They only trusted information they had experienced themselves or someone they knew had experienced. When they asked Everett if he had experienced any of the events in the Bible, Everett had to admit he hadn’t even met Jesus. The idea of blind faith was meaningless to the Piraha. Instead of converting them to Christianity, they converted him to atheism.

As a fiction writer, Ellison should understand the power of words to make the imagined seem real. It isn’t just about television and movies or today about the internet. All of culture and civilization is built on various forms of mediated reality. The earliest forms of media through art and the spoken word had a similar revolutionary impact.

We humans live in a world of ideas and beliefs, frames and narratives. We never know anything unfiltered. This is how we can know and not know at the same time. The stories we tell force coherency to the inconsistency within our own minds. Stories are what gives our lives meaning. We are storytelling animals and for us the stories we tell are our reality. A collective story passed on from generation to generation is the most powerful of all.

Conservatives Watching Liberal Media

Conservatives are always going on about the media having a liberal bias. They say the same thing about college professors and scientists. There is a sense in which they are right.

I sometimes watch older television shows when they happen to be on. I’m thinking of shows like The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie. Mash, etc. These shows regularly have liberal messages. My mom watches many of these shows and I think she is unaware of how liberal they are.

I remember the response my dad had when he found out that the MASH producers were intentionally trying to influence public opinion about the Vietnam War. He felt betrayed, as this was one of his favorite shows. Of course, my dad isn’t offended by all the shows and movies that pushed right-wing WWII and Cold War propaganda. Sure, everyone making media has their biases. More than left or right bias, the biggest bias of all is pro-corporate. Still, liberal bias particularly sells well in our society.

Liberalism sells for a number of reasons.

For one, liberalism as licentious behavior is fun to watch and freedom-loving liberal messages are inspiring. But a lot of liberalism in the media is more basic. The Waltons often had morality tales about treating people equally and fairly with particular shows focusing on prejudice against Germans, Jews and blacks.  Little House on the Prairie was about a sensitive father figure and many of the episodes were about helping the underprivileged or oppressed, from blind people to Native Americans.

Another reason is that most Americans are very liberal about most issues. Producers make this liberal-biased media because they are making it for a mostly liberal audience. In the US, even conservatives are relatively liberal compared to other societies and compared to the past of our own country. This relates to the corporate bias. Mainstream media is produced to make big profits. To a large extent, what is sold is what people will buy (although buying habits can be manipulated).

This isn’t anything new. From the early to middle of last century, liberalism was the dominant ideology. Even mainstream conservatives wouldn’t talk badly about liberalism and would even praise it, from Ike to Nixon. There always has been a strong liberal strain throughout the entire history of this country. Obviously, this isn’t a traditional society and so conservatism in the US has defined itself in relation to liberalism. It shouldn’t be surprising to find liberalism in media, education and science when most Americans, however they may identify, are for all practical purposes liberal themselves. I suppose it also shouldn’t be surprising that, complaints aside, even conservatives enjoy the liberal-biased media.

As someone who can be critical of both liberals and conservatives, I find the dynamic between them amusing.

The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy, Where Exactly?

Another blog (Reach the Right) brought to my attention an article by Jonathan Chait (The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy Is on Your Screen). It’s a good article that offers a detailed analysis, but I couldn’t entirely agree (nor could some other bloggers; for example, Erik Lundegaard).

In Reach the Right, I responded to the comment that “I think it’s an unusually difficult line of reasoning to argue with”. I didn’t find it difficult at all. Below is the reposting of my response.

I think there is truth in the article, but it also misses some of the context.

After many decades of narrative rule by conservatives, liberals are finally winning the narrative war. This more has to do with demographics than any effective strategy by liberals, demographics and overreach by conservatives, overreach that has turned away many Americans from the GOP. Liberals, or rather Democrats, have capitalized on this conservative overreach, but they can’t take much of the credit or blame.

The context, of course, has many factors.

It is true that what is deemed as ‘liberal’ has come to dominate much of the media. Then again, this so-called liberalism has come to dominate most of modern American society. Most Americans are liberal on many issues and becoming increasingly liberal. In fact, most Americans are more liberal than the MSM (and more liberal than the MSM portrays the American public) on many central issues such as the majority supporting pot legalization and being against overturning Roe vs Wade, just to mention two obvious examples.

The MSM, with much lag time, reflects the American people who are increasingly diverse — in terms of: races and mixed race individuals, interracial dating and marriage, ethnicity and culture, religion and atheism, etc. But the reality America has always been vastly more diverse than the conservatives would allow for in their vision of America. What is surprising is that the norm of the American people is seen as ‘liberal’ in the MSM. Liberalism in the MSM often just means a tepid middle-of-the-road position on issues, the real political correctness of liberalism is in between the right-wing and the left-wing, if anything favoring the former more than the latter in that you’ll see right-wing libertarians in the MSM more often than you’ll ever see left-wing socialists or anarchists (or even left-wing libertarians).

Anyway, why is it ‘liberal’ to portray gay people as normal people with normal problems and normal interests? In reality, most gay people are normal by all standards other than the standard of heterosexuality. Why is it ‘liberal’ to speak honestly about global warming? Truth knows no ideology. If certain facts and realities are perceived as liberal, that can’t be blamed on liberals.

America is an ideologically confusing and confused country. There never has been in America a tradition of traditional conservatism. What gets called ‘conservatism’ is too often just a variety of liberalism from the past such as classical liberalism.

This has caused liberalism to become conservative in many ways. Since, American conservatives often are against traditionally conservative positions, liberals have oddly taken up their defense. Traditional conservatives were at least against unregulated capitalism and for most of history supportive of non-capitalist economic systems, partly because capitalism destabilizes social order and undermines moral order. Traditional conservatives in particular were against usury which has become a major pillar of modern capitalism. Also, the precautionary principle is a core principle of any normal sense of conservatism, except of course American ‘conservatism’.

However, there are certain ways America is conservative and so is the MSM, especially Hollywood. American politics and media are obsessed with certain conservative themes such as good vs evil, us vs them.

Hollywood constantly portrays a conservative worldview with action movies that have men of action who are superior to men of thought and action movies that glorify (and otherwise normalize) war, violence and vigilante justice.

The genre of noir is an inherently conservative worldview (although more in the line of reactionary conservatism, rather than traditional conservatism). Noir can be found in the Dark Knight Batman movies, in Watchmen, Blade Runner, Dexter and in various gritty movies and shows that portray the world as fallen into darkness where a lone hero, usually a white male, has to fight the good fight, whether he wins or loses. In general, the conservative ideal of the white male protagonist still surprisingly dominates most of the entertainment these days.

Horror is another conservative genre. A popular horror trope is to show kids partying or somehow being naughty right before being killed. Like noir, horror tends to be about a fallen world. We live in a time of fear and uncertainty when the conservative worldview becomes attractive, although we are getting at the point when people are starting to want a new narrative.

Related to these, drug-taking and dealing is typically portrayed tragically. This is beginning to change some, but change has come slower in politics and media than it has in the general public. Obama laughed at the idea of taking seriously pot legalization, even though most Americans take it seriously. Despite all the negative drug portrayals or maybe because of it, drug use such as with marijuana has become more widespread.

No matter what one considers ‘liberal’, what interests me is that the media remains mostly closed off to the left-wing. As liberalism has become separated and distinct from the left-wing, conservatism has become aligned with or even conflated with the right-wing. This is largely why conservatives have turned away so many Americans and thus lost control of much of the MSM. It’s not so much that the conservative narrative has lost power, rather the conservative narrative turned into a right-wing narrative that has lost power. Most Americans want a moderate centrism which just so happens to be where liberalism is at the moment.

NPR: Liberal Bias?

Let me state upfront my own bias. 

Some might perceive me as a progressive liberal far to the left of what is called ‘liberal’ in mainstream media and politics. Right-wingers likely would call me a ‘socialist’. But going by polls most of my positions seem to be more or less in line with the ‘mass opinion’ of the general public (US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism).

I’m not a partisan or an ideological purist. I’m an Independent who doesn’t give allegiance to any specific party, especially not the Democratic Party. In fact, I don’t like party politics in general and I utterly despise the two-party stanglehold. On principle, I refuse to vote for the lesser of two evils because that would still mean voting for evil. I’m more likely to vote Libertarian or Green. I would consider myself a liberal-minded small ‘d’ democrat. I put my value of democracy before all else. I’ve increasingly come to doubt all things ‘big': big government, big business, big media, big think tanks, big special interests, big unions, big money campaign funding, etc. Grassroots democracy is always the safest bet.

I often listen to NPR while at work, but not because they represent my views. I just find them the least obnoxious of the choices available on talk radio. NPR makes good background noise. Public radio in general (NPR, IPR, BBC, and CBC) keeps me basically informed about the major events going on in the world and occasionally I hear an interesting interview. Unlike most talk radio, the annoying opinionated punditry (especially of the angry ranting variety) is non-existent on NPR. Even at it’s worse, NPR is just boringly bland in sticking so close to conventional wisdom and noncontroversial issues. However, I listen to NPR less and less as the years go by.

So, I’m biased against mainstream media in general. In this way, I’m biased against NPR for the same basic reason I’m biased against Fox News. I’m biased against the mainstream bias that excludes, dismisses, or criticizes alternative viewpoints and sources.

- – -

In this post, I’m responding to the allegation that NPR has a liberal or even a left-wing bias.

I’ve previously touched upon this in a previous post about media in general: Black and White and Re(a)d All Over. I’m not defending NPR. In fact, I’m critical of all mainstream media (i.e., big media owned and operated by big business or, in the case of NPR, funded by big business). It’s true that NPR doesn’t play the partisan punditry game such as Fox News or MSNBC. Instead, they are more in league with CNN. The game they play is defender of the political status quo and mouthpiece of Washington politics. The only bias NPR has is that of Establishment centrism and corporatism.

Some claim NPR is left-leaning. Others claim it’s right-leaning. It all depends on your comparison. It’s to the left of Fox News and to the right of MSNBC. More importantly, I’d point out how it compares to society as a whole. I don’t know if it is to the right or left of center in Washington politics, but admittedly it’s difficult for any news outlet to be much further right than what goes for centrism in Washington. Like most of the MSM, NPR is to the right of the average American, at least in terms of major issues such as health care reform and drug legalization/decreminalization.

This is significant considering that ‘Public’ is literally NPR’s middle name. If NPR doesn’t represent and fairly report public opinion, then whose opinion are they voicing?

NPR rarely has alternative voices, including internationally renown thinkers such as Noam Chomsky. As a liberal, the type of liberal media personalities I enjoy listening to (along with Chomsky: Thom Hartmann, Sam Seder, etc) tend to not be heard on NPR or in the rest of the mainstream media. This is interesting as these people aren’t necessarily radicals. Hartmann, for example, seems similar to me in being in agreement with the American silent majority. These people who are considered ‘far left’ aren’t radical in the way that Glenn Beck or Alex Jones is radical… and yet this supposed ‘far left’ gets equated to the far right.

NPR gives a platform for views that are considered mainstream (meaning the political center of the ruling elite: political elite, business elite, intellectual elite, think tank elite, etc). What NPR typically doesn’t do is challenge this mainstream status quo or invite guests on who will challenge this mainstream status quo.

In fear of being called ‘liberal’, some have argued that NPR bends over backwards in the opposite direction:

http://mediamatters.org/blog/2010/02/04/why-is-npr-so-darn-liberal/160061

In its obituary marking the death of iconic liberal activist and historian Howard Zinn, NPR allowed right-wing hater David Horowitz go off on the recently deceased: 

“There is absolutely nothing in Howard Zinn’s intellectual output that is worthy of any kind of respect,” Horowitz declared in the NPR story. “Zinn represents a fringe mentality which has unfortunately seduced millions of people at this point in time. So he did certainly alter the consciousness of millions of younger people for the worse.”

That brought a deserved rebuke from listeners, who were encouraged by FAIR. NPR’s ombudsman thenlooked back at how the radio network handled recent obits of other political players, who were all conservatives [emphasis added]: 

NPR was complimentary and respectful in memorializing [Bill] Buckley, who died in 2008. The network was equally nuanced in remembering pioneering televangelist Oral Roberts(who died in December) and Robert Novaka conservative columnist who played a key role in the Valerie Plame debacle and who died last August. NPR’s obituaries of these men did not contain mean-spirited, Horowitz-like comments.

There is one particular study I found interesting which claims to have measured a very slight liberal bias to NPR. What was interesting was what was being measured:

http://blogs.forbes.com/jeffbercovici/2011/03/22/science-settles-it-nprs-liberal-but-not-very/

A caveat: The Duke team’s results don’t directly get at the ideologies of the entities themselves, only at the makeup of the networks that surround them. “We would say that our estimates relate to the perception of a given entity,” Sparks says. “However, for the purposes of our paper and possibly for thinking about the media, perceptions may be what is actually important.”

It’s an odd thing to measure perception. Whose perception is being measured?

I noticed the article gave a clear description of its bias: “The only surprises were how far to the left some mainstream entities, such as Katie Couric and the Washington Post, fell (although that would be no surprise at all to those who think the entire mainstream media is shot through with liberal bias).” This must be understood in context. One could equally say: The only surprises were how far to the right the entire mainstream media, such as NPR and Fox News, fell (although that would be no surprise at all to those who think the entire mainstream media is shot through with conservative bias).

Think about it for a moment. Where do you always here that the mainstream media is liberal? You hear it in the mainstream media. If the mainstream media were actually liberal, they wouldn’t constantly attack each other as being liberal and constantly deny their liberal bias when attacked.

So, in the context of mainstream media, NPR is perceived as ‘liberal’. That isn’t surprising. In the context of mainstream media, the stated public opinion of the American majority would be perceived as ‘liberal’. However, since the mainstream media controls the narrative of public debate, those who control the media (i.e., big business) controls the public perception. The real liberal bias is to be found among average Americans who are the silent majority. The more the media has become concentrated the further it has become distanced from average Americans. Most Americans get their news from the mainstream media and, as one would suspect, most Americans perceive themselves as ‘conservative’ despite their tending toward liberal and progressive views on key issues.

Perception, when controlled and manipulated, isn’t an accurate and fair measure of reality. Yes, as people like Chomsky understand, the propaganda model does work.

In this particular case, one must ask: Who is trying to control/manipulate the perception of NPR being liberally biased? It’s the conservative mainstream media.

There are a couple of relevant points.

First, since the entire mainstream media is far to the right of the majority of Americans and since the conservative mainstream media is far to the right of the center of mainstream media, then this accusation of liberal bias is originating from sources that are radically far right. So, it’s an issue of who is categorizing according to which labels and what is motivating their choices.

http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=2897

There have been notable recent attempts to study think tank coverage, including a problematic study by academics Tim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo (see Extra!, 5–6/05) and NPR’s analysis of its own use of think tanks (NPR.org, 12/14/05). NPR ombud Jeffrey A. Dvorkin only listed eight think tanks, and counted Brookings and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (which has Henry Kissinger on its board) as “left” think tanks. (There are no centrist think tanks in Dvorkin’s universe.) Even thus stacking the deck, Dvorkin still found a 239–141 advantage in citations for the right—a result that he said, puzzlingly enough, shows that “NPR does not lean on the so-called conservative think tanks as many in the audience seem to think.

Second, the sources (such as Fox News) making this accusation of liberal bias against NPR are measured as being less reliable sources of info than those they are making accusations against:

http://www.pipa.org/OnlineReports/Iraq/IraqMedia_Oct03/IraqMedia_Oct03_rpt.pdf

The extent of Americans’ misperceptions vary significantly depending on their source of news. Those who receive most of their news from Fox News are more likely than average to have misperceptions. Those who receive most of their news from NPR or PBS are less likely to have misperceptions. These variations cannot simply be explained as a result of differences in the demographic characteristics of each audience, because these variations can also be found when comparing the demographic subgroups of each audience.

It isn’t necessarily helpful to think of media in terms of right vs left. The news, for the most part, is about profits.

Even NPR has increasingly become funded by corporate money (far more than any government funding). Profit or not, it’s a fact that the media has become increasingly concentrated. A few corporations have been buying up the media for decades. NPR, and other public radio, also has been growing in a similar fashion taking up the place that used to be filled with locally owned and operated radio stations. To the degree there has been a bias, it’s the bias of big business (which tends to be the same bias as that of conservatives or at least right-wing conservatives; and it should be noted that many right-wing conservatives incorrectly believe they represent both the average conservative and the average American).

Furthermore, the data shows that politicians and political activists are more polarized in their rhetoric than are most Americans. There is a minority of partisan true believers and these people will always see the media biased against them.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hostile_media_effect

The hostile media effect, sometimes called the hostile media phenomenon, refers to the finding that people with strong biases toward an issue (partisans) perceive media coverage as biased against their opinions, regardless of the reality. Proponents of the hostile media effect argue that this finding cannot be attributed to the presence of bias in the news reports, since partisans from opposing sides of an issue rate the same coverage as biased against their side and biased in favor of the opposing side.

Presently in the US, the right is more radicalized than the left. It’s for this reason that we most often hear the allegation of a liberal media bias rather than the opposite.

Most Americans, on the other hand, aren’t radicalized. The average American, like the average NPR listener, is moderate. However, the issue is made complex for the reason that present-day American liberals are more moderate than present-day American conservatives (more moderate, for example, in being the demographic most supportive of compromise and the demographic most supportive of government no matter which party is in power). This means there is much more crossover between liberals and moderates (in recent history, liberals have tended to disavow the radical far left).

http://www.salon.com/news/politics/war_room/2011/03/25/moyers_winship_npr

For one, when we described the right-wing media machine as NPR’s “long-time nemesis,” it was not to suggest that somehow public radio is its left-wing opposite. When it comes to covering and analyzing the news, the reverse of right isn’t left; it’s independent reporting that toes neither party nor ideological line. We’ve heard no NPR reporter — not a one — advocating on the air for more government spending (or less), for the right of abortion (or against it), for or against gay marriage, or for or against either political party, especially compared to what we hear from Fox News and talk radio on all of these issues and more. [ . . . ]

So what do conservatives really mean when they accuse NPR of being “liberal”? They mean it’s not accountable to their worldview as conservatives and partisans. They mean it reflects too great a regard for evidence and is too open to reporting different points of views of the same event or idea or issue. Reporting that by its very fact-driven nature often fails to confirm their ideological underpinnings, their way of seeing things (which is why some liberals and Democrats also become irate with NPR).

The most interesting part to me is how many of NPR listeners aren’t liberal and especially aren’t far left-wing:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704050204576218543378702266.html

The facts show that NPR attracts a politically diverse audience of 33.7 million weekly listeners to its member stations on-air. In surveys by GfK MRI, most listeners consistently identify themselves as “middle of the road” or “conservative.” Millions of conservatives choose NPR, even with powerful conservative alternatives on the radio.

The right-wing media may attack NPR, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that the average conservative has any complaint:

http://mediamatters.org/research/2011/03/11/npr-is-fair-conservatives-and-media-critics-def/177500

Media critics and conservative commentators are responding to the recent controversy over NPR by praising the network’s reporting. In addition, some Tea Party activists say that NPR’s coverage of their group has been “fair.”

Even so, those who run NPR often seem clueless in thinking that appeasing the right-wing media will end the attacks:

http://www.fair.org/blog/2011/10/07/you-cant-take-politics-out-of-the-public-broadcasting-debate/

In the When Will They Learn? department, incoming National Public Radio president Gary Knell seems to suffer from the same misunderstanding that has plagued public broadcasting executives for years.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reports that Knell says he hopes to “calm the waters a bit” at NPR after recent political controversies, and to “depoliticize” debate over the future of public radio. Knell is quoted saying, “It’s not about liberal or conservative; it’s about fairness…. We’ve got to make the case we’re delivering a fair service.”

Sigh. It’s as if he doesn’t see the road behind him strewn with efforts to “depoliticize” the public broadcasting debate, which is code for appeasing public broadcasting’s conservative enemies by adding more right-wing content and censoring things they might not like.

But the thing is, politicians are political, and some of them want there to be no more publicly funded…anything, but certainly not broadcasting, which they demonstrate by voting to zero out its resources every chance they get. No matter how calm the waters are.

For the rest of the post, I’ll offer from various sources more evidence against and discussion about the allegation of a liberally biased NPR.

- – -

http://www.dailyfinance.com/2011/03/24/guess-whos-making-money-npr/

Debates over whether NPR has a vendetta against conservatives, though, miss the larger issue of the network’s financial strength. NPR says its finances have rebounded. NPR makes most of its revenue from program fees and dues that stations pay to broadcast its programs. Its second-largest source of revenue — and one of the reasons for its financial success — is that it allows corporations the chance to reach the its well-heeled audience through sponsorships, which it says has enjoyed “strong growth” over the past decade.

http://nprcheck.blogspot.com/2012/06/lights-out.html

As journalism it is worthless: nothing more than an echo chamber for the views of the powerful interests and forces that control this country – large US and multinational corporations, departments and agencies of US military and foreign policy, and the national Republican and Democratic parties, etc.  As an organization, NPR never challenges or confronts the myth of US goodness in foreign policy, the belief in US exceptionalism, the supposed benefits of capitalism and market ideologies. 

http://www.npr.org/blogs/ombudsman/2012/02/28/147594827/ralph-nader-and-whether-npr-ignores-progressives

While the political right has been beating the drum for years that NPR is too liberal, Nader says that is not the true picture at all. He says that it is progressives on the political left, like him, who are being excluded from NPR’s airwaves.

“Progressive voices are not heard on NPR with the frequency of voices representing more corporatist and conservative opinion,” Nader said. “And progressive voices should not be confused with liberal voices and lumped into the same category for any frequency analysis.”

According to Nader, what NPR considers a liberal perspective is really middle-of-the-road. Among his examples are well-known Democrats like President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Progressives, he said, exist farther to the left on the political spectrum. They support things like a Medicare-type single-payer system for all Americans, and not the health care compromise passed by Congress.

Nader does make at least one good point. Academic studies in recent decades have repeatedly shown that the country’s political right, more than the left, is so peopled by true believers driven by principle that they reject political compromise and stay on message with such a strong voice that it attracts great media attention and exaggerates their real weight in the populace.

So who are some of these progressives on the left that Nader says are being ignored? Some are old war horses such as Jim Hightower, Gloria Steinem, Frances Fox Piven and Cornel West. But others are younger political players. They include Kevin Zeese and Robert Weissman. Nader gave a list, quickly scribbled; it is not exhaustive.

“Most of the Liberals in Congress voted for the Patriot Act and its renewal,” Nader said, citing another policy differentiator. He said progressives more than liberals also want to dramatically increase minimum wage and decrease the country’s military involvement abroad.

http://www.onthemedia.org/2011/mar/25/does-public-radio-have-a-liberal-bias-the-finale/transcript/

On story selection, NPR is more international in its focus, clearly. You are gonna hear somewhat more about policy. You are gonna hear somewhat less about political argument. Does that represent bias? Ultimately, I think these questions of bias may be in the eye of the beholder.

[ . . . ] Well, do I see proof of bias in the story selection? No. Do I see evidence in our tone studies that prove a liberal bias? No. Does this prove that NPR is not biased? I can’t say that. We don’t have tone for every topic. In the end, it’s very hard to establish, even if someone were to identify who’s on the air and what their political affiliations are. If you have a lot of people from one party on and the questioning is very tough, that goes one way. And if you have a lot of people on and the coverage are a bunch of softball questions, that goes another way. Bias, in the end, is often a matter of whether things are phrased in ways that I agree with or disagree with. In the end, you’re not gonna persuade anyone with data.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NPR_controversies

Allegations of ideological bias

Allegations of liberal bias

A 2005 study conducted by researchers at UCLA and the University of Missouri found Morning Edition to be more liberal than the average U.S. Republican and more conservative than the average U.S. Democrat. At the time Morning Edition was comparable to the The Washington Post, the CBS Morning ShowTimeNewsweek and U.S. News & World Report.[4] Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a progressive media watchdog group,[5] disputes the claim of a liberal bias.[6] 

Allegations of conservative bias 

A December 2005 column run by NPR ombudsman and former Vice President Jeffrey Dvorkin denied allegations by some listeners that NPR relies heavily on conservative think-tanks.[7] In his column, Dvorkin listed the number of times NPR had cited experts from conservative and liberal think tanks in the previous year as evidence. The totals were 239 for conservative think tanks, and 141 for liberal ones. He noted that while the number of times liberal think tanks were cited was less, in addition to think tanks the liberal point of view is commonly provided by academics.

In 2003, some critics accused NPR of being supportive of the invasion of Iraq.[8][9]

Allegations of bias against Israel

NPR has been criticised for perceived bias in its coverage of Israel.[10][11][12][13] The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a pro-Israel American media monitoring organization based in Boston, has been particularly critical of NPR. CAMERA director Andrea Levin has stated, “We consider NPR to be the most seriously biased mainstream media outlet,” a statement that The Boston Globe describes as having “clearly gotten under her target’s skin.”[13] NPR’s then-Ombudsman, Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, said in a 2002 interview that CAMERA used selective citations and subjective definitions of what it considers pro-Palestinian bias in formulating its findings, and that he felt CAMERA’s campaign was “a kind of McCarthyism, frankly, that bashes us and causes people to question our commitment to doing this story fairly. And it exacerbates the legitimate anxieties of many in the Jewish community about the survival of Israel.”[14]

Allegations of elitism and the status quo

A 2004 FAIR study concluded that “NPR’s guestlist shows the radio service relies on the same elite and influential sources that dominate mainstream commercial news, and falls short of reflecting the diversity of the American public.”[15]

Noam Chomsky has criticized NPR as being biased toward ideological power and the status quo. He alleges that the parameters of debate on a given topic are very consciously curtailed. He says that since the network maintains studios in ideological centers of opinion such as Washington, the network feels the necessity to carefully consider what kinds of dissenting opinion are acceptable. Thus, political pragmatism, perhaps induced by fear of offending public officials who control some of the NPR’s funding (via CPB), often determines what views are suitable for broadcast, meaning that opinions critical of the structures of national-interest-based foreign policy, capitalism, and government bureaucracies (entailed by so-called “radical” or “activist” politics) usually do not make it to air.[16]

Defenders’ rebuttals

Supporters contend that NPR does its job well. A study conducted in 2003 by the polling firm Knowledge Networks and the University of Maryland‘s Program on International Policy Attitudes showed that those who get their news and information from public broadcasting (NPR and PBS) are better informed than those whose information comes from other media outlets. In one study, NPR and PBS audiences had a more accurate understanding of the events in Iraq versus all audiences for cable and broadcast TV networks and the print media.[17][18]

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704050204576218543378702266.html

With those values in mind, let’s consider the fundamental question: the accusation of “liberal bias” at NPR, which drives many critics calling to eliminate its federal funding. It’s not my job as a reporter to address the funding question. But I can point out that the recent tempests over “perceived bias” have nothing to do with what NPR puts on the air. The facts show that NPR attracts a politically diverse audience of 33.7 million weekly listeners to its member stations on-air. In surveys by GfK MRI, most listeners consistently identify themselves as “middle of the road” or “conservative.” Millions of conservatives choose NPR, even with powerful conservative alternatives on the radio.

http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/polisci/faculty/groseclose/Media.Bias.8.htm

Another somewhat surprising result is our estimate of NPR’s Morning Edition.  Conservatives frequently list NPR as an egregious example of a liberal news outlet.[27]  However, by our estimate the outlet hardly differs from the average mainstream news outlet.  For instance, its score is approximately equal to those of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report, and its score is slightly less than the Washington Post’s.  Further, our estimate places it well to the right of the New York Times, and also to the right of the average speech by Joe Lieberman.  These differences are statistically significant.[28]  We mentioned this finding to Terry Anderson, an academic economist and Executive Director of the Political Economy Research Center, which is among the list of think tanks in our sample.  (The average score of legislators citing PERC was 39.9, which places it as a moderate-right think tank, approximately as conservative as RAND is liberal.)  Anderson told us, “When NPR interviewed us, they were nothing but fair.  I think the conventional wisdom has overstated any liberal bias at NPR.”  Our NPR estimate is also consistent with James Hamilton’s (2004, 108) research on audience ideology of news outlets.  Hamiltonfinds that the average NPR listener holds approximately the same ideology as the average network news viewer or the average viewer of morning news shows, such as Today or Good Morning America.   Indeed, of the outlets that he examines in this section of his book, by this measure NPR is the ninth most liberal out of eighteen.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5053335

Tallying the Think Tanks

NPR often calls on think tanks for comments. But NPR does not lean on the so-called conservative think tanks as many in the audience seem to think.

Here’s the tally sheet for the number of times think tank experts were interviewed to date on NPR in 2005:

American Enterprise – 59

Brookings Institute – 102

Cato Institute – 29

Center for Strategic and Intl. Studies – 39

Heritage Foundation – 20

Hoover Institute – 69

Lexington Institute – 9

Manhattan Institute – 53

There are of course, other think tanks, but these seem to be the ones whose experts are heard most often on NPR. Brookings and CSIS are seen by many in Washington, D.C., as being center to center-left. The others in the above list tend to lean to the right. So NPR has interviewed more think tankers on the right than on the left.

The score to date: Right 239, Left 141.

There may be other experts who are interviewed on NPR who present a liberal perspective. But they tend to be based in universities and colleges and are not part of the think tank culture. That seems to be where most conservative thinking on the issues of the day can be most easily found. Journalism in general — including NPR — has become overly reliant on the easily obtained offerings of the think tanks.

http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1180

Liberal bias?

That NPR harbors a liberal bias is an article of faith among many conservatives. Spanning from the early ’70s, when President Richard Nixon demanded that “all funds for public broadcasting be cut” (9/23/71), through House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s similar threats in the mid-’90s, the notion that NPR leans left still endures. 

News of the April launch of Air America, a new liberal talk radio network, revived the old complaint, with several conservative pundits declaring that such a thing already existed. “I have three letters for you, NPR . . . . I mean, there is liberal radio,” remarked conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan on NBC’s Chris Matthews Show(4/4/04). A few days earlier (4/1/04), conservative columnist Cal Thomas told Nightline, “The liberals have many outlets,” naming NPR prominently among them. 

Nor is this belief confined to the right: CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer (3/31/04) seemed to repeat it as a given while questioning a liberal guest: “What about this notion that the conservatives make a fair point that there already is a liberal radio network out there, namely National Public Radio?”

Despite the commonness of such claims, little evidence has ever been presented for a left bias at NPR, and FAIR’s latest study gives it no support. Looking at partisan sources—including government officials, party officials, campaign workers and consultants—Republicans outnumbered Democrats by more than 3 to 2 (61 percent to 38 percent). A majority of Republican sources when the GOP controls the White House and Congress may not be surprising, but Republicans held a similar though slightly smaller edge (57 percent to 42 percent) in 1993, when Clinton was president and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. And a lively race for the Democratic presidential nomination was beginning to heat up at the time of the 2003 study.

Partisans from outside the two major parties were almost nowhere to be seen, with the exception of four Libertarian Party representatives who appeared in a single story (Morning Edition, 6/26/03). 

Republicans not only had a substantial partisan edge, individual Republicans were NPR’s most popular sources overall, taking the top seven spots in frequency of appearance. George Bush led all sources for the month with 36 appearances, followed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (8) and Sen. Pat Roberts (6). Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Secretary of State Colin Powell, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer and Iraq proconsul Paul Bremer all tied with five appearances each. 

Senators Edward Kennedy, Jay Rockefeller and Max Baucus were the most frequently heard Democrats, each appearing four times. No nongovernmental source appeared more than three times. With the exception of Secretary of State Powell, all of the top 10 most frequently appearing sources were white male government officials.

SIDEBAR::
The Right Stuff: NPR’s think tank sources

FAIR’s four-month study of NPR in 1993 found 10 think tanks that were cited twice or more. In a new four-month study (5/03–8/03), the list of think tanks cited two or more times has grown to 17, accounting for 133 appearances.

FAIR classified each think tank by ideological orientation as either centrist, right of center or left of center. Representatives of think tanks to the right of center outnumbered those to the left of center by more than four to one: 62 appearances to 15. Centrist think tanks provided sources for 56 appearances.

The most often quoted think tank was the centrist Brookings Institution, quoted 31 times; it was also the most quoted think tank in 1993. It was followed by 19 appearances by the conservative Center for Strategic and International Studies and 17 by the centrist Council on Foreign Relations. The most frequently cited left-of-center organization was the Urban Institute, with eight appearances.

Diversity among think tank representatives was even more lopsided than the ideological spread, with women cited only 10 percent of the time, and people of color only 3 percent. Only white men were quoted more than twice, the most frequent being Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (8 appearances), Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings (7) and E.J. Dionne, also of Brookings (6).

http://www.radiosurvivor.com/2010/12/27/radios-fall-part-two-nprs-liberal-identity-crisis/

So would Republican presidential hopefuls agree with him, that a more diverse NPR would be a better use of public funds? Do the elephants care about the quality of news that’s accessible in the peanut gallery?

Or are they grandstanding and whipping up ill-informed Americans into a frenzy in the name of Muslim-bashing? Despite a desperate need to change course in the Middle East,  this fall the GOP laughed all the way into office as NPR war reporters joined up with the rest of the subservient national press to please the Pentagon with their favorable coverage.

Listen critically to NPR’s reporting of US foreign policy and you will hear selective storytelling shining favorable light on CIA activities, and so-called experts providing dodgy history lessons on Afghanistan. While popular anchors parrot unsubstantiated claims about Iraq, and others kiss up to conservative politicians, commentators smirk their way through reactionary antagonism of whistle-blowers.

To me, it is no wonder that the anti-Iraq War invasion contingent of NPR’s audience seems so totally placated, four elections later.

It’s debatable whether those at the top of the right-wing echo chamber are in fact willfully misleading their audiences when it comes to funding radio with tax dollars. Either that or they’re afraid of what they don’t understand as usual.

Public radio station revenue is mostly made up of individual and business contributors, with less than 6% coming from direct federal, state and local government funding combined.

funding combined. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) funds barely 10% of all public radio budgets. NPR itself is funded mostly by member station programming fees and corporate sponsorships, and receives no government funding for operation costs. http://www.onthemedia.org/transcripts/2011/03/18/03

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [ . . . ] As we waded in, we realized it’s incredibly complicated. Look no further than the terms themselves. What is bias? What do we mean when we invoke the word “liberal?” And even defining “NPR” is fraught.

First up, bias. It’s a moving target. In his 1986 book The Uncensored War, communications professor Daniel Hallin drew a simple diagram depicting three spheres in journalism. They’re called Hallin’s Spheres. Picture a doughnut. The hole in the doughnut is the sphere of consensus, and here are issues and views we can all agree on – democracy is good, slavery is bad, all men are created equal. Here truths are self-evident and journalists don’t feel the need to be objective.

No, that’s reserved for the doughnut itself, the sphere of legitimate controversy. Here’s where the bulk of journalism takes place – gun control, interest rates, budget matters and abortion, issues on which reasonable people can disagree and where journalists are obliged to present both sides.

Outside the doughnut lies the sphere of deviance, limbo, where viewpoints are deemed unworthy of debate. The pro-pedophilia position, for example, does not get a hearing in mainstream media.

But Hallin created his spheres in the 1980s, before FOX News and MSNBC, the rise of talk radio and the blogosphere. Certain views that a generation ago would have been relegated to the sphere of deviance – for example, questioning the birth certificate of the President of the United States – Hallin says have now forced their way onto the doughnut.

DANIEL HALLIN: When I made my diagram there was only one set of spheres, let’s say, and everybody kind of agreed on what they were. The boundaries might get fuzzy. But now I think our media have become fragmented and pluralized so that you have different sub-communities that have different ideas of where the boundaries lie, right?

So a generation ago, the questions whether Obama can legitimately be president, this would have been rejected both by elites in Washington of both parties and by the media as just absolutely outside the proper bounds of political debate, and it would have been excluded. Today there’s just a lot less consensus.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Hallin’s doughnut has been blasted into crumbs by a confluence of voices. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but where does that leave NPR?

DANIEL HALLIN: NPR, like, actually, quite a few of the mainstream news organizations in the U.S., I would say still adheres to the old-style journalism that tries to stick to the center and tell both sides. But I think that this is a period in which it’s harder to do. I think it’s much more difficult to legitimize.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you mean it’s more difficult to legitimize?

DANIEL HALLIN: Well, you could convince people that you were in fact being neutral by sticking to a point in the center between Republicans and Democrats and giving them both a hearing in an earlier period. Nowadays that just doesn’t work as well because different segments of the population have different ideas of where the center really is, of what’s a legitimate political point of view. So I think that all of the news organizations that try and stick to the old-fashioned patterns of journalistic professionalism, they’re all a little bit on the defensive.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you think mainstream journalists should respond to the fuzziness of the sphere of consensus, the sphere of legitimate debate and the sphere of deviance, that which should not be discussed?

DANIEL HALLIN: At what point would we decide that global warming is not really a legitimate subject of controversy anymore? Because the truth is within scientific communities it’s not. Within the political public sphere there’s still a big controversy about it. And that is somewhat troubling, that gap.

You know, in many cases I think it’s going to be the right decision for a journalist to say, we’re aware that the science says that there’s not a controversy here and we are going to refuse to treat this part of it as though it were controversial. I think that that’s a responsible decision. I think it’s politically risky as well.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel Hallin teaches at the University of California San Diego. Based on the remark we just heard, he’ll be labeled by some as a liberal. The word is applied broadly now to big-L Liberal politics and small-l liberal values, even liberal science, to the point where the word “liberal” itself means almost nothing.

And what does NPR mean? For most people, NPR is whatever they hear when they tune into public radio. But NPR itself produces or editorially oversees very little of that content. It’s directly responsible for Morning Edition, All Things Considered, the weekend equivalent of those shows, and Talk of the Nation. It also distributes shows produced elsewhere – On the Media, Diane Rehm, Fresh Air and so on.

And then there are the shows that NPR neither produces nor distributes that are among public radio’s most popular – This American Life, Marketplace, A Prairie Home Companion. And finally there are the local shows produced by public radio stations everywhere. But does it even matter when most of the bias debate coalesces around federal support, the bulk of which goes to stations?

http://anoteinthec.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/on-media-the-counter-narrative-on-bias-at-npr/

http://www.fair.org/extra/best-of-extra/dioxin-experts.html

http://www.npr.org/blogs/ombudsman/2012/03/30/149717982/christian-is-not-synonymous-with-conservative

http://www.npr.org/blogs/ombudsman/2011/04/22/134229266/what-to-think-about-think-tanks

 

 

Back to Our Future: David Sirota on the 80s

I just noticed a reference to David Sirota’s recent book, Back to Our Future. It looks interesting. After reading some reviews and hearing some interviews, I decided to purchase the book on my Kindle. So far, I’ve only read the beginning and skimmed later sections. This post is more about my initial response, but it’s a very thorough initial response.

To put it simply, this book provides analysis of 80s culture’s impact on politics and how that impact continues.

In ‘Back to Our Future,’ the ’80s are alive and, well

Remember the ’80s? Greed. Narcissism. Size.

“Everything was big — really big,” Sirota writes. “Big hair. Big defense budgets. Big tax cuts. Big shoulder pads. Big blockbuster movies. Big sports stars. The Big Gulp.”

Let me begin with a summary of what defines the 1980s, according to David Sirota:

•Atari: Best-selling videos Missile CommandCombat and Space Invaders sold techno-militarism to a generation of future drone pilots.

•Rambo: Embittered vet refought America’s wars and “gets to win” this time.

Ghostbusters: The movie’s lesson: When government fails, these private security contractors saved us from interdimensional “terrorists.”

•World Wrestling Federation: Theatro-sport in which American good guys like Sgt. Slaughter body slammed foreign bad guys like the Iron Sheik.

•Mr. T: No matter what character this Mohawk-wearing strongman played, he represented racial stereotyping and threw it back in our faces.

The Cosby Show: The pre-Obama image of the “post-racial” brand, the Huxtables were the first black family to dominate TV.

•Ferris Bueller: John Hughes’ cheeky truant glorified “going rogue” years before Sarah Palin.

Air Jordans: Best-selling sneakers pushed the idea that we can each be superstars if we “just do it.”

The Yuppie: Upwardly mobile wealth-obsessed Alex P. Keatons rejected ’60s idealism for modern materialism.

“Greed is Good”: Gordon Gekko’s line from Wall Street became the decade’s most famous phrase — and its most enduring ethos.

 – – – 

My discovering this book was serendipitous. I happened upon a reference to it the other night. A few hours prior, while at work, I had been talking to a coworker about all things apocalyptic, the Japanese nuclear plant problems being the starting point of the conversation. She mentioned something about a tv show and I was reminded of how many post-apocalyptic movies there were in the 1980s when I was a child. Between that and evil children movies, a child of the 80s was almost inevitably warped in the head.

Sirota makes this connection to the present nuclear situation in Japan:

I’m a child of the ’80s, and I was deeply impacted by that decade and that pop culture — and for many reasons, that pop culture is back in a lot of ways. So I started thinking about why it’s back — and some of it is Hollywood laziness, some of it is coincidence — but it’s really kind of eerie, too, with the crisis at the Japanese nuclear power plant happening; you know, the last time that kind of thing was happening was at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, in the ’80s. So there’s a real zeitgeist of the ’80s returning.

I don’t know that Sirota discusses the post-apocalyptic genre, but it seems to fit in with his overall analysis. The nuclear accidents back then made nuclear apocalypse an increasingly real possibility which was imaginatively portrayed in various entertainment media. As a GenXer born in 1975 (the same year Sirota was born), I’m well aware of the impact of 80s culture.

Sirota takes this a step further and says this impact is continuing as if the 80s somehow stunted America’s natural development. The country was going in one direction with the civil rights movement, environmentalism and other things, but then the 80s came and a different attitude took over: hyper-individualism, capitalist greed, paranoia of government, aggressive militarism, ultra-nationalism, racial fear-mongering, class war, culture war, radicalization of religion, etc. Americans haven’t yet collectively recovered from the trauma of the 80s. There were the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, and it’s been the 80s ever since. An endless nightmare as if Reagan were still president.

As explained in the USA Today article:

[T]he ’80s speak to us today for one simple reason: “Because it’s still the ’80s. The calendar doesn’t say ’80s, but we’re still looking through an ’80s mind-set.” Think Charlie Sheen. Think Lehman Brothers. Think McMansions.

As William Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The ’80s set the stage for our lives today, Sirota says, and he explains it best in his introduction: “Almost every major cultural touchstone is rooted in the ’80s. … The Sopranos was an update of an ’80s Scorsese flick (Raging Bull and later Goodfellas).The Wire was Baltimore’s own Colors. Curb Your Enthusiasm is a Los Angeles-set Seinfeld. American Idol is Star Search.” And so on.

[ . . . ] “The reason you see so many remakes is not just because nostalgia resonates,” Sirota says, “but because (’80s movies) are still culturally relevant.”

Part of his argument relates to his realization that most people aren’t political at all, or rather don’t consciously identify as political, don’t consciously think out their political views. And, even those who are consciously political as adults, usually didn’t identify as being political when growing up. Nonetheless, it’s obvious that everyone has political views. Even children, when asked, can offer views on political issues. We all gain our political views from somewhere. Sirota thinks that pop culture has a greater impact on our minds and worldviews than we normally realize. He even goes so far as to see it playing a role of pseudo-propaganda in some cases and outright propaganda in other cases. This can be seen to some extent as part of the normal enculturation process, but the 80s were anything other than normal… and, in the process, a new norm was created for American society.

From a Denver Westword interview, Sirota said:

So I’d been reading some social research, and one thing that’s been coming up is that pop culture and entertainment — especially for children — is just as formative to how we see the world as news; as children, this entertainment that’s packaged as non-political, it can be as reality-shaping as reality is.

How Your Taxpayer Dollars Subsidize Pro-War Movies and Block Anti-War Movies

All the buzz in the entertainment/tech world about the blockbuster new video game Homefront brings back memories of the 1984 film Red Dawn — and rightly so. The creator of Homefront is none other than John Milius, the writer/director of the 1984 film that later became the deliberate namesake of the most famous operation in today’s Iraq War. But it should also bring back memories of the larger militarist themes that continue to define our entertainment culture — themes that ultimately bring up the direct but little-examined connections between the Pentagon and the entertainment industry. It is the legacy of those connections, first intensified in the 1980s, that continue to embed militarism in seemingly non-political products like video games and action movies.

As I show in , much of the video game industry was subsidized by the military and military contractors, and many of the earliest games were consequently martial in thrust. Think: Atari Combat and Missile Command, which then grew into a larger video game world that, as one Konami executive said in 1988, “takes anything remotely in the news and makes it a game.” You could see that in Nintendo’s Iran-Contra era game Contra just as you can see it in today’s hits like Call of Duty. And in almost each of these games, the ideology of militarism (i.e. military action solving all problems) is reiterated and reinforced.

Same thing when it comes to the Pentagon-Hollywood relationship since the 1980s — only in that case, we’re now seeing military officials quite literally line-editing scripts to make them more pro-military.

- – – 

Several points stand out to me in Sirota’s analysis.

First, Sirota argues that the 80s was when violence became normalized. Violence became a central part of our collective psyche: movies, video games, etc. Part of this had to do with the Vietnam War, the first major military loss that shook America’s collective confidence and righteous nationalism. Americans had internalized the violence from the Vietnam War footage and were now trying to come to terms with the sense of national failure that came after the withdrawl from Vietnam. It was maybe something like a collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sirota does mention the Vietnam War. He talks about the explanations given such as what he calls the “hands tied behind their backs” myth. I guess the idea was that if the soldiers weren’t held back, they could’ve demonstrated some real violence that would’ve forced the enemy into submission.

Second, the obsession with violence was inseparable from the obsession with hyper-individualism. This partly was represented by fear and hatred of government, the belief that the government can’t do anything right, that the government is the enemy of the people, of local governance, the enemy of communities, of religions, of capitalism, the enemy of all that is good. In general, all collective action and activism was looked upon with suspicion. Nothing good could come from people working together cooperatively toward the common good. Only individuals (or else individuals working together for the purpose of profit, i.e., private contractors: The A-Team, Ghostbusters, etc) could solve problems. People couldn’t rely on government, the FBI, or the police to solve their problems… and, so, people instead had to hope for a hero figure to come to town. And it was considered admirable when things got done, even if it meant breaking laws and committing violence. This hero worship also led to our culture of idolizing celebrity and wealth (a celebritocracy borne out of a distorted vision of meritocracy).

From the USA Today article:

“A lot of the changes that happened (in the ’80s) weren’t good,” Sirota admits. “The deification of celebrity, for instance. The individual. Michael Jordan could soar above all the rest. It wasn’t about the team anymore. That wasn’t so good.”

[ . . . ] “It was the outlaw with morals. The guy working on the inside for the common good,” Sirota says. He says that trend translated to sports, pointing to a poster of bad-boy Barkley. “He broke the rules but he was a good guy.”

As for ’80s greed, the examples are endless both then and today.

He cites Michael J. Fox’s The Secret of My Success (1987) as glorifying the ’80s goal of “working your way up to huge sums of wealth.”

But another 1987 movie perhaps summed up the era best. Wall Street (which co-starred Sheen) lives on because of three famous words uttered by Michael Douglas: “Greed … is good.” The sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, was released last year. Still relevant. Bernie Madoff, anyone?

“The young of the ’80s didn’t want to save the world,” Sirota says. “They wanted to get rich. It became the norm, and it’s the norm today.”

Third, Sirota explains how all of this was disconnected from reality. It had become a collective myth that couldn’t be questioned. He gave some examples about the enemies the media and government demonized during the 80s.

The US government was using propaganda about the Godless commies for the purpose of justifying the building up of the military-industrial complex, but the US government had plenty of data in their own reports that the Soviet Union was technologically inferior by far and was destroying itself trying to keep up with US technological advancement. The US government knew the commies were no real threat, but the myth of a powerful enemy was necessary and desired. To have a powerful enemy, gives a nation a sense of meaning and purpose even if it’s an utter lie.

The other example shows how lies when repeated enough become collective reality. On some level, I suspect most Americans were aware that the commies couldn’t be used as a scapegoat forever. The Cold War was drawing to a close and so the search for a new great enemy was already beginning. The new enemy to be feared was Islamic terrorists (which was already at that time starting to become the new standard enemy in American entertainment).

In our fighting the commies, we had at times aligned with radical Islamic fundamentalists and theocrats. I think many people realized that this would eventually lead to blowback, that our allies once we were finished using them would turn against us. More importantly, we just needed an enemy. If we had to create that enemy by funding, training and arming radical Islamic fundamentalists, by overthrowing democratic governments and supporting oppressive regimes in the Middle East, then so be it. Creating enemies is no easy task. It takes a lot of money and time, a lot of effort and planning, a lot of destruction and loss of life. But what the 80s have taught us is that endlessly fighting enemies of our own creation is something worth fighting for.

 – – – 

Here is another related factor that Sirota may or may not touch upon. The attitude of seeking enemies was an all-encompassing way of making sense of the world and hence of making public policies.

Worst of all, the demented paranoia of the 80s even led to the American people becoming the enemy. There was evidence of this mentality from earlier times such as with COINTELPRO from the decades prior, but the 80s brought it to a whole new level. COINTELPRO only targeted specific groups. The War on Drugs, however, targeted the entire American population. In many ways, it was worse than even McCarthyism. The War on Drugs has done more damage than probably any other public policy in American history. I doubt there is any US policy that has led to more people being imprisoned, more people having their lives destroyed, more increase in violence, more increase in a corporatist elite profiting off of the suffering of others, more targeting of the poor and minorities. My God, even Prohibition wasn’t this damaging. The War on Drugs has been going on for decades which has only led to an increase in drug use and drug-related violence. Now, the War on Terror (funded by the black market for drugs) has ratcheted up even further this paranoid oppression and authoritarian fear-mongering.

The 80s created a schizophrenic mentality. The government was the enemy and yet the government was necessary to fight the supposed even greater enemy of commies, terrorists, and drug dealers. The government was the enemy and yet the government was necessary to fight the enemy that is hiding within. Any American potentially might be a commie, a terrorist, or a druggy (or a gangsta, or a welfare queen, or an illegal alien, or an eco-terrorist, or a radical liberal). Everyone potentially was an enemy. No one could be trusted. It was everyone against everyone. A society of trust and cooperation was a thing of the past. The role of the government in helping average Americans was seen as evil and the power of the government to hurt the enemy was seen as good.

So, spending on social services and infrastructure (what conservatives like to call socialism) were reduced as the military-industrial complex (along with the alphabet soup agencies) continued to grow (along with the debt). Both fiscal and social conservatism were ironically used as part of the propaganda to increase the power of the ruling corporatist elite. Fiscal conservatism!?! Give me a fucking break! Neocons like Reagan believed in fiscal conservatism in the same way a pedophile priest believes in God. Even if their belief is genuine and earnest, those negatively effected would hardly find much comfort. I don’t know if a laissez-faire ideology correlates to reality any more than Christian theology. What I do know is real are the impacts that those who believe in such things have on the real world and on real people. And the enduring results of 80s culture of greed ain’t pretty.

 – – – 

What appeals to me about David Sirota’s view is that he is putting this all in the context of the larger history of the 20th century. The 80s concretized a particular worldview of culture war that continues to this day, and it continues to be grounded in mainstream culture. He explains this well in giving a summary about his book:

The book really has four basic sections. There’s a section about how the 1980s redefined our memories and our ideas of the 1950s and the 1960s, basically by remaking our memories of the 1950s into this idyllic time of calm and prosperity, and remaking the 60s into things that are bad, things like chaos and assassination — and so that ’50s vs 60s battle is still something that influences groups like the Tea Party and so forth, and it really divides along political lines.

[ . . . ] You know, the 1980s really was the time when there was this conflation between entertainment and real — Reagan was constantly referencing movies and pop culture in his speeches; you know, he’d been an actor himself. And so people might say, oh, The A Team wasn’t a big deal, Dukes of Hazzard wasn’t a big deal — but The A-Team, this one one of the highest rated shows for preteens, this show with the premise of four, you know, private contractors on the lam from a government that can’t do anything right. This stuff has a real impact on how you think about your world.   

I was just reading that Reagan considered Family Ties one of his favorite shows and offered to be in an episode. Sirota considers that show to have been central. Many young conservatives took inspiration from the Alex P. Keaton’s rebellion against his liberal former hippie parents. Alex stated a classic line when he complained about his parents being arrested for protesting nuclear weapons:

“You know what’s wrong with parents today? They still think they can change the world.”

With all the angry right-wingers, fear-mongering fundies and cold-hearted neocons these days, it’s hard to remember there was a time when a Republican could be portrayed as being a genuinely kind, lovable character. With all the horrifying results of trickle down economics, all the rampant crony capitalism following deregulation and all the cynical class war against the working class, it’s hard to imagine that fiscal conservatism once upon a time could’ve been shown as almost quaintly charming in it’s innocent naivette. It’s understandable that many at that time were persuaded, inspired even, by Michael J. Fox’s role:

The world has changed. The contemporary equivalent of Alex P. Keaton would be Eric Cartman from South Park. In the episode “Die, Hippie, Die”, Cartman sees hippies as dangerous vermin to be exterminated.

“Every time one of these ex-hippies comes prancing in from yesteryear, we gotta get out the love beads and pretend we care about people.”
~ Alex P. Keaton

“For the past several days I’ve been noticing a steep rise in the number of hippies coming to town.… I know hippies. I’ve hated them all my life. I’ve kept this town free of hippies on my own since I was five and a half. But I can’t contain them on my own anymore. We have to do something, fast!”
~ Eric Cartman

Alex as the charming fiscal conservative has morphed into Cartman the not-so-charming bigoted conservative. And yet both capture some basic essence of the desire of many contemporary conservatives to rebel against society (a corrupt, lazy and generally inferior society that deserves being rebelled against).

The radicalization of the conservative movement is one of the oddest phenomena in US history. There were always radical elements in American society, but something about Goldwater’s campaign allowed the radicals to take over the entire conservative movement. Now we have Cartman-like pundits on the radio and on cable. They still rail against mainstream culture despite having become so much apart of mainstream culture that they now help to shape it. That, of course, doesn’t stop them from acting like victims as if hippies were somehow still a dominant force. The right-wing mindset is forever stuck in the past which blinds them to the present. To the right-winger, Cartman’s paranoia is the reality they live in.

Alex P. Keaton continues to be relevant more than a couple decades after Family Ties ended. Having gained power, the conservatives inspired by the likes of Alex may now feel disgruntled by their failure which has inevitably followed from their success. But that doesn’t stop them from believing, doesn’t give them pause, doesn’t cause them to doubt their ideology. It remains relevant because the True Believers keep it relevant:

Still, it’s tempting to conclude that Keaton’s near-iconic status requires more explanation. Last summer in the New Republic, Rick Perlstein, the left-leaning author of a book on Barry Goldwater, argued that, even now, after years of Republican rule, the “culture of conservatives still insists that it is being hemmed in on every side.” Having been “shaped in another era [the mid-1960s], one in which conservatives felt marginal and beleaguered,” conservative culture—Perlstein had in mind everything from “Goldwater kitsch” to Fox News—still feeds on this antagonism, reflecting a sense that righteousness is always at odds with the decadent mainstream.

Alex P. Keaton fits this vision perfectly. Throughout the show’s run, he was on his own: His parents were liberal, his sister was a ditz, and his one conservative ally, Uncle Ned, was a fugitive and then a drunk. Still, he persevered.

Conservatives nowadays have plenty of Uncle Neds who may seem like frauds and failures to those who don’t share their capitalistic idealism. Still, conservatives persevere.

 – – – 

Not only do they persevere, their becoming disgruntled has made them even more rabidly motivated. And big money has given their minority voice a big megaphone. This is what the Tea Party is or has become, arguments aside about how it began. Tea Party leaders and icons, such as Beck and Palin, represent this tendency toward nostalgia that Sirota writes about (Back to Our Future, pp. 27-8):

Now, during the Obama presidency, the Tea Party opposition is an exact analogue to the Reagan vanguard, all the way down to the latter-day roots of its very name—in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the The New York Times labeled what were then the first contemporary antigovernment/antitax revolts “modern Boston Tea Parties.” Not surprisingly, the goal of today’s Tea Party protesters is a return to the politics of the fifties-worshiping, sixties-bashing 1980s.

Tea Party protesters and their leaders in the conservative movement acknowledge this intrinsically in their choice of language and extrinsically in their most unfiltered declarations. For example, an essay posted on the website of Freedom Works, the organization that sponsors Tea Party demonstrations, says protesters are enraged by “the sense that the country that they grew up in is slipping away right before their eyes.”

[ . . . ] Glenn Beck, the Tea Party’s media field general, says it is about “real outrage from real people who just want their country back”—and he’s very clear that “back” means before The Sixties™. In one recent diatribe, Beck praised Joe McCarthy for “shin[ing] the spotlight on the Communist Party” in the 1950s. In another, he insisted “fifty years ago people felt happier” than they do today because today “we have less God,” prompting his guest to agree by saying, “Something happened in the 1950s where everything went down … that’s when they started taking God”—“they” being the hippies, “God” presumably being a reference to mid-twentieth-century courts barring prayer in school.

This kind of nostalgia now slashes its way through today’s politics and policy debates, and its lack of connection to specific issues betrays its eighties-crafted anchor in intergenerational conflict.

[ . . . ] “It’s kind of a time for another Eisenhower,” Bob Dole told Politico in a discussion about 2012 presidential candidates.

The language—“back,” “real people,” “deviating from,” “slipping away,” “the way it was,” “different country than I grew up in,” “legacy,” “better time”—underscores the fierce yearning for a fantastical authenticity and conformity of old-time fifties America, sans the real-world downsides like lynch mobs, religious bigotry, burning crosses, chauvinism, union-busting, and smokestack pollution that plagued the mid-twentieth century. Whether or not Tea Party leaders are specifically pointing to the actual 1950s is less important than that the broader movement is advocating that bigger, 1980s-manufactured concept of The Fifties™.

The tragedy, of course, is the elimination of the kind of moderate Republicanism that once played a pivotal political, cultural, and legislative role in the real 1950s and 1960s. Conservatives today accept no compromise positions on taxes, national security, social issues, or anything else, because to Republican leaders, conceding such middle ground is akin to aiding and abetting the hippies—an unthinkable proposition, but not just to them.

That passage caught my attention. I’ve been thinking about the Tea Party for quite a while now. Last year I started to write a post about the documentary Generation Zero. The documentary created quite a buzz at the time (at least, on Fox News), but it is mostly unknown outside of the Tea Party crowd. I only heard about it because of a blog I follow which focuses on the topic of generations. The documentary is based on the generation theory of Strauss and Howe.

I never finished writing my post about Generation Zero. I felt like I was missing some element to bring my thoughts together. Sirota’s analysis may be that missing element. It wasn’t a bad documentary per se. However, it did fall into this mythology of everything wrong with America is the fault of the hippies.

Sirota is correct that the nostalgic worship of The Fifties has become popular again. And Sirota is correct that this nostalgia is disconnected from reality, from the actual history of the 50s. John Oliver of The Daily Show did an awesome clip (Even Better Than the Real Thing) which utterly lambasted this naive vision of the past that is favored by right-wingers.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with looking for the positive in the past. But one can’t learn from the past by turning it into a Hallmark movie or a Norman Rockwell painting. One particular detail that caught my attention in the above passage is Bob Dole’s saying that, “It’s kind of a time for another Eisenhower”. If only Republicans were genuine about their reverence for the good ol’ days, many liberals would be more than happy to cooperate. In the good ol’ days of the first half of the 20th century, liberalism was triuphant and politicians were usually unwilling to publicly denounce liberals for fear of their political careers being destroyed by doing so. As Eric Alterman pointed out in his book Why We’re Liberals (p. 4):

It may shocking to some to discover that for much of the past century, the term liberal suggested, in the words of historian John Lukacs, “generosity nay, magnanimity; not only breadth of a mind but strength of soul.” A liberal was someone “free from narrow prejudice,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Even the enemies of liberalism sought legitimacy within it. In 1960, the New York Times Sunday Magazine published an article by the philosopher Charles Frankel in which he observed that it would be difficult to locate a single major figure in American politics who could not find a favorable remark or two about American liberalism. Indeed, he wrote, “Anyone who today identifies himself as an unmitigated opponent of liberalism…cannot aspire to influence on the national political scene.” Frankel noted that even politicians who indulged in attacks on “liberals” were usually sufficiently cautious in their criticism to attach qualifiers to the word, lest they be accused of antiliberalism themselves. Southern conservatives, for instance, complained about “Northern liberals,” often insisting that they themselves were liberals in matters of social welfare. Even Joe McCarthy usually restricted himself to attacking “phony liberals,” leaving open the inference, as Frankel put it, “that he had nothing against genuine liberals, if only he could find one.”20 Later the same year, “Mr. Republican,” Senator Robert A. Taft, claimed the liberal label for himself, stating—accurately, as it happens—that he was in reality “an old-fashioned liberal.”21 The party’s successful 1952 presidential candidate, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was also on board: “To be fully effective,” Ike explained, “we need in Washington liberal and experienced members of Congress.”22 As late as 1968, voters heard this moving tribute to the virtues of liberalism: “Let me give you a definition of the word ‘liberal.’…Franklin D. Roosevelt once said…It is a wonderful definition, and I agree with him. ‘A liberal is a man who wants to build bridges over the chasms that separate humanity from a better life.’” The speaker? That famous liberal presidential candidate: Richard Milhous Nixon.

Eisenhower was more progressively liberal than most Democratic politicians are today. So, these right-wingers aren’t being genuine when they reference the past as if, prior to the hippies, all of American society was ruled by the far right. Today’s Republicans, unlike Eisenhower, aren’t moderate about anything. Moderate Republicans are an endangered species. How can the right-wing loons of today bring up Eisenhower’s name when the right-wing loons back then thought Eisenhower was a commie (and mainstream Republicans back then thought such right-wingers were radicals and extremists). You’d be hard pressed to find even a self-identified liberal in contemporary mainstream politics who would make the type of statements Eisenhower made such as (Letter to Edgar Newton Eisenhower, November 8, 1954):

“You keep harping on the Constitution; I should like to point out that the meaning of the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is. Consequently no powers are exercised by the Federal government except where such exercise is approved by the Supreme Court (lawyers) of the land.

“I admit that the Supreme Court has in the past made certain decisions in this general field that have been astonishing to me. A recent case in point was the decision in the Phillips case. Others, and older ones, involved “interstate commerce.” But until some future Supreme Court decision denies the right and responsibility of the Federal government to do certain things, you cannot possibly remove them from the political activities of the Federal government.

“Now it is true that I believe this country is following a dangerous trend when it permits too great a degree of centralization of governmental functions. I oppose this–in some instances the fight is a rather desperate one. But to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it. The political processes of our country are such that if a rule of reason is not applied in this effort, we will lose everything–even to a possible and drastic change in the Constitution. This is what I mean by my constant insistence upon “moderation” in government. Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

“[ . . . ] I assure you that you have more reason, based on sixty-four years of contact, to say this than you do to make the bland assumption that I am surrounded by a group of Machiavellian characters who are seeking the downfall of the United States and the ascendancy of socialism and communism in the world. Incidentally, I notice that everybody seems to be a great Constitutionalist until his idea of what the Constitution ought to do is violated–then he suddenly becomes very strong for amendments or some peculiar and individualistic interpretation of his own.

 – – -

So, what exactly are conservatives today reminiscing about? Where did they get their revisionist history from?

Sirota argues that much of this revisionist history and 50s mythologizing came from the 80s. That is the origin of the problem we now face. The 80s is the source of much revisionist history because the 80s is the point where the country started heading back toward some of the worst elements of the past. An example of this is how bigotry was championed in the 80s and was put in deceptive packaging to make it more socially acceptable. This racism has been disguised in the language of culture war and class war, but the underlying racism is obvious for anyone who has their eyes open. Most recently and most obviously, there has been a resurgence of this racism which can be found in the Tea Party. As Sirota wrote in his book (p. 212):

In light of the blitz, to blame Obama for seeking “to transcend, if not avoid, the issue of race” is to yet again avoid blaming the real culprit: the white America that since the 1980s demands reticence on race from all black public figures as the price of public support. Sure, as a purely tactical matter, you can credibly argue that Obama’s Cosby-esque deal with white America is a self-defeating Faustian bargain. Survey data show roughly six in ten whites openly admit to believing in at least one bigoted stereotype, and a recent study showed that when asked about health care legislation, a significant number of whites expressed less support for the exact same bill if it was coming from President Obama rather than from a white Democratic president. A black leader who tries to circumnavigate that intense bigotry by avoiding race may be emboldening the bigotry inevitably coming his way. Similarly, American politics is increasingly steered by a largely white Tea Party movement whose supporters are, according to polls, disproportionately motivated by racial resentment. An African American leader who goes out of his way to downplay that right-wing racism to the point of rebuking former president Jimmy Carter for criticizing it—well, that only helps the Tea Party opposition play its duplicitous dog-whistle games.

I was already aware of this. I have a post about the study done where Tea Party supporters admitted to having racially prejudiced views. Of course, this is nothing new… but I guess that is why it’s so disheartening. One of Sirota’s basic points is how we as a nation are atavistically mired in our own dark past. We are stuck in this manner because the distorted 50s mythology has appealed to what has been a white majority in this country, and the appeal becomes stronger as whites increasingly lose their majority status. In the words of Sirota from the article, “The Motto of Mad Men”:

As one tea party leader told The New York Times: “Things we had in the ’50s were better.”

To the tea party demographic, this certainly rings true. Yes, in apartheid America circa 1950, rich white males were more socially and economically privileged relative to other groups than they are even now. Of course, for those least likely to support the tea party—read: minorities—the ’50s were, ahem, not so great, considering the decade’s brutal intensification of Jim Crow.

But then, that’s the marketing virtuosity of the “I Want My Country Back” slogan. A motto that would be called treasonous if uttered by throngs of blacks, Latinos or Native Americans has been deftly sculpted by conservatives into an accepted clarion call for white power. Cloaked in the proud patois of patriotism and protest, the refrain has become a dog whistle to a Caucasian population that feels threatened by impending demographic and public policy changes.

I’m not sure how many people understand the way this came about. I’ve met many conservatives who seem to have a dim awareness that the world was once different when they criticize the Democratic Party as being the party of racists because it used to have it’s stronghold in the old KKK South. What conservatives forget, in making this criticism, is that the Republicans are now the party of the South. Republicans purposely gained the South by using the Southern Strategy which was an often overtly racist strategy. It began with Nixon, but became even more important with the campaigns of Reagan and Bush Sr. From Sirota’s book (p. 18):

The magma of resentment politics that had been simmering underground since the late 1970s exploded during the stretch run of the 1980 presidential campaign. In August of that year, Reagan channeled white rage at the civil rights movement by endorsing the racist euphemism states rights, an endorsement that came during a speech to a Confederate-flag-waving audience in the same Mississippi town where three civil rights workers had been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.

I remember reading last year about Reagan’s campaign. I was shocked and amazed by the bravado of so blatantly referencing a violently racist past just for the sake of winning an election. You can’t get any more cynical than that. As I recall, the speech that started off his campaign was that very speech given at that town which was famous for having previously hosted the Ku Klux Klan’s murdering of civil rights workers. That was the beginning of the Republican Party and conservative movement we know today. That is the past America that conservatives feel nostalgic about.

 – – – 

I find myself simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by this history of American culture. I’m generally interested in any analysis of generations. It’s very strange how whole generations can get caught up in a single worldview, especially with our mainstream media today which offers everyone the same entertainment and news.

We live in interesting times. Boomers are losing power as GenXers are coming into power. Whites are losing majority position as minorities are gaining majority position. Religious fundamentalism and politicized religion is becoming less popular as religious diversity and non-religiousness are becoming more popular. We’re in a new century with a media of the likes never before seen. The world is becoming globalized and Americans are trying to find meaning and purpose in a time when everything is shifting.

Not everyone responds to this change with a positive attitude and an open embrace. But I, for one, am ready to leave the era of the 80s behind.

 – – – 

Note: I think that is all I have to say right now. I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts once I read more of the book. Maybe I’ll continue my thoughts by eventually finishing my post on the documentary Generation Zero.

My Dream of a Media Watchdog

I enjoyed this clip. It’s short and doesn’t go into enough detail, but I liked the comparisons made.

I’d appreciate a show entirely about keeping tabs on the media:

  • showing which stories reported and not reported by which news outlets and why
  • doing investigative journalism into who owns and manages each news outlet, the financial ties, the political donations
  • offering detailed biographies of all the major players working in media
  • comparing mainstream media to alternative media, US media to foreign media
  • pointing out the themes across all media and ferreting out attempts at propaganda
  • explaining historical info about stories beyond the mere superficialities of events and explaining how such stories have been reported in the past
  • analyzing how different schools train journalists, how journalists perceive themselves, and how journalists are treated by governments
  • ascertaining what makes good journalism and ethical journalism, comparing when journalism succeeds to when it fails
  • offering interviews with experts on media, propaganda, advertising, and astroturf
  • looking at the demographic data of the media and of viewers
  • exploring the field of polling, considering the public opinion about media and how the media reports on public opinion

The media, of course, loves to talk about the media. But usually that is just media people attacking other media people and ranting about who is better. I don’t care about those kinds of pissing tests. What I’d like to see is intelligent and well informed commentary such as seen with Noam Chomsky.

Not short segments.
Not video clips with little context.
Not sound bytes.
Not mere opinionating.
Not just a platform for talking points.
Not just simplistic portrayals of left vs right.
Not false equivalency presented as fairness.
Not just reacting to what is popular at the moment.

I want high quality investigative journalism, detailed analysis, long panel discussions, professional debates, et cetera. There is so much info out there and so many agendas. It would be nice to have one outlet that had the single purpose of sorting through all of it in order to determine the actual facts.

There are media watchdog websites like FAIR, but I want something that is a more major operation. It would be difficult to do. It might have to follow a non-profit model or at least an alternative media model. The Young Turks is the biggest internet news show that built up its audience without initially having any advertisers, just making profit through membership fees. My idea of a major media watchdog would probably be most likely to succeed if it targeted an international audience, along with content targeted for more specific audiences. If they offered a high enough quality product, people would be willing to pay for it. Also, they could build their brand by working together and combining resources with other alternative media, especially when doing major investigative journalism projects.

I’m sure such a thing is unlikely to ever exist, but it’s nice to dream.

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