Do Media Rule?


In my brief tenure as a media critic, nothing I’ve written has pissed readers off more than my recent assertion that newspapers don’t make wars happen. Not even a V.I.P. (very important paper) like The New York Times.

My e-mail server has been burning ever since I reacted to the Times‘ admission that its reporting on Iraq was remiss. In fact, the errors that the paper acknowledged were far more significant than the word remiss implies. But were they responsible for the invasion of Iraq? Did the public form its opinion based on the ripple effect of stories in the Times? I say no.

True, Dick Cheney, who puts the ease in sleaze, cited Times stories (which the government apparently planted) to support his claims that Iraq had ties to terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. No doubt the rest of the media took these claims more seriously because of the Times. But TV news producers could find some very skeptical reporting in The Washington Post, and I assume they’re fluent enough in English to read the British press. All they had to do was catch the BBC news (whose reputation in America reached almost sacred heights during this conflict) to see what the Times couldn’t or wouldn’t.

If this dissent didn’t dominate CNN’s coverage of the run-up to war, it’s not because the network was taking cues from the Times. Something much more fundamental was at work: the binding connection between public opinion and TV news presentation. Still, the key question is: Who’s zoomin’ who?

It’s a root belief on the left and right alike that the media shape the masses. Their shared assumption is that the press promotes a consensus in the name of entrenched power. Where rightists see liberalism as the great hegemon, lefties see the military-industrial complex. But both agree that a false media consensus keeps people from knowing the truth. I’m not suggesting that just because both ends of the spectrum concur, their conclusions are wrong. However, I do think they’re incomplete.

Here’s a different view of how media and public opinion work. If this weren’t a family newspaper, I’d use the word dialectical. What I mean is that a complex interplay of sociopolitical forces shapes the media’s perceptions. But the media also create a space to challenge this consensus, and that space is one of the main arenas for social change. (Pop culture is another.) We ought to hold the Times responsible for abandoning this role—and for failing to report the facts—but not for the massive loss of life in Iraq. That blame should fall on the government, which became a medium unto itself by providing incendiary rhetoric and imagery that made most people feel like they were in the middle of a low-res hyper-real combat film.

I have never known this tactic to fail during the early days of a war. Nor have I ever known the press to resist the spirit of such imagery. That happens much later, when the rush has passed and the bodies begin to pile up. The government has tried to keep those corpses out of sight, because when an issue touches people’s lives they stop believing what they hear from their leaders, and for that matter, what they see or read in the media.

Few will flame me if I say there’s a relationship between a paper’s dependence on advertisers and its ability to speak truth to power. But an even more powerful force is at work. To the extent that a publication cares about being respected by its readers, it will trim its sails to please them. And very few publications can honestly say that they don’t care what their readers think. This is the social loop at work.

Consider The New Yorker‘s coverage of Iraq. The first thing that comes to mind is Sy Hersh’s brilliant investigative work, along with some vividly reported pieces from the front. But this critical perspective didn’t fully emerge until The New Yorker‘s readers began to have profound misgivings about the war. Back when it was a sign of intellectual respectability to be a hawk, that publication ran judiciously argued pro-and-con essays. (In one of them, its editor, David Remnick, came out as a bird of prey.) Charlie Rose followed the same trajectory. When hawkism was hot, Charlie was gung ho, but as his class began to shift on the war, so did his roster of guests—and his remarks.

I don’t mean to single Charlie out. Only publications that weren’t overly dependent on ads, or whose readers expected it to dissent, consistently opposed the war. The rest of the media followed the polls, as they usually do. The editors who last are those who can sniff water in the wind like a giraffe in a drought.

What conclusions do I draw from this? Mainly that focusing on the media distracts us from the really crucial task, which is changing public opinion. How can we do that in a world where power is so consolidated and so generous in its provision of spectacle? I don’t know. But we’d better start experimenting, or, as Margo Channing might say, we’d better fasten our seat belts. Because if George W. Bush is re-elected we’re in for a very bumpy ride.

Imagining Politics

Speaking of publications that dare to break ranks (as their readers expect them to), one of the few pleasures in this arid time is to see The New York Review of Books reclaim its role as the most important American venue for imaginative political writing.

I’m not just thinking of Michael Massing’s devastating exposés of war coverage (especially in the Times), Andrew Hacker’s incisive exegeses on economic reality, or the audacious reporting on Israel by Tony Judt and Amos Oz. I mean pieces that treat politics as a subject for the imagination. Norman Mailer might have placed his libidinal analysis of the war in a number of publications, but he chose the NYRB, not just because he had a book to promote but because that sort of speculative journalism has been one of that paper’s hallmarks ever since its birth in the 1960s.

Back then it published eloquent dissent and acute reporting, along with David Levine’s scabrous caricatures of Lyndon Johnson and, in 1967, a front-page diagram of a Molotov cocktail. It took the NYRB about a decade to live that down, and though its spirit of moral outrage remained, the paper gradually lost its animating connection with the left. In the Reagan era, it stayed out of the culture wars, except for dyspeptic attacks on structuralism and psychotherapy. Radical black and female critics were not to be found in its pages, which grew less relevant as a result.

But the present danger has brought a mood of mutual respect, if not consensus, to the left, and this new sensibility is finding its way into the NYRB. The May 27 issue, for example, contained a rich mix of the paper’s concerns, from Byzantine art to the Beatles. The most significant piece, however, was Anthony Lewis’s unflinching assessment of civil liberties under Bush. It allowed us to imagine what this government would be capable of after another terrorist attack. You won’t find that in Foreign Policy or the Times’ Sunday magazine.

If it comes to defending civil liberties in a crisis, I wouldn’t rely on the mass media, liberal or otherwise. Look to a publication with a tradition of independent thinking, a strong circulation base to offset undue reliance on ads, and a real respect for the imagination. Short of a paper edited by descendants of Pastor Bonhoeffer, I’d put my faith in The New York Review.

Research: Matthew Phillp