A Lonely Voice Wants Bread, Not Circuses

As the campaign winds down, and hordes of jaded journalists look toward new subjects, they’d be well advised to pause and read an analysis of their profession by Todd Gitlin, appearing in the current issue of Mother Jones. It’s not kindly:

If ever there were a time for unbridled journalism, this would be it: terrorist mayhem, war, corporate scandal, ecological crisis, economic upheaval. Public passion and curiosity have been stoked. But the potential investigators have been, to a considerable degree, otherwise occupied. Historians will someday burrow among the musty artifacts of America’s supercharged 24/7 news organizations — TV with its glammed-up sets, its convention skyboxes and satellite feeds; the well-fed correspondents on a first-name basis with second-rate sources; the newsmagazines with their gloss, gossip, and fluff — and they will rub their eyes and marvel that a nation possessed of such an enormous industry ostensibly specializing in the gathering and distribution of facts could yet remain so befogged.

Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University (home of Campaign Desk), writes that the media have been willing accomplices in government efforts to “dominate the information environment,” as a Marine briefer on Iraq once proclaimed:

Reporters and editors are credulous, fearful, and flatly bamboozled. Timid about getting out ahead of a public they respect more when it is “conservative” (read: rightwardly radical) than when it is liberal, they bend over backward to accommodate spin doctors. They grant officialdom the benefit of the doubt. They fear risking independent judgment, which they have defined as occupational hubris. They are terrified of missing out on the perks of access. They fear that detailing the anatomy of official distortion will turn off readers and viewers. Their proprietors, seeking favor in high places, cool their critical engines. So the media yield to temptation and morph into megaphones, and falsehoods too often and too loudly repeated take on the ring of plausibility.

George Bush has benefited from this all-holds-barred coverage, writes Gitlin. Sounding remarkably like Campaign Desk, he writes: “There was — and remains — considerable reluctance to invoke what a Times reporter I spoke to called ‘reportorial authority,’ which, as he put it, would require that ‘when the president says the sun rose in the west, we take it upon ourselves to say no.’”

Gitlin’s condemnation of the current state of affairs could serve as a long-overdue wakeup call for the three-ring circus known as modern media. But, somehow, we suspect his lonely voice won’t be heard over the cacophony inside the Big Tent.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.