FLOTSAM & JETSAM: End of the First American Republic: From watch dog to lap dog

Monday, May 06, 2013

End of the First American Republic: From watch dog to lap dog

Sam Smith - In the late 1930s a survey asked Washington journalists for their reaction to the following statement:
It is almost impossible to be objective. You read your paper, notice its editorials, get praised for some stories and criticized for others. You 'sense policy' and are psychologically driven to slant the stories accordingly.
Sixty percent of the respondents agreed.

To understand the role of the media in the collapse of the First American Republic, it doesn’t help to cling to romantic notions of what journalism once was; the days for which some yearn never existed

Admittedly there were differences that today seem almost bizarre. Eighty years ago, 40% of the Washington correspondents surveyed were born in towns of less than 2,500 population, and only 16% came from towns of 100,000 or more. In 1936, the Socialist candidate for president was supported by 5% of the Washington journalists polled and one even cast a ballot for the Communists. One third of Washington correspondents, the cream of the trade, lacked a college degree in 1937.

And what also existed was much more competition in the news industry. By the 1980s, most of what Americans saw, read, or heard was controlled by fewer than two dozen corporations. By the 1990s just five corporations controlled all or part of 26 cable channels. Some 75% of all dailies are now in the hands of chains and just four of these chains own 21% of all the country's daily papers. The situation since has deteriorated further, including the poor financial shape of many newspapers that has put banks and hedge funds silently in charge of them.

With these changes, the chances of getting the story right deteriorated and America was increasingly informed and persuaded by members of the same oligarchy that was running it.

And it was not only the owners. The national press corps was losing its relationship with America.

When I started out as a Washington reporter in the 1950s, only about half of American journalists had more than a high school degree. They naturally identified with their readership rather than with their publishers or elite sources. I didn’t let anyone know I had gone to Harvard because that would not have improved my standing either with staffers on the Hill or colleagues in the media.

Ben Bagdikian, a bit older than myself, described the craft in his memoir, Double Vision, this way:
"Before the war a common source of the reporter was an energetic kid who ran newsroom errands for a few years before he was permitted to accompany the most glamorous character on the staff, the rough-tough, seen-it-all, blood-and-guts police reporter. Or else, as in my case, on a paper with low standards, reporters started off as merely warm bodies that could type and would accept $18 a week with no benefits.

"Some of us on that long-ago paper had college educations but we learned to keep quiet about it; there was a suspicion that a degree turned men into sissies. Only after the war did the US Labor Department's annual summary of job possibilities in journalism state that a college degree is 'sometimes preferred.'"
And there were changes at the top as well. One of my first major shocks about my chosen trade, was listening to a top Washington editor talking about how he had been discussing with the White House the best way to handle the arrest of Walter Jenkins, LBJ’s top aide who had been caught giving a blow job to a man at a local YMCA. It had never occurred to me that an editor would actually consult with politicians on how their stories were to be covered. But in a few decades journalists would be thoroughly “embedded” both in war zones and at the White House and find nothing strange about it.

Journalists were changing socially as well. In the late 1960s, the Washington Post replaced its women’s section with one called “Style” and before long members of a once scrubby journalism trade were turning up in it as participants at major social events. They were no longer just interviewing people leaving the party, they were part of the party.

Another media factor that dramatically changed the nature of American politics was television. Over time, television transformed politics from a community based culture to one in which you could simply buy your status. Our social culture also became distorted by television until the major things we shared as a society were no longer values as much as symbols like Lindsay Lohan, Justin Bieber, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama

And it was all brought to us by someone. According to CBS, Jay Walker-Smith of the market firm Yankelvich, estimated that in the 1970s we saw about 500 ads a day. By 2009 it was up to as many as 5,000.

The Internet was supposed to save us, but it hasn’t. In fact, the country has moved to the right since its creation. It was a problem that cropped up early, as I described in my 1994 book, Shadows of Hope:
"The computer, once considered primarily a tool of orthodoxy, has now become a major weapon against authoritarianism. The highly effective campus anti-apartheid protests were organized with the help of a computer bulletin board that advised newcomers how to plan demonstrations and deal with the media. In the last days of the Soviet Union, the relative security of computer information provided dissidents a means of communications with each other and with the outside world. More recently, computers have established the first strong link among environmentalists working to save Lake Baikal in Siberia. . . And thousands of miles away, in the Silicon Valley community of Sunnydale CA, a city councilman was elected with 60% of the vote after campaigning almost exclusively on the Internet computer network."
But I also sensed a problem:
"Yet the very anarchistic nature of our new sources of data, -- including computer services, cable channels, special interest magazines, and the archives of our video store -- also means that we may have less information in common. At a time when communications and transportation make it ever simpler to cross geographic and cultural borders, we increasingly make the trip alone. We see far more than we understand or are understood. Louis Farrakhan and the Anti-Defamation League have the same technology available to them but they are checking in at different bulletin boards."

Thus, in a variety of ways journalism lost its capacity as a primary guard of our democratic republic. There was growing ownership concentration, the changing social status of journalists, a shift in journalists from being private eyes of the public to being private tools of the establishment, and technology driving citizens into safe political niches where the idea of varied groups joining together in some larger cause faded away.

Journalism had lost its historic virtue of getting the bastards before they got you. And the First Republic took another hit.

This article is a partial remix of earlier pieces by the author.