Monday, June 08, 2015

Snowden, Democrats and the corporate press

"[Edward] Snowden's whistleblowing has led to many extraordinary revelations. None is more significant or more revealing than what it highlighted about the function many American journalists actually perform, and how far away that is – universes away – from the way they market their function." - Glenn Greenwald, Media Lessons From Snowden Reporting: LA Times Editors Advocate Prosecution of Sources The Intercept 06/07/2015

One of the particular features of the wave of protest and reform movements that we still remember as The Sixties is that in some ways, the corporate media were not primary targets of the protests.

Generalizations are tricky because they're, well, generalizations.

The "alternative" or "underground" press was a feature of the US in the 1960s. Radical America, Ramparts, Socialist Revolution (later renamed Socialist Review) and The Great Speckled Bird were some of the better known and more influential samples of that phenomenon in the United States. And various political groups like the Black Panthers had their own papers and magazines. (Radical America's first issues billed themselves as a journal of the Students for a Democratic Society.)

And the left/populist/socialist press since the 19th century has made criticisms of the established press. So such criticism from the left is scarcely unknown in the pre-blogosphere days in the US.

But the big protests of the 1960s were directed against the corporate press in the way that, for example, the conservative Springer press (Bild, Die Welt) was a target of militant left protests in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s. Latin American popular movements like Peronism in Argentina have targeted the misconduct of the oligarchic press for a long time.

In mainstream politics in the US, it's the Republican Party that has made "the liberal press" a major target of criticism for decades now. The current form of such criticism owes much to Southern segregationist attacks on the "Northern" and "liberal" press during the fight in the 1950s and 1960s to preserve the Segregation 1.0 system. The Nixon Administration, especially Vice President Spiro Agnew before he resigned in disgrace, railed against the Liberal Press - largely a fantasy image even then - and its criticism of Nixon's Vietnam War policies.

The civil rights movement certainly had occasion to challenge the role of the press. Any decent history of the civil rights movement in Mississippi, for instance, would have occasion to mention the role of "the Hederman press." (See: Kathy Lally, A journey from racism to reason Newspaper: The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., was once the most racist paper in the United States, until an offspring of the publishing family decided to make the paper -- and his family name -- respectable. Baltimore Sun 01/05/1999.)

Dennis Mitchell in A New History of Mississippi (2014) writes about the press in Mississippi during the 1950s and 1960s:

Deprived of leadership from the state's spiritual leaders and intellectuals, Mississippians looked to newspapers and television for their news and ideas. Unfortunately, as a whole, Mississippi's newspapers proved to be the weakest in the nation in their coverage of the civil rights movement, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. The arch segregationist Hederman family owned the papers with the highest circulation in Jackson and Hattiesburg. Their headlines and locally written news stories dehumanized the "mixers;' as they called integrationists, referring to them as human freaks and abnormal mammals. Readers who got past the headlines into the text of wire service reports got more balanced information because the editors did not rewrite wire reports. [my emphasis in bold] (p. 422)

The major media in the US did play a significant role in challenging the official narrative of the Vietnam War. Daniel Ellsberg's leak of the Pentagon Papers which were printed by various major papers starting with the New York Times was a prime example of this. And with Nixon and Agnew trying to browbeat the press into conformity on Vietnam, liberals and Democrats were understandably inclined to defend the press in that situation.

And the major role papers like the Washington Post and the New York Times played in exposed the Watergate scandals which led to Nixon's resignation further reinforced the image for liberals of the major media as effectively playing the role of an independent Fifth Estate.

Glenn Greenwald quotes an op-ed by Daniel Ellsberg (NSA leaker Snowden made the right call Washington Post 07/07/2013) in which Ellsberg defends Edward Snowden's decision to leave the US to avoid prosecution over his leaks: "Many people compare Edward Snowden to me unfavorably for leaving the country and seeking asylum, rather than facing trial as I did. I don’t agree. The country I stayed in was a different America, a long time ago."

And a large part of that difference is a drastic shift toward conformity and lack of critical reporting on the part of major media.

Democrats and progressives have been forced - at a speed that seems all too painfully slow - to recognize the ways in which the national press as a larger institutions and so many of the individual institutions that make it up are often much more of a barrier to progress than a facilitator. The Clinton pseudoscandals were a big factor, the stolen election of 2000 another, and the Iraq War even more so. At least now there is a strong progressive narrative associated with the netroots and the Democratic base that views the national media with a strongly critical eye. The Young Turks online network of sites and online programs is a notable positive element in that regard.

Digby Parton is oe of the most perceptive observers of this issue. As she point out in Hillary Clinton’s toughest adversary: The world-historic narcissism of the political press Salon 06/02/2015, Democratic politicians are much behind the Democratic base on this.

James Vega in Democrats: the mainstream media gang is whining with operatic self-pity ... Democratic Strategist 05/27/2015 points to the reality that, particularly with Hillary Clinton as the leading Presidential candidate, the pro-Republican bias of the "mainstream" media is more pronounced than ever. And he warns that Democrats need to be fully cognizant of that situation:

In the first place, it means that Hillary is entirely right in refusing to play by the traditional rules. The mainstream political press has itself rendered these rules obsolete by failing to report on the most important political story of recent years - the extremist conquest of the GOP. Reporters and commentators who refuse to report this reality as an objective fact about modern American politics cannot possibly also play the role of impartial arbitrators or objective journalists when covering a Democratic political candidate.

Second, Hillary's decision to act in accordance with this insight presents a profound challenge and threat to the GOP crypto-partisans among the press corps, one which will inevitably engender a deep and profound hostility and desire to cut her down to size. ...

As a result, Democrats should prepare themselves for the uncomfortable fact that in the coming months the mainstream press will become increasingly and stridently anti-Clinton. So long as she does not play by their rules they will describe her as "remote," "fake," "robotic", "inauthentic" "scripted", "cynical" "manipulative", "dishonest" and "insincere". Her Republican opponent, whether it is Bush, Walker, Rubio, or any of the other contenders will then be described in contrast as much more "real" "down to earth" "authentic" "open" "honest" and "sincere." Fueled by their wounded vanity and the very real threat to their influence, the mainstream commentators will create a narrative that continually frames the 2016 election in precisely this way.

Democrats must be prepared to fight back. The necessary rebuttal must be to insist that - although the press may genuinely be in denial about their own motives - their failure to tell the truth about GOP extremism makes it impossible for honest Americans to treat them as objective or honest. The Democratic response must be the following:

Until you are willing to tell your readers the truth about GOP extremism, for all practical purposes you are promoting an ideologically partisan, pro-Republican point of view. As a result you cannot simultaneously claim to also be neutral or objective or that you are acting as the unbiased representatives of the public or as guardians of American democracy. Either tell your readers the truth about GOP extremism or accept the fact that honest Americans have the right to view you as partisan advocates for the GOP.
This is important because the Washington press has always been entirely untroubled by criticisms that they are sensationalistic, superficial or cynical. Part of their vanity, in fact, is based on their self-image as the grizzled veterans who have "seen it all." What does get under their skin, on the other hand, is the accusation that behind their protestations of independence they are basically carrying water for the GOP. It gets under their skin because, deep down, they know that it's true. [my emphasis in bold]

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