Cogent Media Analysis in Service of Liberal Whining

“Media critic” Neal Gabler submits a reasoned analysis that the true split in the media is not liberal/left vs. conservative/right, but rather the difference

“between two entirely different journalistic mind-sets: those who believe in advocacy, and those who believe in objectivity — or, at the very least, in the appearance of objectivity.”

Indeed, that qualification, “the appearance of objectivity,” is most tellingly important. You can see this most clearly in the case of Fox News which iconically declares “We Report. You Decide,” all while its most wildly popular program displays only the thinnest facade of objectivity to cover its otherwise extremely opinionated and bullying host. Murdoch’s Newsies reveal all too well their understanding of the importance of this appearance of objectivity and its elusiveness in reality. They exploit the audience’s apparent desire for objectivity the way diet cookies exploit consumers’ apparent desire to eat their way to thinness. Sure, all but the most deluded of ideologues recognizes that O’Reilly is a far cry from objective, but the desire to accept this Orwellian turn is strong, especially when we need to justify to ourselves that we’re watching this crap. It’s no different than the frustrated dieter who wishes to believe that downing a box full of Snackwells is somehow better than finishing off a box of fudge covered Oreos.

Even recognizing Fox’s conservative sneakattack, Gabler’s still right on the money in exposing that the media’s real bias is towards not pissing off the wrong people:

“The dirty little secret of network newscasts, and of most major newspapers, is not that they are manned by liberal proselytizers. It is that they are trying to attract the widest possible viewership, or readership, and that doing so necessitates that they be as inoffensive as possible. That is why investigative reports seem so toothless, gumming away at government boondoggles or consumer fraud or corrupt politicians that are unlikely to infuriate either the left or the right.”

Unfortunately, for all the clear-headed analysis in this piece, by the end it appears that Gabler’s intent is to pine away for the restoration of objectivity as the journalistic ideal:

“While no one should be writing an epitaph for the ideal of objectivity, developments like these suggest that it is beleaguered. Advocacy has all the advantages and objectivity little defense against it, especially since nothing would satisfy the right-wing advocates short of abject surrender.

Even so, this isn’t just a triumph of conservatism. This is a reversion to an old, old way of doing business, back when the press wasn’t a light but a bludgeon. And the losers aren’t just liberals. The real loser is the idea that the chief obligation of the press is to tell it the way it is without fear or favor.”

Under the predominant ideology of the “objective” press and its duty to “tell it like it is,” this lament seems pretty reasonable, if toothless. Actually, it comes off as just so much whining for glory days that never really existed — despite Gabler’s claim that the broadcast press mandate to serve the public interest raises it above the cable TV rabble.

It’s the cry of the self-hating liberal who sniffs that conservatives dominate cable news because “conservatism is much more lively than liberalism and that much more entertaining. ”

Cry me a river, Neal. If liberalism is too damn boring, only liberals are to blame. I’m no fan of bullies, especially ones so smug and righteous as O’Reilly, but there are many alternative communication tactics that are just as or more interesting, lively and entertaining.

In many ways I consider myself a liberal person, but I’m increasingly not identifying myself as a political liberal, as that swath of political spectrum has become a nearly aphilosophical doormat for yielding to the most domineering political voice while meekly asking for things to be a little nicer. *Gag*

The media conservatives like Murdoch are clearly onto something, and it sure as hell doesn’t hurt that they also own enormous tracts of our media landscape. The liberal vs. conservative debate is largely a red herring, but the issue and effect of ownership is not. If Gabler and his liberal friends want to counteract the loudmouthed conservatives, they’d better start saving up for their own media companies, or else start figuring out ways to snatch it from the greasy fingers of the likes of Murdoch and other media barons.

Objectivity in the press only serves the press as an institution, and the power it gains as the result of its professionalization and institutionalization. But as an institution the press stands in toe with other institutions like government and religion. And when push comes to shove, the fundamental goal of any institution is self-preservation above all else — and the myth of objectivity serves this goal.

It’s interesting that one of the major criticisms lobbed at independent and alternative media is that it’s too biased and not sufficiently objective. All the more interesting is that this criticism is lobbed from both conservatives and liberals, especially those who are members of the institution of the press. But, you know, it’s hard to extend a hand to the fist that beats you. Fairness and objectivity are often in the eye of the beholder, as Gabler even admits, noting how objectivity is the stick which the cable news conservatives use to beat their network brethren.

Underneath his cries, Gabler is simply arguing for a press that is more objective to him. He wants the liberals to have their place alongside the conservatives, minute-for-minute, quote-for-quote. Nevermind all the people who are still left out.

The myth of objectivity keeps the press in power, because it dictates that only the fair presentation of “both sides of the story” can make serious claims to truth. It dictates that truth isn’t true until it’s mediated back to us — it didn’t happen unless the New York Times reported it.

Independent media argues for a different reality, where individuals and groups attempt to communicate their own truths, unfettered by the homogenizing force of objective reporting. I don’t argue that objectivity is impossible, so much as that it is real damn difficult. Like trying to predict where a feather will land after being dropped from the top of the Sears Tower — there are just too many factors for any one person or institution to legitimately claim they have a handle on the answer.

Empower individuals with their own media, empower diverse peoples and voices and you’ll see a media that far exceeds the power and equity of any current media outlet. But, simply, that power will come at the expense of the institution of the press. And I say, so be it.






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