What’s wrong with the media?
Book Festival offers high standard of discourse
By Brevy Cannon
There was no shortage of answers to the question, “What’s wrong with the media?” at this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book.
At two events dedicated to that topic, former and current members of the media offered various visions of what the fourth estate should be and how it has fallen short.
Amy Goodman, host and executive producer of the not-for-profit Pacifica Radio show “Democracy Now,” testified to the importance of the media in our world: “The media are the most powerful institutions on earth. We make our decisions based on the best information, and we have to trust that the media is bringing that to us, which is why we need independent media.”
Goodman, during her talk on “Independent Media in a Time of War,” emphasized the media’s responsibility to dig behind the stories told by those in power, such as the current “oilygarchy” of President George W. Bush et al, which is the subject of her recent book, “The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media That Love Them.”
The growth of Goodman’s own not-for-profit radio show on which she aggressively questions political leaders (now broadcast on over 4,000 local radio stations nationwide) may be related to the fact that the major corporate media have reduced their coverage of elected officials to make room for lighter news, as Stephen J. Farnsworth, a former reporter at the Kansas City Star, explained in a panel discussion of “Journalism Then and Now.”
The mainstream media has replaced government coverage with news about celebrities, scandal, the weather and “feel-good” stories about topics like “eating more broccoli,” explained Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington. Among the research buttressing that argument in his new book, “The Mediated Presidency: Television News and Presidential Governance,” is his study of the evening newscasts on the major TV networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS), which found that coverage of the federal government declined by 40 percent from 1981 to 2001. He also noted that more reporters (more than 2,000) covered the recent Michael Jackson trial than covered the war in Iraq.
While overall coverage of government has declined, Farnsworth’s research found that the major evening TV newscasts did not have a bias in favor of either Republicans or Democrats; when he looked at every single news story involving the president during his first year in office, for Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, he found that the stories gave a negative take on the president almost exactly 60 percent of the time, for all three presidents.
Since reporting the news is inherently a process of filtering information and making value judgments, it’s not surprising that there were a broad range of complaints about bias in the media.
As an example of how the media “cheerleads” for war by “icing out” anti-war voices, Goodman cited a study of 393 war-related interviews in the mainstream media in the two-week period around Feb. 5, 2003, which found that only three were with anti-war leaders. When she questioned an editor of CNN on her show about why CNN broadcasts in America had omitted bloody images of the dead and wounded in Iraq that were aired in simoultaneous international broadcasts, he responded that it was a matter of taste. “I think it’s war that’s tasteless. It is not up to [the media] to filter those images out,” she countered.
“If for just one week in Iraq, we saw the images…of babies dead on the ground, women with their legs blown off from cluster bombs, soldiers dead and dying,” Americans would say no to the war, she said, noting that the Bush administration has prohibited footage of flag-draped coffins returning from Iraq, because they know the power of those images.
In the “Journalism Then and Now” discussion, panelist Victor Navasky, publisher and editorial director of The Nation, described how he requires his interns to compile a list of the 32-odd editorial policies of the New York Times, and then examine whether those policies, such as never printing an accusation without giving the accused a chance to respond, are applied evenly to all people. His interns gradually discover upon careful reading that such policies do not apply, or do not apply equally, to various groups including prisoners, communists, children, the poor, foreigners, people of color or Arabs, etc.
While Goodman praised the media for allowing victims of Hurricane Katrina to share their stories, and for refusing to accept the administration’s claims that they were handling the situation appropriately, she also denounced the racism inherent in the coverage that portrayed white residents as going to abandoned stores to get whatever food or goods were left to take care of their families, while the black residents were described as looters.
Having devoted years of their lives to the media, these speakers were impassioned about holding the media to a higher standard of duty to society. Navasky invoked the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas to articulate what the media should be. Navasky recounted a conversation he had with Habermas, who had argued in his highly influential 1962 book “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere” that the “public sphere” of rational debate on matters of political importance grew out of the taverns and coffee houses in 18th century England where, in concert with Enlightenment ideals of equality, human rights and justice, the rational strength of one’s argument was more important than one’s identity (such as being nobility, a church official, etc.). Navasky asked him, “What is the role of a journal of opinion in the Internet era?” Habermas responded that the journal of opinion sets “the standard for public discourse,” going beyond what sound bites can provide.