Media Left Out?

by: Thomas Streeter / University of Vermont

Never has the need for media reform been more obvious, more urgent, or — judging by everything from surveys[1] to downloads of the Jon Stewart Crossfire clip — more popular. But what, exactly, are we asking for? What kind of media are we trying to create?

The demand for a media that simply “tells the truth” has a lot of bite right now. A “truth-based” journalism would certainly be an improvement over the journalistic habit of getting a quote from a Democrat and a Republican and calling it a day. And it’s horrifyingly plausible that, if the New York Times, with all its agenda-setting power, simply had gotten the facts straight about Iraqi WMDs, the US may never have gone to war in Iraq and the world would not now be facing an escalating cycle of violence, a globalized version of the nightmare of the West Bank.

But over the long term, factual failures are better understood as symptoms than as causes. It would be convenient if left positions and a self-evident “truth” were identical, but it’s more complicated. The power of, say, the anti-abortion movement can not be fully explained in terms of false facts, and even the astonishing persistence in the polls of the belief in a Saddam-9/11 link cannot be simply attributed to media falsehoods or silences. Face it: a few more CNN segments explaining the lack of a Saddam-9/11 link would not automatically have caused the scales to fall from the eyes of Bush supporters. If you think about it a little (and if you know something about the complexities of how people answer questions from pollsters), the persistent belief in a Saddam-9/11 link is probably a product of people trying to account for their world from within a system of belief; in this case, the misunderstanding about the link is a clue about underlying patterns of belief, not just an inaccurate data point that, if corrected, could change hearts and minds. Those interested in democratic social change are stuck, like it or not, with what Stuart Hall aptly called the “problem of ideology,” where the concept of ideology works, not as “false consciousness” or as an all-purpose excuse for why people disagree with us, but as a way into the slippery terrain of contest among implicit belief systems, belief systems that are as much about values as they are about facts.[2]

So is this is a straightforward right vs. left issue, where the right wants a media that reflects their ideology — more Fox, less NPR — and the left wants the opposite? That also can’t be right. First, if the left position is simply that media needs be more “leftish,” then what does that say about our relationship to our fellow citizens who voted for Bush — that we are simply smarter than they are, that we can see through the biased media and they can’t? Second, speaking as though it’s about left vs. right too easily plays into the hands of those powerful media interests who imagine themselves as “centrists” (e.g., the New York Times and big TV news operations), who smugly point to the fact that they are regularly lambasted by both Rush Limbaugh and Noam Chomsky as proof that they are “neutral” and “objective.” So accusing the main agenda-setting organs of the American news media of being “right wing” or “conservative” doesn’t really get at the root of the problem.

Calling them “corporate” media is a little closer to the point, perhaps, in the sense that they present a picture of the world congruent with a multinational capitalist system with giant, coordinated, transnational multi-unit enterprises at is core. But you have to read The Economist to find a news outlet that actually makes the argument for corporate capitalism. NBC, CBS, ABC, and CNN may be congruent with corporate capitalism, but they do not come out and say so. The problem is not just one of explicit political point of view; it’s a trickier one about the relation of media to power.

The fact is, as a leftist there are right-wing media that strike me as more honest than certain “liberal” media. I prefer, say, the conservative columnist George Will’s avuncular musings to NPR’s Cokie Roberts’ inside-the-beltway gossip dressed up as news. I’d rather read The Economist making the case that globalization brings people better lives than any other mode of development — at least that’s an argument — than watch thirty seconds of coverage on CNN that presents anti-globalization protestors as colorfully clueless, as if there was no argument to make. I recently stumbled on an episode of Faith Under Fire, a program on the conservative Christian entertainment network PAX TV, that featured a conservative Israeli Jew arguing with an articulate representative of the Nation of Islam on the question of whether or not Islam was an inherently violent religion; give me that debate over a typical PBS Newshour’s talking suits any day. Clear disagreement is preferable to obfuscation.

Perhaps the core of the problem is simply that which was laid out by media sociologists beginning in the 1970s: whether you take the analysis of Todd Gitlin’s Whole World is Watching, Gaye Tuchman’s Making News, or Hebert Gans’ Deciding What’s News, the general idea is that the media cannot simply present a picture of reality to the public, that news operations operate under constraints of time, money, and belief and so fall back on shared routines and a kind of “groupthink” that defines news as whatever other reporters say is news. This creates a kind of news that follows a standardized “master narrative” generated by the interaction of reporters with private and public bureaucratic power (“reliable sources”), and from that flows all those annoying journalistic traditions that we have all become accustomed to, such as substance-free strategy — and horse-race coverage of political campaigns that focus on trivia (swift boats) and that promulgate questionable underlying assumptions (Kerry is electable and Howard Dean is not). Or remember when Ahmed Chalabi was considered a reliable source, and Scott Ritter was an irrelevant ideologue? Jon Stewart’s Crossfire interview just made popularly available something that media sociologists have been arguing for decades.

But if we know this is the problem, what are we to do about it? The scholarly community reached a rather solid consensus on these problems in the early 1980s, yet the journalistic profession remains for the most part oblivious. Columbia professor Jay Rosen‘s heroic efforts in the 1990s to promote “public journalism,” to present things in a way that might simply persuade working journalists and news editors to behave differently, did not save us from WMDs or swift boats or over-playing of the Dean scream.

The problem is structural, a system of constraints that no amount of pleading with reporters will change. “Media monopoly” is the left’s favored buzzword for that structure, but that term has serious limitations: there are problems of definition (what level of ownership concentration is not a monopoly?) and the phrase simplifies the nature of the problem and its solution. As The Nation‘s Katha Politt once put it,

Would less megacorporate ownership mean more “democracy”? …the implication is that breaking up the media monopolies would mean more diversity of voices and views, more “progressive” politics in the media and in life. That chain of logic strikes me as questionable. . . If conglomeratization is the problem, how come Newsweek, which is owned by The Washington Post, is like a dumbed-down, hyped-up version of Time, and not the other way around? Was Time a more uplifting publication when it was run and owned by Henry Luce? Hasn’t mainstream journalism, for well over a hundred years, been in the business of delivering readers to advertisers and ratifying the status quo? The attack on conglomeratization veers uncomfortably close to a celebration of the nonexistent good old days.[3]

I’m trying to start a discussion here, rather than end it. So I’ll conclude with a series of perhaps provocative principles, in the hope that discussing them might lead us in the direction of a more effective progressive media politics. So, if we are to achieve a media that will encourage a more democratic world:

1) “Truth based” reporting is a necessary but insufficient criteria.
2) Efforts must focus on media structure, not merely the behavior of individual reporters and news outlets.
3) “Media monopoly” is at best shorthand for a much more complicated set of problems, and by itself the phrase does not point to solutions.
4) Something like the concept of “ideology” — in its cultural studies, not orthodox Marxist, sense — needs to become central to progressive media reform efforts.

Recent Flow articles of interest:

Toby Miller, “Why Fox News is a Good Thing.”
Frederick Wasser, “Fairness Doctrine Now, Will it Really Hush Rush?”

On Nov. 21 evening house parties across the country, MoveOn members were asked to determine “which issues were most important…to pursue together in the next four years.” The results:
1. Election reform — 5691 votes
2. Media reform — 4529 votes
3. The Iraq war — 4488 votes
4. The environment — 3581 votes
5. The Supreme Court — 3031 votes
6. Civil liberties — 3018 votes
“The Problem of Ideology – Marxism without Guarantees,” in B.Matthews (ed.), Marx 100 Years On. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1983.
Katha Pollitt, “Their Press and Ours,” The Nation, November 10, 1997, No. 15, Vol. 265; Pg. 9.

Move On
Jon Stewart Crossfire clip
New York Times
Rush Limbaugh
Noam Chomsky
Faith Under Fire

Please feel free to comment.


  • Streeter’s column necessarily reframes much of the current discussion on media reform. The left does itself no favors by responding to the finger-wagging by conservatives like Ann Coulter and Bernard Goldberg by wagging its own fingers at them (see Eric Alterman’s What Liberal Media?). This kind of dialogue confirms the premise that individuals, in particular journalists and producers, are responsible for the cast and content of our media and, as Streeter ably points out, ignores the larger structures and relationships that contribute to what we see on our television screens. It additionally reinforces the conservative adage that the true elites in this country are, in the parlance of late 1960s intellectuals, members of a “new class” of knowledge-based elites who set an agenda in both the media and the academy to perpetuate a leftist ideology that serves its own interests (hence deflecting attention from political and economic elites).

    So what is a more useful response? Is it, as Frederick Wasser argues in the last issue of Flow, to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine so that, at least on the symbolic level, the notions of balance and fairness are reintroduced as essential components to the public interest responsibilities of broadcasters? Or should the focus be less on the regulation of content, and more on the policing of media ownership? As Streeter notes, the harping on “media monopoly” without fully grappling with the implications of a global conglomerate-run commercial media system is not all that useful. Benjamin Compaine suggests in his essay in Who controls the Media? that we need to figure out how much competition and diversity in media ownership is necessary before we can devise a regulatory schema to realize it. In addition, we need to understand how the current state of the media, in this environment of deregulation and hypercommercialism, affects the very process of media production. Perhaps this is part of a conversation the left could engage in.

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