How the media could rediscover journalism

Sam Smith

One of the scary side effects of the Trump disaster is how badly the media is covering it. It is one of the biggest stories in the history of the United States yet the media is granting Trump and his mob a level of normalcy by coverage not even as reflective of reality as, say, that of the last winter storm.

This is not an unique problem. Some two decades ago I proposed a new newspaper to be called USA Tomorrow. Among its aspects:

The front page will be almost entirely devoted to news. News is defined as something that has happened, something that is happening or something that is going to happen. News is not what someone said about what is happening nor what someone perceived was going to happen nor what the editors thought the impact of something happening would be on its readership.

Opposition to any policy will be reported on the same page as the main headline and not on the jump page as is now commonly the case…

Next to any story about pending legislation will be a box listing what the bill actually does. This data is increasingly considered extraneous in contemporary journalism.

Early in any story about a proposed policy will be some indication as to who is likely to be helped and who is likely to be hurt if it is approved.

All perceptions (including those excised from the front page and those typical of op-ed pages) will be published in a section called Perceptions. Space will be given based on a rigorous analysis of the perceptiveness of previous perceptions. This is unlike the current situation in which people are allowed to perceive based solely on their position or fame rather than actual prescience.

Somewhere towards the back of the paper will be several pages devoted to quotations, official and otherwise. This section will have something of the feel (and small type size) of the classified section. Since highly ranked persons can easily be solicited for quotes by e-mail, this improvement alone, if widely adopted, could free up several hundred Washington reporters for actual news coverage in place of several hours at lunch with an assistant secretary of state in order to obtain a ten word print bite.

There will also be a section called Style With Class: Unlike the Washington Post’s Style section, the tacky — as well as most of the rich and famous — will be excluded. Those featured will have to have some admirable qualities rather than just being notorious. The egregious, outrageous, and avaricious who make up the better part of lifestyle sections will be relegated to a new section called Can You Believe This?

News that affects ordinary readers will be removed from the business and real estate sections and put in the front of the paper where it belongs.

There will be a labor section as least as big as the business section on the premise that there are at least as many workers as there are corporate executives among the paper’s readers.

Needless to say, if such publications existed, we would be far less likely to find ourselves in the current crisis. And a few other measures might have helped.

A clear distinction could be made between news and propaganda. Today, for example, even the liberal news channel MSNBC spends hours on the propaganda of the Trump regime including the breathless announcement that some official is about to make an statement or speech in a few minutes. That is no more news than the fact that the doctor will see you in a few minutes is actual medical treatment.

Ideally, the networks would provide a time delay for all political declarations so they could promptly provide factual corrections or ideological contradictions. As it stands, Trump officials get an extraordinary amount of air time without any restrictions. And the fact that what you’ve just heard is a lie is something you sometimes have to wait hours to learn

Gene McCarthy used to say that Washington reporters were like black birds on a telephone wire. One flies off and they all fly off. The Washington establishment understands this and has created a media ritual that keeps the capitol’s reporters neatly in line, waiting for the next formal announcement.

Washington journalism also favors the easy to cover as opposed to the complex. Thus whether Obama wiretapped Trump is more newsworthy than how the Republican healthcare plan will actually affect Americans of various sorts. Those affected by news but lacking power and proximity get far less attention than the Washington political battle over the issue.

Yet another problem is that history in Washington is now only about six months long. Many stories would be greatly enlightened by information from the past, but that’s too much work these days. Hence few people with a clear knowledge of the past appear these days in the mass media.

Further, Washington reporters didn’t used to be as embedded as they are now. They weren’t even, for the most part, particularly socially acceptable. The cultural blending of journalists and the people they’re meant to be covering has been one the great causes of the capital’s collapse.

There is also that fact that facts no longer have the significance they once did compared to official words. Reporters pretend to be objective by quoting official lies when, in truth, objectivity is based on reality not status.

Then there is the problem that the media has accepted without question the favored theories of the powerful.

Thus it doesn’t tell you that about the only successful invasion since World War II by the American military was in Granada. Otherwise, America’s war policies have been pretty much a failure.

Similarly, the mass media has almost completely bought into the conservative theory of economics accepting, tacitly or outwardly, that public involvement in the economy is wrong.

But as I noted in my book, Shadows of Hope:

In the beginning, if you wanted to form a corporation you needed a state charter and had to prove it was in the public interest, convenience and necessity. During the entire colonial period only about a half-dozen business corporations were chartered; between the end of the Revolution and 1795 this rose to about a 150. Jefferson to the end opposed liberal grants of corporate charters and argued that states should be allowed to intervene in corporate matters or take back a charter if necessary. With the pressure for more commerce and indications that corporate grants were becoming a form of patronage, states began passing free incorporation laws and before long Massachusetts had thirty times as many corporations as there were in all of Europe.

In fact, most free workers in this country were self- employed well into the 19th century. They were thus economic as well as political citizens.

Further, until the last decades of the 19th century, Americans believed in a degree of fair distribution of wealth that would shock many today. James L. Huston writes in the American Historical Review:

“Americans believed that if property were concentrated in the hands of a few in a republic, those few would use their wealth to control other citizens, seize political power, and warp the republic into an oligarchy. Thus to avoid descent into despotism or oligarchy, republics had to possess an equitable distribution of wealth.”

Although the practice was centuries old, the term capitalism — and thus the religion — didn’t even exist until the middle of the 19th century.

Americans were intensely commercial, but this spirit was propelled not by Reaganesque fantasies about competition but by the freedom that engaging in business provided from the hierarchical social and economic system of the monarchy. Business, including the exchange as well as the making of goods, was seen as a natural state allowing a community and individuals to get ahead and to prosper without the blessing of nobility.

Still it wasn’t until after the Civil War that economic conditions turned sharply in favor of the large corporation. These corporations, says Huston, “killed the republican theory of the distribution of wealth and probably ended whatever was left of the political theory of republicanism as well. . . .[The] corporation brought about a new form of dependency. Instead of industry, frugality, and initiatives producing fruits, underlings in the corporate hierarchy had to be aware of style, manners, office politics, and choice of patrons — very reminiscent of the Old Whig corruption in England at the time of the revolution — what is today called ‘corporate culture.'”

What if you actually read about cooperatives in your daily paper or articles by that’s paper’s presently non existent labor reporter.s. What if your paper and favorite TV channel quoted as many peace experts as they do military experts?

In fact, the major media in this country long ago bought into the machismo extremist values of militarism and corporatism that Donald Trump now exemplifies. It is now covering the bizarre, dangerous results it helped to create by abandoning real journalism.

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