Thursday, October 15, 2009

In The Dock With Murdoch?

Attacks on Fox News are tiresome. I'm not its biggest fan, either, but it's a free country, and if rich liberals want to fund something like it for their team, they're free to. As for Gene Lyons, writing in "Salon," he differs with White House critics who say Fox is an arm of the GOP:
It’s closer to Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth.”
No, it's not, because that would be the government doing the broadcasting. In any event, why waste space at "Salon" attacking Fox? Anyone expect it'll lose viewers as a result? What I'm waiting for is a pundit or columnist wrapping up another ritualistic fusillade of Fox fire by saying, "There oughta be a law." That would be Orwellian.


MK said...

I agree that Lyons’s use of the Ministry of Truth is inappropriate. As to Anita Dunn’s comments, every President faces a challenge in when and how to push back against certain news stories or about things said and written about him. I understand the need to “truth squad” some things but don’t know about the wisdom of going after a network (Nixon and CBS, the Obama official and FNC).

There may be some ambivalence in the White House about the tactic. Dunn is interim communications director, she plans to leave at the end of the year. Today’s Washington Post reports that “A source inside the White House, who was not authorized to speak about strategy meetings, said Dunn went out front against Fox first and foremost because it was her job, but also because it potentially gave the administration the opportunity to distance itself from the flap with the Roger Ailes-led news channel once she leaves the communications job.” Hmmmm.

FNC has a particular schtick, which John Batchelor describes this way, “Most of the Fox News day’s production is a reading of helter-skelter bulletins into a coherent narrative consistent with themes of super-patriotism, progress, profit, and paranoia. In the evening, Fox News becomes a variety show of cattiness, gossip, chants, and whoppers.” He points to the fairy tale nature of some of the narratives and images. As usual, I look at the issue a little differently from Fox’s critics and supporters, who mostly focus on whether it is “a wing of the Republican party” or “fair and balanced.”

I’m concerned about the poor job cable networks, Fox among them, do in educating people about complex issues and the political process and how Washington works. All too often, a guest from the right or the left asserts something and the host or reporter says “we’re going to have to leave it there,” or “we’re out of time” and the statement is left unchallenged. Jon Stewart sent this up – effectively, as usual -- in a recent Daily Show segment called, “CNN Leaves it There.” Also, context is a real problem due to the fact that schools no longer teach civics and classes in applied democracy the way they did when I was in high school. When I read message boards, I see that some people have skewed views of how government operates or the levers of power work. Part of the problem lies in the guests on tv shows, who often are advocates who are trying to sell a narrative. Blame shifting often is a part of that. All in all, as fewer people read newspapers and books, I worry about the potential for erosion of values such as accountability and respect for validated data. Sometimes it seems as if Jon Stewart is one of the few people who cares about such issues!

Here’s how an article in 1999 about David Gergen described the development of spin. Gergen “says he watched the previous four presidents be judged failures, in part, because they'd lost control of their own message to the network producers in New York. ’Increasingly the media was characterizing [each president] and undermining him in a way that was difficult for anyone to govern,’ he says. ‘I felt that it was important for Reagan to reassert in a much more aggressive way his own message; he'd won the election, and he had the right to set the public agenda as best he could.’ But what started out as an attempt to bring some balance, turned into something for which Gergen says he has ‘great misgivings.’ Spin became the rule; the need for a short-term headline replaced the fight for long-term achievement.”

By the time his book about his WH experiences (from Nixon to Clinton) appeared in 2000, Gergen lamented, "How could we have taught a younger generation of public officials the wrong lessons about governance? Where had we gone wrong? While officials since the beginning of the republic have been cajoling the press, one of my deepest regrets in public life is a feeling that I have contributed to this deterioration. Spin has spun out of control and we need to put it back in its box."

Fr. John said...

Reading your thoughtful post, MK, I'm again reminded of something that startles me each time I realize it, namely that millions of intelligent, level-headed people depend on TV as a source of information. Increasingly I experience TV news, especially cable, as entertainment, and occasionally as ideological comfort food when the nuances of an issue escape or weary me.

MK said...

Exactly! Last year I read about the need for candidates to appear not just on news shows but on Ellen or The View or even Entertainment Tonight. It was a way to reach what is called “low information” voters – people who rarely read books, may only look in on echo chamber forums on the web, and largely turn to tv for information.

I really do wonder whether it is harder to teach good values to children who aren’t exposed to countervailing forces which traditionally build character. I thought about this when I read about the flap about Rush Limbaugh not being able to buy an NFL team. Steve Benen wrote about a blog essay about that at Redstate:

"The enemy of this great nation, the enemy of you and me, Rush's enemy... those on the left, inside and outside of this nation abhor success... and when faced with it will destroy it... by any and all means possible. We all have our dreams in life... such as they might be. Rush dreamed of being an owner in the NFL. Tonight the left proved that they will stop at nothing to end our dreams. Our dreams of success and happiness devastate their need to dominate and control you and me... and well everything and everyone.” The piece went on to say that liberals refuse to "allow anyone to realize their dreams." In reference to Limbaugh, it added, "Tonight a light went out... a dream died.... Tonight... We Are All Rush Limbaugh."

This reaction simply is foreign to me but for some may represent the SOP. I may be old school but I believe the best defense is to show character and work to establish who you are. A man or woman can’t control what others say about him or her but can control what s/he does. Anyone can push back against comments on right wing message boards about Mulatto Messiahs and Aunt Jemima and gorillas. And images of presidential witch doctors. And racist emails about Obama. It should be appropriate for people across the political spectrum to state strongly on radio or on TV or a blog that Obama and his family don't deserve that.

Anyone on the right with access to a big megaphone could remind the public about the civil rights movement and how horribly and unfairly some Americans once treated some of their fellow Americans in the 1950s and 1960s because of race. And the bravery of the black trailblazers who confronted those who indulged in such behavior.

How often do hosts of right wing radio and tv shows praise the courage of the Freedom Riders, and of individuals such as Martin Luther King, Medgar Evans, John Lewis, Diane Nash and members of the Nashville Movement who participated in sit-ins in 1960 and Freedom Rides in 1961? And remind listeners and viewers that white America looks stronger, not weaker, if it faces up to the extent of past black suffering, especially in the Deep South, and pushes back against existing racism anywhere in the nation. And praises the willingness of the non-violent participants in direct action in 1960-1961 to submit to unmerited suffering (brutal beatings, jailing, taunts and threats). I admire the courage of the students who sat in at lunch counters, reacting stoicly as jeering white thugs poured mustard and ketchup on them or knocked them off of their stools. And were beaten for trying to integrate buses in the Jim Crow South. I find them braver than any other group of American civilians in recent history.

Not only could right wing radio/TV hosts help educate younger Americans about Lewis and Nash, it would help counter stories such as the one about the student who told a professor she didn't have to sit through lectures on the civil rights era (even with Taylor Branch as a guest speaker!) because "I'm not a Democrat." And if there were reports that they lost (hopefully just a few) members of their listening/viewing audience as a result of discussing the history of racism and preaching against it, it would enhance their image among people such as I. That I doubt we’ll hear this explains why I rarely watch cable tv and never listen to talk radio.

MK said...

John, if you have time, read the passage posted here.

(Sorry, you have to copy and paste. As technically savy as I am about some things, I don't know how to do hyperlinks! A sure sign that I don't blog.)

The passage at that link fits in with a lot of my recent reading. For a number of reasons, and I'm not quites sure what all of them are, since the middle of the Bush administration, over the last five years or so, the one topic other than Presidents in which I've chosen to immerse myself is the civil rights movement. Books I've read include God's Long Summer; John Lewis's Walking with the Wind; The Race Beat (a great book about journalism and the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s), among others. That explains the filter through which I look at some issues these days, including character and courage and what constitutes unmerited suffering.

Fr. John said...

Thanks, MK, for these posts as well as the link to your eloquent HNN comment.

I recently picked up (well, clicked up, on my Kindle) Taylor Branch's first MLK volume, which I'd started several months ago but got tempted away from by...who knows what! And did you see Tim has Branch coming to the Nixon Library soon?

I'm inclined to think that the hard right and its media peanut gallery will lose salience as the GOP continues to lose elections.

MK said...

Thanks, John! Good to hear you got the Branch e-book. Given your very interesting background, I also recommend The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, by Gene Roberts. Good book on many levels, including the reminder that what people in a community know and perceive can be shaped by what the local press does or does not cover. Since Fox News was established in part as a means of covering issues many conservatives believed weren't getting a fair shake in coverage by traditional media, Roberts's book actually provides context for how selectivity played out in other venues. Southern editors faced enormous challenges, either self imposed or external, in some of their coverage. White readers in the South got glimpses of some events or not, depending on how editors handled those challenges.

Fr. John said...

Thanks, MK. My mother, Jean Sharley Taylor, was a reporter in Detroit in 1965 when Viola Liuzzo was killed during the march on Montgomery. After she visited the Liuzzo home a day or two after Viola's murder and wrote a gentle, almost poetic feature story about her family and their apartment, threats were made against her and evidently me (I was ten). I remember seeing a police car stationed on our street a couple of nights in a row.

I don't know what all this tells us except that in the affairs of men and women, despite the sheen of civilization and civility, anger and violence are lying in wait. It's a commonplace to say this, but it usually flares when people are frightened or threatened. You add in that frontier mentality that someone far away is cooking up something that he isn't fully disclosing and is going to have an impact on my life (which, as a matter of fact, is sometimes true!), and you've got a recipe for political paranoia.

What sometimes gets overlooked is the citizen and voter's responsibility to pay attention. There's actually no excuse not to be well informed, is there? It's commonly said that state and federal legislators didn't used to have full-time jobs but now usually do because of the complexity of what they do. By the same token, the rest of us have to be at least part-time citizens.

An interesting current example is the option for a federal insurance plan. While it's not in the Senate bill, some in the conservative media are essentially reporting that it's all a trick; that the government option will be added back in in the shadows, in conference, where no one is looking. Last I checked, there was no secret about how Senate and House bills are reconciled, but if people aren't paying attention, and if they're being coached to think the whole system is basically corrupt, then it indeed looks nefarious. But if citizens don't pay attention, it happens to be their fault.

And let's remember how in some conservative evangelical Christian circles, people take the view that government isn't godly, that it's not worth their time because it doesn't produce appropriate outcomes, that they're in the world but not of it, all that. It's also a world view that discourages the idea that there can be holiness and graciousness in accommodating someone else's perspective on a vital issue. And yet that, too, is a cornerstone of our conception of self-governance. It simply can't work without compromise.

So what we need (this is the fix-it "2" in me) is a national course in practical civics.

MK said...

Wow, what an amazing story about your mother and you and the column about Viola Liuzzo. From the little bits I've seen in what you've written in past essays and in other items that come up elsewhere about her on the 'net, your mother sounds like a really admirable person.

You make some excellent points about civic knowledge and engagement. Voters span such a wide spectrum in their knowldege of how governance works. I'm all for encouraging them to learn more about that. For years, I've urged historians who write about U.S. history, especially the Presidency, to look for ways to connect with more members of the public. (More recently I tried urging the writers at TNN to do the same.) One way to do that is to use accessible language in discussing issues and to look for forums in which to engage with a wider audience than just one's academic peers. Not all academics get what I'm talking about. Some scholars post essays at sites at HNN in which they undermine their otherwise useful presentations of historical facts with gratuitous, overly generalized and sneering comments about people who vote differently than they do. Sigh.

When I brought up some specialized public-type issues in an historians forum a few years ago, one academic historian actually told me that I should look for a "closed listserv limited to government employees" to discuss some issues in which I'm interested. (The issues were of such a nature that it would be perfectly fine to discuss them in open forums). I replied "no, the idea is for you to learn more about my world, not just for me to learn more about academics such as you." Go figure!

Thanks again for the very insightful comments and nice "conversation."

MK said...

Oops, I wasn't very accessible in my own language, was I? For anyone other than the blog owner who might read this, TNN stands for The New Nixon and HNN stands for the History News Network.