Monday was the first day of “May term,” and I’m teaching American Foreign Policy. Since each day of class is three hours long, on the first day we watched the film Good Night and Good Luck, starring David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow and George Clooney as Fred Friendly. It details the way in which Murrow helped start the downfall of Joe McCarthy and his witch hunts by using the power of the media to make clear to the public what was going on. It’s fascinating both how many of the issues concerning the media and foreign policy still exist, and how much has changed.
At that time (early 50s) there were three big television networks, and they relied completely on corporate sponsors. There were also a plethora of newspapers, as the print media thrived. Newspapers and especially TV news self-censored, and as Murrow’s 1958 speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association (reproduced in part in the film) made clear, concern about the media focusing only on entertainment at the neglect of serious issues was as real then as it is today.
It is hard to imagine the government having the power to terrorize now at a McCarthy level. Sure, there was a lot of self-censorship and various forms of pressure — the Dixie Chicks not getting played by some stations after they criticized President Bush, Attorney General Ashcroft saying people should ‘watch what they say,’ Chris Hedges being heckled at a 2003 commencement address, and the weird and brief renaming of French fries as ‘freedom fries.
Yet if you didn’t care about public pressure, you could blog to your heart’s content, read news from around the world, and join protests against US policy. Although the paranoia level post 9-11 was similar to the red scare days of McCarthy, there was more freedom, and abundant media outlets. While CNN may be overly sensationalized, FOX leans to the right and MSNBC apparently a bit to the left, they still provide more variety than the half hour nightly news shows of the “big 3” in an earlier era.
I admit I have a strong pro-journalism bias. I am convinced that the freedom of a country, as well as its ability to avoid corruption, relies on a free and open media. Those who join the legions of reporters to bring us the news play just as important of a role, if not more important, than soldiers who defend the country or government officials who run the bureaucracies. It is up to them to keep us informed, to take seriously the importance of public discourse on the issues of the day, and to recognize multiple perspectives and the fact that it is impossible to completely avoid bias.
However, by its nature the news media is independent of government and thus has to support itself and pay for the resources it uses. Even public radio and television increasingly rely on grants and donations. This also means they are beholden to the market — a market that exists on the basis of what sells, not what is important to know.
Emotion sells. Glenn Beck scaring people about ‘coming tyranny’ sells, or Rush Limbaugh ranting about the ‘evil liberals,’ cherry picking outlandish statements to make it seem like all on the left are kookie extremists gets noticed. Sean Hannity takes quotes and statements out of context to weave an utterly dishonest storyline designed to get his listeners mad, or to mock the left. On the left, Keith Olbermann lists the “world’s worst person,” choosing a ill chosen statement or action to focus upon — riling up his viewers. Jon Stewart uses humor, and left-wing talk radio demonizes Bush and the Republicans. We’ve had yellow journalism for over a century, so this is nothing new (remember the Hurst legacy), and slanted humor is no big deal (Stewart admits his is ‘fake news.’)
But the Becks, Olbermanns, and Hannitys blur the line between pundit and journalist, and the general growth of emotion-laden media sources bleeds over into ‘serious’ news, which feels an increasing need to entertain in order to maintain ratings. Moreover, following the lead of the ‘left vs. right’ politics from the gut, the media starts to paint it as simply ‘two different perspectives,’ with the idea you need to show ‘both sides’ to be fair. In this kind of bipolar relativism the result is to silence views that don’t easy fit into ‘left vs. right,’ and magnify the importance of the extremes. Instead of trying to dig for truth, explore multiple perspectives, or work things out through discussion, you’re given two sides, and it’s hinted that you have to choose which to believe. Truth is pre-packaged into different interpretive vessels, you don’t have to do any work, it’s either A or B.
Of course, the choice of “left” or “right” as defined by political junkies is a false choice requiring citizens to sacrifice logic and go with whatever side sells its product more effectively.
Great journalists like Murrow or Walter Cronkite were not without bias — but they also had a sense of wanting to tell things as they are, and cut through the BS. That’s what we need from journalists — to decipher the political rhetoric and explain what is really being said, rather than just giving us the words of the different participants. We need them to dig out the facts of the story, explain reasonable interpretations of those facts, and fairly assess the meaning. They will have bias; total objectivity is impossible. But if they put their duty to our democratic republic ahead of any political bias or personal whim, they can play a positive role. Murrow was accused of bias in going after McCarthy — but it was a bias that reflected his honest assessment that McCarthy was acting against all that this country stands for, and that being silent on that would be to be complicate in the crime.
Ultimately, the media will do this for us if we reward it with higher ratings and more support than we reward the ‘discourse from the gut’ – the emotion talk radio and partisan rhetoric. At this point we as a culture aren’t yet able to do this as well as we should. But yet our media is free, we are able to access sources we never could before, and somehow I find myself optimistic. Compared to the ideal we have a long way to go, and the prominence of manipulative emotional appeals in the media creates real dangers. Compared to where we’ve been, however, there has been progress. And that’s what democracy is all about — improvements over time.