BOOKS & THE CULTURE What Good Old Days? Examining the Structure and Sense of Journalism V BY ROBERT JENSEN SLANTING THE STORY: The Forces That Shape the News. By Trudy Lieberman. The New Press. 208 pages. $21.95. THE BUSINESS OF JOURNALISM: Ten Leading Reporters and Editors on the Perils and Pitfalls of the Press. Edited by William Serrin. The New Press. 0 ne of the temptations for press critics these days is to hearken back to the golden age of journalism, the good old days before corporate consolidation when journalists were free to fight the good fight. The fact that so many critics even some on the left give in to the temptation, reminds me of both the strength of the mythology of the crusading journalist, and the lack of serious structural and ideological analysis of the news media. My point is not that there have never been crusading journalists, but that a complete analysis of an institution looks at the routine practices and overall effect, not just exceptional cases. From that view, it’s not clear when the good old days were, or that they ever were so good. Two recent books, Slanting the Story and The Business of Journalism, reminded me of this problem. Trudy Lieberman’s Slanting is an important chronicle of the rise of right-wing think tanks and foundations, and their effect on journalism and public policy debates. William Serrin’s Business is an uneven but occasionally useful collection of lectures by journalists about the state of mainstream journalism. But what both books do well could be enhanced by attention to a deeper critique. One caveat: Any such discussion depends, of course, on a definition of journalism. On the margins of society there have always been people writing for a popular audience who offer a deep critique of power \(such as the journalists who produce this mainstream journalism, the journalism of the for-profit, predominantly corporate world that sells itself as neutral and objective \(more on that of alternative journalism, but to recognize that the majority of people in the United States get their news from the mainstream. In the past few years, a good-old-days critique of news media has emerged that has achieved wide acceptance. The story goes something like this: In the past, U.S. journalists could “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Then, as large media conglomerates ascended and locallyowned outlets disappeared, the bottom line began to trump journalistic values. Slowly, investigative journalism and attention to public policy began to be replaced by superficial reporting, an obsession with celebrities, and fluff stories. As long as journalism is done primarily within for-profit corporations, journalists will be constrained, and individual effort will be able to overcome those constraints only in isolated situations, with limited results. And as long as journalists place a nave notion of objectivity and rigid conceptions of neutrality at the core of their professional identity, they will, over the long run, collectively serve the interests of power. This analysis gets some things right, but is wrong on the more crucial questions. Certainly, much of what is called journalism today is frivolous and silly. The willingness of journalists to describe information about the latest romantic encounter of the latest big movie star as “journalism” is annoying, as is the tendency of journalists to rationalize their invasions of individuals’ privacy and obsessions with the sex lives of public figures as essential to their watchdog function. But far more discouraging in contemporary journalism is the lack of a sus tained critique of the underlying assumptions of the institutions and systems that run our lives, the routine deference to people with power, and the failure to challenge the taken-for-granted ideology of the United States as the benevolent giant, “the greatest nation in history.” So, the question is: When was it really any better? All of those problems have been present in mainstream U.S. journalism, as long as it has been dominated by a commercial press, dependent on advertising sales for the bulk of its revenue. My point is not that nothing ever changes clearly, the specific manifestations of the problems change over time, as the society changes. Nevertheless, it’s important to see the problems as structural: as problems that are inevitable given the institutional structure of mainstream journalism. For example, after the ferment of the Sixties, journalists in the U.S. operated with a bit more latitude in criticizing power because of the ways that social movements \(especially the civil rights, feminist, and whole society. Certainly there were stories written in the Seventies that couldn’t have been written in the politically locked-down, Cold-War hysteria of the Fifties. But the political success of the right wing in the Eighties took back some of that space; in the Nineties and into the new century, it has been a mixed bag. And throughout it all, the mainstream press has never presented a serious critique of class, race, or gender oppression in this society. Seen in that context, Lieberman’s study in some ways charts one specific part of this story: the rise in the past two decades of right-wing think tanks funded by right-wing foundations, and how those groups have pushed public policy debates in the United States to the right, in part by skillful use of the media. Selling ideas like products, she writes, these “roaring publicity machines” such as the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, Hudson Institute, and Manhattan Institute have worked to mobilize mass opinion and to neutralize any opposing elite opinion. Their basic goal: “unfettered markets that allow business to pursue its quest for profits without the shackles of government interference while at the same time making SEPTEMBER 22. 2000 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15
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