Do you think that the U.S. media generally does a good job in bringing the public information?
First of all, I think that a lot of coverage decisions are often made subconsciously. Most journalists think that they don’t actually make decisions about what’s newsworthy and what isn’t and their media outlets cover anything that’s newsworthy. And this is plainly not the case; there’s huge numbers of obviously newsworthy stories that are routinely, systemically ignored by large media outlets. And sometimes it’s just a by-product of the news-cycle rhythms, but a lot of times there are clear patterns to it. One major pattern is that the political media in particular views everything through a partisan lens. So if there’s some sort of dispute between the two parties, where the Democrats think one thing and the Republicans think another, that tends to get covered, because that’s viewed as an important political debate. But on the issues where there’s bipartisan consensus, where the two parties essentially agree, which is far more common than disagreeing, those tend to get completely ignored. So you look at U.S. support for Israel, or for Saudi Arabia in a foreign-policy context, or the idea that the U.S. should have the largest military in the world, or that we should continue with our state of mass incarceration, or just the general neoliberal economic policies that both parties believe in and support — those tend to be completely excluded from any kind of media discussion or coverage, because it just doesn’t get onto the radar of what matters. So these kinds of choices get made all the time.
Eventually things can break through. Glenn Beck talks about the Overton window and the idea that there are things that are considered polite.
For years before we were able to get the Snowden archive, there was a lot of indication that the U.S. government was engaged in mass surveillance. In the Washington Post, in like 2010, Dana Priest, who was one of the most important investigative journalists in the country, reported with William Arkin that every day the NSA was collecting and storing 1.7 billion phone calls, emails, and other communication every day. But because there was no disagreement between Democrats and Republicans on surveillance, the NSA got this huge boost after 9/11 under Bush, and then expanded even further under Obama … It wasn’t really regarded as an issue that was even worth discussing. And it was only because we got this huge mother lode of documents that it finally becomes something that people spoke about.
It’s a Catch-22, — we can’t discuss anything that we agree on, and we obviously don’t disagree about anything we’re not aware of…
What’s interesting though is, there is disagreement, a lot of disagreement, actually, on these issues. So, say, there were elements of the Republican Party, like Ron Paul and then Rand Paul and now to some extent Donald Trump, who are questioning a lot of the foreign-policy orthodoxies of the United States. Whether we should be involved in all these interventions, whether we should have all these military bases all over the world, whether we should be so one-sided in support of Israel. And then there are left-wing factions in the Democratic Party, or at least on the ideological left, who share those same views, who think our support for Israel is immoral, that we’re being an empire and acting imperialistically through all these interventions and wars and foreign military bases. But because the Establishment of both parties agrees with that approach, the media completely ignores it. So hugely consequential policy decisions that get undertaken by the United States government, that affect not just huge numbers of Americans but the entire world, are literally just totally ignored as though there’s only one view that never gets scrutinized or examined, and that’s a huge way that the media plays an important role in always perpetuating the status quo.
As you said, this is a subconscious thing, they don’t think they’re making a decision, this is just a mental habit?
I think there are two main factors to it. One is that there’s this relatively new principle of journalism that people think is intrinsic to journalism but is actually quite recent, basically since corporations started buying media outlets — that journalists are supposed to be neutral and free of opinion. Objectivity and neutrality are the highest journalistic virtues. And what that means is that journalists are increasingly discouraged from ever doing anything other than saying, “Here’s what one side says, and here’s what the other side says.” That shows you’re objective. You don’t weigh in yourself, you don’t put your finger on the scale, you just report what each side says. And so that kind of reporting, when you accept that framework, it basically means … when Harry Reid says one thing and Mitch McConnell says the other, or Paul Ryan says one thing and Obama says the other, and then you get to report that. It’s easy, and it fits super well into this framework that has been established for what journalists are supposed to do, which is just describe each side. When you don’t have that, when you have to go searching for it, or when there’s not this clean conflict, it’s difficult to pretend that you’re neutral. You just quoted Glenn Beck to me — most journalists would not do that because, “Why is he quoting Glenn Beck to me? Glenn Beck is far right fringe …” There’s that part of the encouragement of it. And then the other aspect of it is that journalists want to be respected by their colleagues and they want to be viewed as mainstream, they all want to be regarded as doing good work, and so in American political discourse, mainstream political discourse, the mainstream figures are the Establishment heads of both political parties. Anything outside of that, if you’re quoting Noam Chomsky or someone left wing like Ralph Nader, or Glenn Beck or people like that, you seem like you’re off in this fringe wilderness, and I think journalistic colleagues are going to judge you and editors aren’t going to think that you’re doing what you should be doing because you’re not talking about what most people are talking about, and there’s this incentive scheme, culturally, to avoid doing anything other than staying in that middle ground.
I think one of the most underappreciated things when people talk about journalism is the cultural change that happened when corporations, huge corporations, started buying media outlets. Where media divisions were just one of their many divisions. They sell insurance, they sell weapons, they sell all kinds of products, and they also have a media division. Because if you look at how people talk about the press, the free press, journalism, before that happened, like in the 19th century, in the early part of the 20th century, it was very muckraking, a lot of the time it really was ideological. You have a liberal press or a conservative press or people devoted to kicking out one faction or the other. It was very crusading, vibrant, controversial, it alienated a lot of people and attracted a lot of support from other people. And then once corporations started — Westinghouse and CBS, now Disney and ABC, and all of that, and journalists started becoming corporate employees instead of journalists, the ethos of a corporation is completely different from what a journalistic ethos is supposed to be. When you work at a corporation, being controversial or offending and alienating people is the worst possible thing you can do. You’re supposed to fit into authoritative structures, you’re supposed to kind of please the power structure that exists. If you’re a corporation that has a lot of dealings with the government, the last thing you want is your media division alienating government officials by being aggressive toward them or alienating them or offending them. So the whole mentality of being at a big corporation is to me the antithesis of what a real journalistic ethos is supposed to be, and I think that’s fundamentally changed journalism for the worse by making it seek out these kinds of uncontroversial postures
No one’s consciously saying, “I work for Disney, therefore I better not write a bad thing about concussions.” But it’s been internalized. I don’t know how they’re teaching J-school … it’s like “I’m a respectable journalist, I get his point of view, I get her point of view, and I put it together, and that’s a rounded piece.”
These things do become self-perpetuating. At journalism schools, a lot of the professors are people who have previously worked for these media organizations, so they’re indoctrinated with this way of looking at the world. Or if you’re a journalism-school dean, you want your graduates going and working for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and NBC News because that earns prestige and ultimately money for your school, and how your school gets measured, and so it becomes this kind of inbred cultural dynamic, where everything constantly reinforces itself. And the other thing is, it’s interesting, if you say to journalists who are at these organizations, and I know this because I’ve talked to a lot of them over the years about exactly this, they’ll say, “Look, I’ve never once been told what to say. No one’s ever written a memo saying, ‘You must say this’ and ‘You cannot talk about this.’ ” And they’re totally telling the truth. But that doesn’t really say much, because as adults, especially people who succeed at their careers, one of the things we’re all really good at is coming to understand what our environment rewards and … what will help us advance and what will hold us back. So you don’t need memos if you’re a big media organization, telling you to avoid certain things and certain perspectives, and to pursue others; you know exactly what that environment encourages and demands of you, and it’s easy to comport with it.
Do you think this sense from the corporate media — “We’re on the case, our experts are covering everything, we all agree that the Fed is doing the right thing, let’s all agree to agree” — that very narrow set of tracks that the media is running on, has led to this upheaval with Trump and Bernie Sanders?
Totally. If you look at what are probably the two greatest failures of the American elite class in the past, say, 15 years, one would almost certainly be in foreign policy, the other domestic. It would be the invasion of Iraq based on utterly erroneous pretenses that led to disaster on every last level, and the other would be the 2008 financial crisis that wasn’t foreseen and wasn’t anticipated and our economic geniuses failed to control, that led to incredible suffering. Those kinds of failures are so fundamental that they can’t help but bring about enormous amounts of distrust and dissatisfaction in elite institutions. And what has compounded that even more severely is the fact that none of the people who were responsible for those things paid any price for them at all. Almost — maybe Judy Miller is like the only person who is held out as the scapegoat. But the same people who advocated the Iraq War, if you look at the Sunday shows to see who is being asked to opine on foreign policy, it’s the same people who were so radically wrong in everything they said about Iraq. Or if you look at who the economic gurus are, they’re the same people whose policies in the ’90s and then into the Bush administration led to that economic collapse. And the media played this critical role in both, because they’re the ones who failed to investigate any of these things and continue to hold up these people as authority figures, and so faith in every institution, every elite institution, has been eroded, including and maybe especially the media, and once you destroy faith in elite institutions, people become very vulnerable to appeals that say, “I am outside of this structure, and I want to wage war on it and attack it, and I’m condemning it as corrupt,” and that’s true of both Sanders and Trump, and I do think that explains a lot of their popularity.