[Editor’s Note: It’s not footballs that are deflated, notes Michael Brenner. It’s our news, which is deliberately deflated and distorted so as to not disturb the ruling elites. Brenner offers some compelling examples and issues calls for meaningful reforms. His article makes for invigorating reading over this Labor Day Weekend.]
An informed public is the bedrock of American democracy. That belief has been a central pillar in the national creed since it was eloquently stated by Thomas Jefferson. A free press is the prime and prized instrument for ensuring it. Today, at the height of the communications revolution, keeping the public informed should be easy as pie. That is not the case, though, as we know from surveys and our own anecdotal experience. Citizens are probably less aware of what is going on around them on matters of politics and policy than at any time since universal literacy became a reality.
Why this incongruity? It stems in part from the habits and inclinations of a populace that is self-absorbed to the point of functional autism. It also due to the abject failure of the mainstream media (MSM) to uncover and present the news in ways that extend and deepen people’s understanding of what is happening. Driven by short-term profit, skewed by the interests of those who own them, the media habitually pander to the least common denominator of readers’ and viewers’ taste. The news business has devolved into just another branch of the entertainment business.
Many are well aware of this. Few, though, appreciate the degree to which even the elite media – e.g. The New York Times – contribute to the phenomenon. Since their audience is the country’s opinion leaders, the distortions and lapses of their coverage have a deleterious effect several orders of magnitude greater than their readership. So, it is those at the commanding heights of the MSM who are the source of the Original Sin that leaves most Americans largely clueless about the events that shape their lives.
Here are a number of manifestations of how the system works , or doesn’t work, – depending on your vantage-point.
Disjointed & Disconnected Coverage
Most important developments are not ignored entirely. Rather, they are reported in a manner that obscures their meaning. A one-time story on a matter of major consequence has little net effect, especially in an age of short attention spans, feeble memories and star bursts of electronic distraction. Follow-up is crucial if the news is to register in a meaningful way.
Item: The NYT reports shocking abuse of honor prisoners at the Dannamora Penitentiary in the wake of this spring’s jail-break. Beatings, isolation, punishing regimes, were the order of the day as angry, frustrated guards took out their embarrassment on inmates who had nothing to do with the publicized lax conditions that permitted the escape. Official responses from the authorities were perfunctory: “We’ll look into it.” Governor Andrew Cuomo was just as taciturn. The Times’ follow-up coverage consists of one other inside-page story, trailed by a later report that the authorities were in fact investigating the incident(s).
That’s it; on to the next Hillary Clinton puff piece. This is not serious, responsible journalism. Where is the badgering of responsible officials – right up to the diffident Governor? Where are the outraged editorials – even if they are merely a fraction of the length and passion given to loud calls for Transgender rights in the military? Is there a connection to the on-going Riker’s Island scandal which the MSM managed not to see until an inconvenient death forced their attention on it? How rotten is the state of New York prisons? None of these questions has been pursued.
Item: Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s troubled Anbar province just 50 miles from Baghdad, was taken by the Islamic State in early May. That was a stunning setback for the anti-ISIL campaign. The Obama administration and the al-Abadi government declared its recapture to be an urgent priority. Their largest offensive of the war was launched to much fanfare several weeks ago. Iraq’s future and the outcome of the battle against this priority security threat were said to be at stake.
What is happening on the battlefield? Nobody who relies on the mainstream press has any idea. There have been scant reports on the military action. None from the combat zone, none from Baghdad, a few from reporters at the Pentagon and in Washington. These latest are little more than stenographic notes of military briefings. One such was the basis for a story in mid-August,“Coalition says Iraqis close to taking Ramadi.” That hasn’t happened. All we’re told is that two generals were killed by a suicide bomber last week. It is as if there were a de facto blackout. From whatever information trickles out via other sources, we can infer that the offensive is stymied. This might help explain the absence of news. Victories, however modest, are always celebrated. That in itself is newsworthy – or would be newsworthy were the MSM doing their job.
Item: It is reported that a test of airport security reveals that 85% of the attempts to circumvent controls succeed. A few weeks later we learn that undercover on-board security personnel are forced to work under conditions that seriously impair their ability to function. The resulting extreme fatigue and demoralization resembles that of Amazon wage slaves. The big difference is that terror in the skies is at issue – as it has been since 9/11.
The follow-on? A Donnamora-repeat. No further coverage; slow arriving platitudes from spokesmen; no signs of higher authorities intervening. Here today, gone tomorrow.
Item: Senior Pentagon commanders and officials declare that American troops will be staying on longer in Afghanistan than previously stated. Their mission could include supposedly prohibited combat as well as training/advising. Their numbers also will be substantially larger than promised. All of this is in direct contradiction of solemn pledges given by President Obama repeatedly before and after the 2012 campaign – the President who presided over an “End of Afghan War ceremony” at the White House in December.
What does The New York Times, and other elite media, have to say about this? Nothing – absolutely nothing. No analytical pieces pointing out the contradiction and explaining it. No questions posed to Secretaries Carter or Kerry, much less the President himself. No editorials; no op-eds. At the very least, shouldn’t they be asking what the measure of success is for determining when the United States actually will leave? Evidently not. For good reason: nobody has an answer – including Mr. Obama. So why embarrass him at a time when the poor man is so busy planning his grand Presidential Library.
Item: The United States’ participation in the Saudi-led assault on Yemen is expanding apace with the intensity of the bombardment as the humanitarian situation approaches the catastrophic. One consequence is that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP), long designated the Number 1 terrorist threat to America before relinquishing the top spot to ISIL in the rankings, has been gaining strength in the political and security void created by the civil war. Moreover, the Saudis apparently have invited their alignment in fighting alongside the anti-Houthi forces they have assembled.
If ever there were a development in the turbulent Middle East that should set alarm bells ringing, it is this. Yet, silence reigns among the MSM. No probing exploration of the “whys and wherefores” is launched; no pressing questions posed to our leaders in Washington; no editorial pleading for an answer; no op-eds dare pose awkward questions. Casual negligence admittedly has been the attitude of the foreign policy establishment. That, however, is no justification for media silence. Just the opposite. A probing media are most needed when the confluence of political and policy calculations by the political class conceal a matter of grave national importance.
Item: In the battle against ISIL, American airpower has proven largely ineffectual. Given the lack of competent ground troops to take the fight to ISIL (due in part to the White House’s implacable rejection of supporting or even tacitly cooperating with the Shia militias because of their link to Iran), it becomes absolutely crucial. Conditions seemingly are well-suited to its mission: open terrain, clear weather, no anti-aircraft capability by the enemy; extensive movement of ISIL forces from one far-flung front to another. Yet, a few exceptions aside like Kobane, American airpower has been playing a marginal role. Even the ISIL victory parade in central Ramadi proceeded at a stately pace unperturbed by hostile planes.
We receive no persuasive answers. Early on, there were a few implausible excuses offered. Now – nothing. This is a technical military matter that the MSM should be able to sink their teeth into. Unless there are sensitive underlying policy issues that they hesitate to expose. Once again, the pattern of news coverage is evasion and minimalization. The recent accord with Turkey that allows us to use the Incirlik airbase was extensively covered as a “game-changer” in the war against ISIL. That pronouncement, though, was based on dubious assumptions. One, that geography had been the main problem. Two, that the base now was fully at our disposal. This latter is untrue. The Erdogan government has insisted on strict, unprecedented restrictions. All operations must receive prior approval from the Turkish military, for one thing. What does that mean for target selection? For response time? Don’t look to the MSM’s big, well-funded Washington bureaus for answers.
Three, the Turkish government has played footsie with ISIL since its founding. It is not self-evident that Ankara’s thinking has changed at its core. It continues to ally itself with al-Nusra – al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch. Fourth, the Turks have made it clear that their priority is suppressing the Kurdish PKK – not ISIL. They already have launched an intensive bombing campaign against them while just firing a few artillery shells at one ISIL position in Syria. In effect, the Obama administration risks signing on to Erdogan’s strategic plans that run directly counter to American ones.
Where does one find an analysis of all this? In the marginal media, not the MSM media. Who asks the White House for an explanation? Certainly not The New York Times.
Incompleteness of Coverage
What is excluded from a news story often is as important – or more important – than what is included.
Item: Each month, every media outlet in the land reports the latest unemployment figure. That number is relatively unimportant, though, except as a trend indicator. What really counts is the percentage of the workforce that is employed. Since the Great Financial Crisis in 2008, those two numbers have been quite different. The latter is at the lowest point since the 1970s. Why? Many people aren’t counted because they’ve given up job-hunting and/or are no longer registered at a Department of Labor office. A change in the methodology for calculating the unemployment was made by President Clinton whose effect is to lower the official figure by roughly 50%.
In addition, the much heralded unemployment figure does not differentiate between full-time employment and temporary/part-time employment. The latter constitute a rapidly growing fraction of the total employed. Those jobs are characterized by low wages, no benefits, and ease of firing.
This vital information is almost never reported by the MSM. One reason, in addition to the sheer laziness and complacency that is a marked trait of today’s media, is that these records normally appear in the BUSINESS section. That section of The New York Times and other papers is directed at an audience of business people and those who identify with them. Its journalists share their perspective. Often, they are cronies of the people they write about. Some, like Steven Rattner of The Times, have jumped from one sphere to the other – and back.*
Item: Prime Minister al-Abadi of Iraq announced a major restructuring of the country’s governmental institutions as stipulated in the American sponsored constitution. Duly reported, the move has deep roots in the country’s sectarian and factional politics while carrying profound implication for the fight against ISIL. Yet, little of that will be explicated by the MSM. The simple reason is that they aren’t qualified to do so. Domestic Iraqi politics has been the MSM’s short-suit since March 2003. Little if any of the country’s tumultuous politics was accessible to mono-linguistic reporters who spent their time in the Green Zone – the American end of the Green Zone. Most didn’t even bother to stroll down to the Iraqi government end to strike up conversations with the local English-speaking politicos.
As a consequence, they missed just about every significant political development – much less were they in a position to interpret it intelligently. Stenographic journalism was the order of the day. The consequences continue to register. Republican critics of the administration blame Obama for ISIL’s rise because he failed to maintain a substantial American troop presence in Iraq after December 2011. Jeb Bush now has taken up the cry. The argument that the presence of 10,000 or so American advisers was an important variable in the equation is poorly grounded in either logic or on-the-ground realities. Beyond that, it is simply untrue that Obama had the option to keep those troops in Iraq. Prime Minister al-Maliki had kicked us out – with the backing of his Parliament. They decided not to meet the American terms for a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that was the legal requisite for our remaining. That occurred while George W. Bush was President. None of this history finds its way into MSM reporting.
Monopoly of Coverage
There exists a more sophisticated method for achieving the end of exclusion. It entails eclipsing an important truth by lavishing attention on a contradictory aspect of the same reality.
Item: Currently, we are being treated to a spate of news stories about the troubled Chinese economy. The pace has quickened in the wake of Beijing’s devaluation of the renminbi simultaneously with the accelerating anti-corruption campaign. The New York Times, in particular, has featured a series of long articles decrying the parlous state of the Chinese economy. They are accompanied by equally dire forecasts of the threat these developments pose to the country’s ruling elite. The latter theme also runs through other pieces that highlight stresses and strains in Chinese society, e.g. demographic shifts associated with urbanization or strains between the spreading consumer culture and traditional family structures. (Sunday August 23: “Fading Economy And Corruption Vex China’s Elite; Rising Signs Of Discord; President’s Agenda and Style Leave Party Officials Wary”; `August 29:”Weakening But Still Aggressive,” “Chinese Angst Over Economy Tests Leaders).
These reports are usually accurate insofar as they describe actual events or conditions. It is the pronounced spin that is bad journalism. For the same pessimistic tone colors all of them. They carry an unmistakable message: China is in trouble and things are likely to get worse – economically and politically. Its economy is still growing at a robust 7%; the last year that the US economy did so well was 1943 during the wartime boom. There is a thinly veiled companion message: fears that China will surpass the United States and challenge its world leadership are over-blown. But those two views of the future are not presented fairly or analyzed in intellectually honest terms. Instead, the news is bent around a preconceived objective of diminishing what China has become and will be. As such, it is at variance with demonstrated accomplishments that are in the process of altering the distribution of power and influence in the world. The very structure of the international system is being transformed in ways that inescapably mean a weakening of America’s relative position. Whether this is good or bad in the long-term is the overriding issue that faces us.
All else is of secondary importance. The Pentagon can prattle on about Russia being the Number 1 security threat. President Obama can place it Number 2 – after ISIL and ahead of Ebola. Islamic terrorism can continue to dominate the discourse within the think tank ambit. By any objective measure, however, the future will be shaped by the Sino-American relationship. The now systematic disparagement of China by the MSM – led by the NYT – is pernicious. It encourages complacency; it feeds American hubris; it deepens our parochialism. Americans are finding it hard enough to swallow the anathematic truth that the United States may not have been mandated with a Providential mission to lead the world. Masking the dismaying evidence otherwise provides no useful service. Quite the opposite.
Practical Suggestions for Reform
Some are obvious: rededication to intellectual honesty; finding reporters who are truth-seekers; finding reporters who know the subjects they are assigned to; find reporters with memory spans that reach back before the last Super Bowl; making policy preferences explicit and quarantine straight news coverage from them; curb conflicts of interests – political and financial.
Here is one additional recommendation. It would be a great public service were the MSM to provide a running account of significant developments, a tabulation of what has happened and what has not happened. This should be showcased on the front page. As noted in the examples above, the lack of follow-up is a striking flaw in the coverage of stories domestic and international.** Leaving important matters in limbo is to burden the readership with the task of either searching obscure Internet websites or losing track of what is going on. Journalism that resembles a-dab-here, a-dab-there painting is close to worthless.
How realistic is this vision of a reasonable press? Is it in the realm of the possible or just a utopian idea? One fact to consider before offering a definitive answer is that the MSM in fact do meet this high standard routinely – on the sports pages. Coverage that is sustained, focused and knowledgeable is what we get on the Super Bowl, on the March madness college basketball playoffs, and even last year’s World Cup. That is the right model for what is described above. To put it in trite words: were there a will, there would be a way.
Michael Brenner is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations and Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Article used by permission of the author.
*The perceptual bias is evident in stories such as one which appeared on August 30 regarding the National Labor Relations Board ruling that chains accustomed to sloughing off responsibility for exploitative practices in dealing with employees by claiming that its franchise operators and subcontractors were in charge no longer could do so. The headline read “Labor Ruling Could Upset Some Models of Business.” In accordance with this outlook, the NYT would have headlined a story on Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: “Presidential Proclamation Could Upset Some Business Models of Plantation Agriculture.”
** Think of the multiple investigations and legal actions that have had Chris Christie as their target. Months go by without as much as a cursory report on their status in the NYT. By comparison, the bottom-line fixated editors would never leave us in suspenseful doubt as to the smallest development in the Tom Brady deflategate story.