Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Nattering Nabobs Or Chicago Billy Clubs?

Rick Perlstein's Mother Jones piece on lying in politics is exceptionally good. It echoes certain themes from Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media?, in particular what Alterman calls "playing the refs", going after the media itself in order to intimidate it. This tactic, which usually doesn't work in legitimate sports, is something one sees in professional wrestling - "sports entertainment" - all the time.

In a remarkable overview of the decline and fall of the United States in the post-WWII era, British journalist Godfrey Hodgson spends quite a bit of time talking about Agnew's "nattering nabobs" speech, and the larger picture of the news media in the late-1960's to early 1970's, and has an awful lot to say about the way the editorial positions of the three networks in particular shifted after 1968. Hodgson makes it clear, in his America In Our Time, that the pivot wasn't Agnew's speech. It was the Democratic National Convention of 1968.

After reviewing the events in Chicago, including the police attacking and even seeming to target the media, Hodgson cites an important fact and quotes a column by Joseph Kraft to show that, even before Nixon was elected, the theme of a liberal media was already taking shape. First, in the immediate aftermath of the Democratic Convention, the major news outlets expressed shock and rage at the behavior of the Chicago police department. Yet, even then, no less than Walter Cronkite conducted an interview that Hodgson notes showed the revered CBS anchor "obsequious" before the bully-boss of our Second City. It seems the actions of the Chicago police were a bit less unpopular than many people thought. From pp. 373-374:
The Chicago convention, in fact, was traumatic for the media. Not only the reporters, for once, but a good proportion of the publishers and executives and editors, too, had seen what happened. The instant reaction, angry condemnation of the police, was from the heart. But then came the disorienting experience of discovering that, in this reaction, they were in a minority. They felt proud of the courageous way they had done their job: and, to their amazement, thousands of abusive letters poured in from their readers and viewers, denouncing the way they had done that job and commending their enemies. "We got thousands of call," Bill Small, Washington bureau chief of CBS remember, "from people saying they didn't believe their eyes, accusing us of hiring cops to beat up kids. That produced a profound impression." . . .

Abruptly, the mood in the media changed from righteous indignation to self-doubt, apology and even penitence. Less than three weeks after the convention the Washington Post was half-apologizing for police brutality with the remarkable argument that "of course" policemen must be expected to be annoyed by the sight of men in beards!
Even before that, however, within a week of the convention, Joseph Kraft wrote a column that, in many ways, set forth the themes we continue to live with to this day in any discussion of the media, themes Vice President Agnew was to sound with fake righteous fury in just a couple years.
Most of us in what is called the communications field are not rooted in the great mass of ordinary Americans - in Middle America. And the result shows up not merely in occasional epidosed such as the Chicago violence but more importnatly in the systematic bias towards young people, minority groups, and the kind of presidential candidates who appeal to them.

To get a feel of this bias it is first necessary to understand the antagonism that divides the white middle class of this country. On the one hand there are highly educated upper-income whites sure of themselves and brimming with ideas for doing things differently. On the other hand, there is Middle America, the large majority of low-income whites, traditional in their values and on the defensive against innovators.

The most important organs of press and television are, beyond much doubt, dominated by the outlook of the upper-income white. . . .

In the circumstances, it seems to me that those of us in the media need to make a special effort to understand Middle America. Equally it seems wise to exercise a certain caution, a prudent restraint, in pressing a claim for a plenary indulgence to be in all places at all times the agent of the sovereign public.
Hodgson then goes on to note the shifting editorial emphasis on the Vietnam War, away from on-the-ground combat reporting to stories about integrating South Vietnamese forces in to the war. Coverage of anti-war demonstrations dwindled; the huge Moratorium March in 1971, the single largest anti-war demonstration of the period, received barely any notice at all by the major dailies, weeklies, or nightly news shows. In order to atone for their sins, brought down roughly by the Chicago police and rhetorically by Spiro Agnew, the media - a much smaller and far more elite thing then than now - changed.

We are living with the tattered remnants of a mainstream media, beaten up by Chicago cops and brow-beaten by a criminal Vice President, too scared to ask some important questions, to point out that repeated misstatements are in fact lies, and that much of the rhetoric on the right is so far off the charts it should be ignored. No one seems to want to point out the horrid noblesse oblige of Kraft's idea that, somehow, there is this Middle America out there that the media just aren't a part of, yet need to get to know - like some weird anthropological field study - in order to do their job. FOXNews is predicated on this picture of reality. So, too, I'm afraid, are some liberals, like Rachel Maddow and even, at times, Bob Somerby, whose media criticisms I largely agree with, yet who accepts without premise the notion that Americans are too dumb to understand when they are being had.

Having said all this, it is nice to read a historian who understands this isn't a problem that began with birthers, or the anti-Clinton brigades in the 1990's, but stretches back to the very beginnings of Republican political dominance. Like so much else in our political life, it seems to have started when Mayor Daley cheered on his cops when they took off their badges and charged the masses.

Virtual Tin Cup

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