The Decline of American Journalism

by Daniel Brandt
From NameBase NewsLine, No. 9, April-June 1995

On March 13, House Speaker Newt Gingrich told the nation's mayors that the concept of shame would be an important weapon in the war against the cultural elites. In this speech to the National League of Cities, he commented on the publication in "USA Today" of Gertrude Himmelfarb's essay on Victorian morality and the importance of a sense of shame in society. Later he told "Washington Times" reporters that "the reassertion of standards was the great fight we lost in the late sixties."

After the speech a reporter asked Gingrich if he advocates having disgraced persons wear a scarlet letter of shame, as in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel. In response, Gingrich asked the reporter, "How grotesquely hard do you have to work to try to make a common-sense practical suggestion sound foolish?"

[Cartoon] These cheap shots may seem insignificant, but they illustrate some themes in today's sound-bite salvos between two camps. This war is real, the issues are crucial, and since everyone concedes the decline of American culture, all sides in this war have plenty of ammunition. Newt Gingrich admits that "I often get in trouble with my throwaway lines." He keeps on flinging because he knows the media better than they know themselves, having discovered their weakness for the one-liner. Gingrich is using his secret weapon to push some populist hot-button issues. Reporters are powerless before him, unable to resist their own unconscious addiction to quick, shallow impressions.

Gingrich can pull this off even though he's closer to being one of the sixties "elites" than he cares to admit. Clinton and Gingrich have much more in common than either have with Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, or Pat Robertson. Gingrich once bragged that his use of drugs "was a sign that we were alive and in graduate school in that era," he is divorced, he led a campaign to get the school paper to publish obscene art without censorship, and he sought a draft deferment in grad school. Like Clinton, Gingrich supports NAFTA, GATT, and the Mexican bailout, and both Clinton and Gingrich are members of the Council on Foreign Relations. They should be best of friends, and perhaps are when the reporters go home.

In his public persona, Gingrich skillfully co-opts the issue of social decay, so that the populist discontent that the Democrats have yet to fathom will almost certainly win more votes for the Republicans. But there is pathetically little to distinguish Gingrich from the "cultural elites" he opposes, and little to distinguish Republicans from Democrats.

One emerging issue where it makes a difference is the proposed repeal of regulations promoting quotas over qualifications. This is destined to split the Democrats down the middle, while leaving Republicans untouched. Republicans went along quietly for almost three decades, while the Democrats invited the special interests to help dig their Party in deeply with a policy that few rational people want to defend.

The fact that the Republicans went along for the ride proves that the real elites were never bothered by affirmative action in first place. It was always a ruling-class solution -- a policy that increased pressures at the bottom in order to ease pressures at the top. A policy, in other words, that was approximately 180 degrees from what the ruling-class pretended, and over the years helped destroy the American educational system, as well as increasing hostility and racism. While much of the sixties was blameless on this, some of the cultural nationalism and entitlement mentality from that period did evolve into the race and gender narrowness of the seventies, which was soon reinforced with institutionalized quotas. But Republicans never raised objections as the Democrats charged ahead, so both parties are responsible.

In the abstract, Republicans also claim to be in favor of more individual reliance and less regulation. They object to big government as soon as it stops lining the pockets of cronies in their home district. Democrats love big government for the same reason, and feel slightly guilty about it. This means that Democrats can be accused of promoting redress through entitlements and encouraging a culture of victimology -- policies that have left behind a financial deficit and moral vacuum that will destroy America during the next generation. A plague on both their houses, and on the journalists and pundits who carry the water between them.

What currently passes for journalism amounts to an overwhelming feed of brief images, some with content and most without, with no one making an effort to draw the distinction. After decades of decay, journalism in America has finally achieved what they deserve: massive coverage of the O.J. trial. They do this to stay competitive, even when there is nothing to report. This is pure entertainment -- what else can you call it, when it only affects the private lives of a handful of people? Better yet, it's inexpensive coverage, with cameras allowed in court, and egotistical lawyers eager to appear on camera as "experts."

The reporter's question to Gingrich about the scarlet letter is symptomatic of the media's surprise and disdain over the Republican victories last November. Washington "insiders" are scrambling to get a handle on it, and are haunted by the suspicion that America's heartland has not been absorbing their conventional Washington wisdom, despite all the exposure they command. Now Gingrich is co-opting America's populist discontent, while others are trying to match his one-liners with confrontational blurbs of their own, such as accusing Republicans of plotting against children. In the process, Gingrich is getting so much coverage that he's becoming a symbol.

One problem in America is that journalism has decayed more rapidly than the culture in general. Journalists have been a day late and a story short even on those rare occasions, such as Iran-contra, when there was widespread interest in corruption in high places. There is no respect these days, or use for, the historical record. The assassinations of the sixties, the Vietnam War, the counterculture -- these are not examined or appreciated on their own terms or for their own sake. They are invoked only as symbolic pawns in some sound-bite hype, for whatever metaphor of convenience that strikes the pundit of the moment. The reason we've lost our values is precisely because we've lost our history. We lost our history when reporters stopped caring about the truth.

Today it no longer matters who is right, it only matters who is loudest. History should serve as a morality play, and form the basis for self-criticism and social commentary; it should be a primary tool for self-reflection and improvement. Instead, history is now used to promote self-serving victimology. The next step in this progression is the loss of our language, Orwellian-style. This next step will place our values completely beyond recovery, because our capacity for critical thought will have vanished along with our language. Lawyers, politicians, pundits, and anchormen have been getting rich in recent decades, so their complicity is understandable, if not excusable. But it's a mystery why most underpaid journalists have gone along.

The historical record of who did what, what did he know, and when did he know it, should be the bible of journalism. Today that record is largely invisible. A huge chunk is kept from us by our secret state, with too few reporters objecting, or pursuing FOIA requests. Another chunk is ignored because it precedes the 1980s and cannot be found on Nexis. It's a rare reporter who does more than lift a finger to dial a telephone, whether directly or through his keyboard and modem. It's too difficult, deadlines are pressing, and there's an adverse market for investigative pieces. Newly-released CIA documents on Oswald can easily get lost, for example, under the hoopla that accompanied the publication of Gerald Posner's "Case Closed" -- a book that was sloppy, one-sided, and nurtured by Random House editor Robert D. Loomis, who admits to an anti-conspiracy grudge.

The trivialization of conspiracism may itself be a conspiracy, but until there's more evidence of deliberate patterns in this regard, one can only hope for more benevolent interpretations. In many cases, high-level conspiracism is more reasonable than the succession of coincidental lone-nut explanations that satisfy most reporters. This applies to the three recent assassinations in Mexico -- an embarrassment to journalists. It also applies to the JFK, RFK, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King assassinations.

So why are most reporters such wimps? Perhaps it's because the word "conspiracy" suggests hard or even dangerous work ahead, whereas "lone nut" means that their weekends will be free. If the paycheck is the same in either case -- or often much fatter in the latter instance -- then only reporters who take their social obligation seriously might consider the question of conspiracy. And how many fit this description?

Admittedly, it's too easy for conspiracists to become intolerant or to get lost in microanalysis. The latest count of bullet trajectories on pinheads seemingly draws more bitter debate than the big picture of who's pulling the strings. It's rare to find anyone who achieves that delicate balance between historical macroanalysis and conspiratorial awareness. The brilliant Carroll Quigley comes to mind, which explains his appeal to a broad spectrum of admirers -- including Pat Robertson from right of center, Carl Oglesby from the left, and even Bill Clinton from wherever. Regrettably, Quigley's 55-year narrative shuts down just prior to the JFK assassination, precisely when we needed him most.

Nutty conspiracy theorists may be an obstacle for serious journalists, but they will never be an excuse. More printer's ink and air time are spent on fluff than is cumulatively spent by all the thousands who post trivial flames on the Internet's various conspiracy newsgroups. Three news areas in particular -- economic indicators, health research, and high-tech hype -- can all be considered under the label of "future fluff." Such stories may also be considered "virtual news" or "infotainment." Examples of this sort of "news" are found on the national news from ABC, CBS, and NBC, the newspaper USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report. This is what passes for straight news for the majority of Americans -- assuming that the O.J. trial will be over some day.

Most of the proliferating "magazine format" shows cannot qualify as "news" even under this unflattering definition. Low budgets force these shows to focus on the "human interest" angle, placing them on the "entertainment" side of our ledger. The Washington Post and the New York Times are problematic for a different reason -- each can be considered a "niche" publication, and each has glaring weaknesses in their coverage that perhaps result from excessive inbreeding. With the Post, this is compounded by a persistent identification with the ruling class. The Los Angeles Times and two or three other major newspapers are more balanced, but by now we're dipping into relatively low numbers of readers compared to all of the above.

Futurology is the art of pretending to know what's going to happen by projecting from current trends. It's largely fraudulent, and practitioners are never called to account for past stupidities. Futurology also sells soap, or snake oil, in one form or another, and has become an essential part of our consumer economy. But it's not news, despite the pretensions of our mass media, and in some cases it may be a disguised form of commercial promotion with big money behind it, innocently parading as "news." In any case, fully half of all popular news is "future fluff" of this type. It's easy to see why the media like it, even if they aren't collecting money under the table. It's trendy, it's inexpensive copy, and it doesn't hurt the ratings. (For the same reason, local television newscasts present the same stories of local violence over and over every evening. It's cheap programming that nevertheless draws advertisers and viewers.)

The first area of future fluff is the media's preoccupation over economic indicators. This feeds Wall Street's gambling instinct, and generates considerable business for brokerage firms. The more insignificant the trend, the more coverage it seems to enjoy. Large events, such as the corruption in Mexico and the collapse of the peso, are invariably logged in after the damage is done. As recently as November, 1993, during the NAFTA hype, Mexico was viewed by Wall Street pundits as the North American country with the best investment potential, followed by the U.S. and then Canada.

At that time the assassination of Cardinal Posadas Ocampo in May, 1993 was officially considered a case of the Cardinal getting caught in the crossfire between rival drug traffickers. Now it's officially considered a high-level conspiracy. By 1995 we have the revolt in Chiapas, a massive cover-up in the Colosio assassination, and the ex-president's brother has been arrested in a third assassination. The peso lost half of its value on international exchanges, leading to a U.S. bailout for the benefit of Wall Street financiers, and to draconian price increases in Mexico for basic necessities, which almost guarantees further revolt.

A recent column by Jack Anderson (March 16) reports that U.S. intelligence has estimated the corruption of Mexican presidents since 1970 as follows: Luis Echeverria accumulated $300 million to $1 billion in office, Jose Lopez Portillo anywhere from $1 billion to $3 billion, and Miguel de la Madrid about $100 million. Carlos Salinas, whose brother was arrested, was thought to be clean. (He is, after all, a Harvard graduate who's on the board of directors of Dow Jones and Co.) But U.S. officials now concede that two-thirds of all cocaine entering the U.S. crosses the border from Mexico, and are having second thoughts about Salinas.

By the time an economic trend is reported on the news, the inside traders and futures brokers have already milked it for its profit potential, and all that's left is to collect some residual commissions from the little investor who thinks he's getting real news from real reporters. It's a scam, and anyone who's naive enough to believe that the international financial markets are played on a level field would do better by taking his money to Atlantic City.

Much of the activity on international markets is expected to generate a loss of income, as a substantial percentage of this movement is from money laundering and tax shelters. This aspect of the economy never gets reported, precisely because many mainstream American banks depend on this income. It's Wall Street's dirty little secret, but it's not news. The Cayman Islands, for example, is the world's fifth-largest financial center. It gets hourly flights from Miami and boasts of more than 500 banks. There's one bank regulator, a woman with no more than a high-school education. You can get a Gold Mastercard from these banks with no name on it, and use it to transfer untraceable money into and out of the U.S.

This situation has the secret state and the IRS worried, and electronic collection has become the new growth industry. Spooks are scrambling to capture transaction data by tapping into satellite and cable links. FinCEN (Financial Crime Enforcement Network) is one new federal effort along these lines. Another may have been the Promis software from Inslaw, which a Little Rock, Arkansas firm named Systematics, Inc., in cooperation with U.S. intelligence agencies, apparently installed in various financial institutions. Promis reportedly contained a back door that allowed transactions to be monitored.

Presently the Internet is too insecure for financial transactions, but by the time this situation improves, monitoring will be widespread. Patrick Leahy, formerly of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told NBC News on February 25 that "any U.S. citizens using their computers to communicate outside the U.S. can be listened into -- and probably are -- by intelligence services not only in the U.S., but a number of other foreign countries."

Apart from this item on NBC News, which got through because it's a titillating bit of future hype that any well-informed person could have surmised anyway, none of the economic news that matters, or that makes a contribution to the big picture, is likely to get reported. Canned economic news is popular because it's cheap coverage, and it has the appearance of being newsworthy. Every ripple on every indicator is somberly announced, even though none of it means anything to anyone, except to financial analysts who make their living by pretending otherwise.

The "big picture" economic news gets buried under this trivia. Perhaps the best example of a "big picture" problem is the situation with derivatives markets, considered by many to be the junk bonds of the 1990s. Even as Congress continues to pick billions out of taxpayers' pockets over the savings and loan debacle, they haven't yet shown the stomach to confront Wall Street on the issue of regulating derivatives. This market is massive in size; on August 25, 1994 the Wall Street Journal estimated the total "notional" value of outstanding derivatives at $35 trillion, up from about $4 trillion in 1989. This figure of $35 trillion is "equal to nearly three-quarters of all the world's stocks, bonds, money-market securities and currencies put together." Moreover, this market is highly leveraged and extremely volatile -- big bets are made with little or no money down. It's a prescription for disaster; a huge global Ponzi scheme.

Even Lyndon LaRouche could see the writing on the wall, and began sounding the alarm about the derivatives market in early 1993. Our major media, however, missed this story completely until Orange County lost $2 billion last December, and Baring Brothers collapsed in February. CBS's "60 Minutes" finally did a piece on March 5, 1995, in which they admitted that they didn't understand any of it, but that it was too big to ignore. This was the last line of the piece: "Oh, and by the way, if you're wondering where all the money went [from those who lost by investing in derivatives] -- we can't explain it either." Here's clue number one, CBS: it went to the same place that the savings and loan losses went, which was another story you missed. And clue number two: the rich aren't getting poorer. If "60 Minutes" is cute and cavalier on this issue, despite the resources at their disposal, imagine the sort of coverage one can expect from lesser major media.

Alongside superficial reporting on economics, the next major area of future fluff involves health research. As much as ten percent of all stories on national network news consist of meaningless bits on the foods you shouldn't eat, the harmful effects of whatever, or items from the New England Journal of Medicine announcing that there's a twenty percent better survival rate among those who did this rather than that. NBC News calls it "Health Watch" and promotes it as a regular feature. One day Tom Brokaw will announce that something is bad for you, and months later he will announce that the same something, according to some other study, is good for you instead. The cumulative effect of this garbage is to increase the collective neuroses and media dependency of the viewers.

Only one model of health care is admitted into evidence -- the model of courageous, credentialed scientist-physicians, inevitably extending our life expectancy through our wonderful laissez-faire health marketplace, which encourages the development of super high-tech, lifesaving therapies. Other models, including patient-centered alternative therapies and cost- effective public health, are never mentioned. There are economic reasons behind this. One consideration from the newsroom is that it's cheap filler to lift an item from a medical journal, and it also sustains the illusion that the newsroom is concerned about the public's welfare. But there's more going on: risk-factor hypochondria is big business. The medical- industrial complex profits from a nation of health neurotics and cholesterol-phobes, who queue up on command for expensive diagnostic testing and treatments. This big-business economic pressure may have infiltrated our mass media, as the health industry accounts for a substantial portion of our gross national product.

By hyping one of three possible health-care scenarios, our mass media are more than two-thirds guilty. All three scenarios presume a philosophy of risk-avoidance, and forget that not all people prefer to live this way. All three view the human population as homogeneous, and see the process of healing and staying well as rational and mechanistic. This anti- individualist philosophy can only be accepted on faith, considering that the mortality rate associated with being alive eventually reaches 100 percent. Public health is generally desirable, and some methods of achieving this goal are more equal and cost-effective than others. But the way our mass media present health issues amounts to the promotion of an ideology, if not an outright sellout to economic interests.

The third area that our media find irresistible is high-tech hype, or what might be termed, "Let them eat laptops." Multimedia, virtual reality, telecommuting, computer-assisted instruction, the Internet, the information superhighway, cyberspace, hackers, cypherpunks, desktop publishing, artificial intelligence, graphical user interfaces, online access to libraries, scanning, fax machines, laser printers, the electronic frontier, information brokers, and CD-ROMs. Have you been downsized? Just buy a PC and find your entrepreneurial niche. It used to be, "Get your FCC license and become a broadcasting technician." Now the insides of matchbook covers promise to turn you into a multimedia programmer.

Personal computers are vital for many small businesses, and by now it's as difficult to remember how we lived without them, as it is to imagine an office without a copying machine. For anyone who works with words, personal computers are dandy. E-mail can be useful, and the Internet is almost free. Much of the remaining content on the Internet is marginal at best, although it's obviously fun for many folks, and almost addicting for some. Even after conceding that microprocessing is a plus for many of us, however, we can't begin to justify all the hype.

"Of the 125 million people in the U.S. work force, 12 million are full-time, self-employed home workers," gushes an article in CompuServe Magazine (February, 1995). A posting from their Small Business Forum is specifically recommended in this same article. This posting, however, cautions that 30 percent of all new businesses in America fail within one year, and 62 percent do not survive beyond six years. (The U.S. Small Business Administration adds that 80 percent close before their tenth anniversary.) For each business that fails, it can be presumed that significant investment capital was lost; no one tries to start a business without money to cover start-up costs. This personal loss represents an expenditure that's good for the economy -- in other words, good for big business. Using high-tech in the home to start your own business begins as hype aimed at would-be niche entrepreneurs. Yet all too frequently it ends up as just another consumption pattern.

Another high-tech hype tells us that computers will make the future better for all of us. Alvin and Heidi Toffler have personally known Newt Gingrich since the 1970s, and from that time all three have hyped the theory that the information age has replaced the industrial age, which in turn replaced the agricultural age. Nicholas Negroponte, professor of media technology at MIT and the founding director of the MIT Media Lab, recently had an article in the New York Times which suggested that Mexico was at an advantage to the U.S. in terms of future development, because their population is younger, and therefore more adept at computer-age challenges like video games. Stewart Brand wrote a book about the MIT Media Lab in 1987, in which he ruminates about "designing ethical robots" and other projects that will make us better future-people. Max Dublin, author of "Futurehype" (1992), is skeptical:

It must be very comforting to live on a tugboat in San Francisco Bay and think that one is going to share a common future, a common destiny, with a younger person who is starting out their working life as a short-order cook, simply on the basis that you may both -- but on very different levels and in very different ways -- be using the same computer-enhanced telecommunications system.... By espousing the pseudo-egalitarianism which is implied by his electronic vision -- the computer as the great equalizer, the six-gun of the future -- Brand is, in the end, avoiding the real issue of how fundamentally different is the relationship of different classes of users to technology, present, past and future. [p. 78]

Dublin is also critical of the Tofflers, arguing that the factory model of the workplace applies as much to information work as to the industrial age, and has encroached on fields such as health, education services, and food production:
Most food production is now industrialized in factory farms, in processing plants, in "fast-food" eating places, and even in many specialized restaurants. Furthermore, in spite of modern efficiency and resource substitution, the per capita use of resources is extravagant and still growing to the point where it is more accurate to say that we are living in a hyperindustrial rather than a post- industrial age. Though they may use very little energy while on the job, white-collar workers who drive automobiles in long commutes use more energy getting to and from work than their nineteenth-century counterparts used in order to get the job done. [p. 222]

As long as much of the world has hardly a processed byte to eat, the hype for the information age may be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Toffler's admirers are found mostly in the Pentagon, Mitre Corporation, Rand Corporation, and the Hudson Institute, where old cold warriors with dwindling budgets are anxiously grabbing at anything new. The Gulf War's stealth technology and laser-guided bombs are frequently cited by them as a vindication of information technology.

Taking this to its logical conclusion, someday we'll manage to smart- bomb the world back to the agricultural age -- unless we first go broke building these new toys, as happened in the Soviet Union. Toffler maintains that "knowledge is a substitute for resources." At best this is a device for shifting the discussion to one's home turf, and at worst it's a cop-out. Our mass media keep lapping it up.

Future hype is a form of escapism for our media, as well as a plug for consumerism. Futurism involves unconscious moral judgments, both in the choices it makes for tomorrow, and in the problems it avoids today. It uses the rhetoric of science to cover up its ethical insolvency, but at the same time it is never required to account for itself in terms of scientific or historical accuracy. Futurism is a perfect alternative to real journalism: its no-fuss attitude of "let them eat laptops" allows our media to keep the cake for themselves.

The decline of journalism in America is apparent in the three areas covered by this essay -- economic reporting, health issues, and high-tech hype. Worthless coverage in these areas has largely supplanted the investigative work and respect for history that ought to be focus of reasonable and responsible journalism. Ironically, even Alvin and Heidi Toffler are worried about our media:

Third Wave [the information age] media are beginning to create a sense of unreality about real events.... The new media system is creating an entirely "fictive" world to which governments, armies, and whole populations respond as though it were real.... This growing fictionalization of reality is found not only where it belongs, in sitcoms and dramas, but in news programming as well, where it may promote the deadliest of consequences. This danger is already being discussed around the world. [War and Anti-War, 1993, p. 173]

The Tofflers offer no antidotes and wouldn't if they could; their "absence of moralizing" and their scientism are points of pride for them. It seems clear, however, that discomfort with American journalism is widespread, and not limited to those who share the opinions in this essay.

The centralization of the media, well-documented by scholars such as Ben Bagdikian (The Media Monopoly, 1990), is one problem; Hollywood and the entertainment industry are another. The two problems are increasingly indistinguishable. What's needed is a way to just say "no" to popular news media, in the same manner that last November's elections said "no" to Washington. It's not an easy message to deliver when the recipient owns all the messengers.

Sidebar from NameBase NewsLine, No. 9, April-June 1995:

The Ethics Thing

In 1989, Washington Post managing editor Leonard Downie, Jr. issued an order that staff members cannot lend their names to any nonprofit organizations. It's a question of journalistic ethics. "They're not inviting you," Downie told those who questioned his decision, "they're inviting the Washington Post."

Apparently this ethics thing does not get in the way when the ruling class comes calling. NewsLine scanned the online "Who's Who in America" for those who have been associated with the Post sometime during the 1990s, and checked these names against the 1992 membership roster of the Council on Foreign Relations. This list of CFR members at the Post suggests that if you're suspicious of the ruling class, here is one newspaper you should stop reading:

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