DAVID SOLWAY: AGENDA JOURNALISM
Agenda Journalism Posted By David Solway
In Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, James Fallows cites Homer Bigart, the doyen of the Vietnam War press corps, who “used to tell younger reporters that their first task was to drop the assumption that they understood a story before they reported it”—sage advice that has gone largely unheeded. Indeed, today the media game has changed dramatically. Reporters and news writers not only assume that they understand a story before it unfolds, they approach events with a cookie-cutter mentality, a prefabricated plot line. They come equipped with an entrenched political perspective that enables them to shape the news according to prior specification, a practice that has come to be known as “agenda journalism.”
For example, former head of India’s counter-terrorism agency Bahukutumbi Raman, writing for the South East Asia Analysis group, refers to “agenda and motivated journalism.” Jonathan Tobin writing in Commentary deplores the “agenda journalism” at The New York Times, which has “graduated into agitprop style distortions of the truth,” and Simon Plosker at Honest Reporting skewers the “Guardian’s agenda journalism.” More recently, Tom Blumer at PJ Media takes issue with the Associated Press’ promotion of something called “The New Distinctiveness” or “Journalism with Voice” which, as Blumer shows, quoting several salient examples, “has nothing to do with facts and everything to do with spin.” In short, “Journalism with Voice” is merely a fancy term for “agenda journalism.”
Blumer renames the Associated Press as the Administration’s Press since its chief purpose appears not to report the news fairly and accurately but to re-elect the Obama administration. But AP is only one division in the president’s army. It is no secret that Barack Obama rode to electoral victory in the armor-plated limousine provided by the mainstream media. The propaganda vehicle successfully deflected every salient criticism along with the hail of biographical data that would have put his campaign in serious jeopardy.
Similarly, the controversy over the now-defunct Journolist group does not cloud the fact that a number of its members were clearly playing partisan politics, attacking Republicans and suppressing unsavory facts about Obama. Jonathan Chait in The New Republic considered the rumpus exaggerated, but Mark Fitzgibbons writing in American Thinker and Roger Simon at Politico reveal the “malice” (Fitzgibbon’s word) and discernibly left-wing bias that governed the listserve’s procedures. One recalls, too, the forced resignations of CBS anchor Dan Rather and CNN executive vice president Eason Jordan, implicated in their respective scandals. And who can forget Newsweek’s mutilation of the truth in its Koran-flushing perjury? (The editors were obviously unfamiliar with H.J. Simson’s classic 1937 study, British Rule, and Rebellion, where he discusses the Koran-shredding ploy used by the Arabs to incriminate British officers during the Palestinian rebellion of 1936—though Newsweek was plainly, so to speak, on the same Palestinian page.) None of this should surprise us. In today’s media consortium in the West—the European media are guilty of the same kind of yellow journalism—it is obvious that a basic trust has been broken. The Fourth Estate has become the Fifth Column.
Naturally, journalism was always to some extent agenda driven. Every shade of the political spectrum boasted its particular newspaper, patronized by its targeted readership. The agenda was pretty well explicit. The difference today is threefold: the mantle of principled objectivity in which our journalists conspicuously garb themselves; the fact that the agenda is often undeclared, allowing the media to sail under false colors; and the expansion of global coverage into the visual, electronic and digital dimensions which purport to be mere aggregate news gatherers transposing the world directly and without deviation to the airwaves and the screen. In this way, the media is able to caramelize its product and, as a result, the underlying cookery generally goes undetected.
Robert Kaplan has justly written in Policy Review for December 2004 that “the ongoing centralization of major media outlets, the magnification of the media’s influence through various electronic means and satellite printing…has created new realms of authority akin to the emergence of a superpower with similarly profound geopolitical consequences.” This “superpower” has, for the most part, invaded the public mind with an army of reporters, columnists, think-tankers and editors engaged in the diffusion of fables and distortions. For what we used to call “journalistic integrity” is a rara avis and news reporting has come increasingly to reflect editorial policy—even the headline will often flaunt a compressed editorial opinion—making it difficult for the interested reader or viewer to arrive at a reasonable approximation of the truth, so far as it can be reliably determined.
As I mused in The Big Lie, when even so sedate a commentator as William Watson refers in passing in a National Post column to that “demonic moron” George W. Bush, we know we are no longer in the world of accountable journalism, a world shrinking at a vertiginous rate. Another example of such a betrayal of responsibility is Charles Brooker’s now-infamous column in The Guardian for October 23, 2004 in which he called for the assassination of President Bush: “John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr.—where are you now that we need you.” Such jaundiced sentiment masking as informed opinion shows how corrupt our press has become and explains how Aidan White, general secretary of the International Association of Journalists, can describe Hezbollah’s propaganda tool, the Al-Manar television network, as a “free press.” Like to like.
Foreign correspondence features the same decadent symptoms as the national brand of specious advocacy and cultivated ignorance. The Western media today is terminally infected by the lazy incompetence of journalists who are generally unfamiliar with the areas and issues they report upon, have little or no knowledge of the languages of the regions to which they have been posted, rely on “fixers” and second-hand or biased sources of information, arrive on the job with their own set of prejudices, and are, for the most part, profoundly uneducated in politics and history. The general modus operandi is simple: jump to premature conclusions, accept orchestrated events as veridical and interpretation as fact, ignore confuting or problematic data, and suppress or damp down countervailing intel when the truth eventually emerges. There is now little that may serve to distinguish our notable news organs from, let us say, the Palestinian daily Al-Hayat al-Jadida or the Arabic television channel Al Jazeera.
Add to this witches’ brew the ingredients of intellectual dishonesty and left-liberal politics, and we have a fairly accurate portrait of the average contemporary journalist, whether posted abroad or sabotaging the home front. Such ineptitude coupled with undeniable bigotry plays into the hands of an editorial chauvinism that seeks to control public opinion. In effect, such a corporate monopoly of opinion disguised as news along with its practical irrefutability by dint of excessive repetition has become nothing less than a form of intellectual terrorism. Political analyst David Warren states in the Ottawa Citizen, “I must say—without qualification—that our mainstream media are, despite their protestations of innocence and ‘objectivity,’ objectively working for the enemy.” Be that as it may, there can be little doubt that they are certainly working for their ideological allies.
Of course, the media not only misrepresent the news, they also seek to create it in a process we might call “inventive journalism,” a subcategory of agenda journalism. That is, news is not only misreported, it is often concocted out of whole cloth. The al-Durah hoax perpetrated by France TV-2 remains perhaps the signature instance of recent media malfeasance. But the parade of simulated “realities” that characterizes much of current journalism is a long and flamboyant one. As I showed in The Big Lie, almost every major news service is implicated. But what is perhaps most striking is the evident lack of common sense and intelligent skepticism on the part of the public—or, at any rate, a substantial segment of it.
For example, in a particular “news” clip dealing with the aftermath of the fighting in Jenin during the Second Intifada, the camera zooms in on a solitary Palestinian grandmother sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of a large, empty field littered with wheel-defying debris while BBC commentator Orla Guerin rues her plight. The obvious question is how a wheelchair propelled, as we are meant to believe, by a frail, elderly woman across a field strewn with rubble could have gotten there in the first place. It can only have been deliberately planted, like a theatrical prop carried in from the wings and set center stage for the critical scene. The BBC clearly expected this constructed episode to be accepted at face value, confident that the common viewer would not recognize that a trick had been played on him and would not be disposed to interrogate the producers chuckling in the coulisse.
And this is the nub of the issue. By and large, the political zealotry and tendentious reporting of the News media, in both Europe and North America, depend on the public’s gullibility. The effect is far worse than that of the controlled press of the world’s autocratic regimes spouting the party line since, in the latter case, there is always the possibility of intellectual resistance among those of independent spirit. Pravda and Izvestia, for example, the official organs of state-vetted “news” in the former Soviet Union, did not wholly succeed in forging public opinion to Sovnarkom’s and the Politburo’s satisfaction. Many “consumers” understood they were being manipulated and were justifiably skeptical of the totalitarian project. Instead, they produced a robust samizdat literature to counter such attempts at thought control and the imposition of political uniformity.
In the contemporary West, it is different. There are redeeming exceptions but, generally speaking, a poorly educated citizenry subject to the increasingly unfounded impression that it benefits from the tutelage of a “free press” is more easily exploited than a citizenry that realizes it is laboring under a despotic authority. As noted, many of those in the Eastern bloc who chafed under the Communist tyranny were savvier than we are. Even a not inconsiderable portion of the theologically and politically oppressed Islamic ummah can parry media indoctrination, as the Green Revolution in Iran and the current revolt in Syria demonstrate. But in the West, with its assumption of unfettered access to the flow of information—what qualifies as “news”—and its illusion of intellectual autonomy and fact-based impartial judgment, the deception goes to the very core of thinking. People tend to be more subtly and therefore more effectively managed—the medium is the massage, in a way that Marshall McLuhan did not envisage in punning on his original insight.
Media apparatchiks are perfectly aware of the credulous nature of their readers and viewers. Not only do they take advantage of it, they do everything in their power to confirm and “anchor” it. As Andrew Klavan points out, the majority of our journalists are working for the Left or a “liberal” constituency, attempting “not to elicit information but…to arouse emotions rather than thoughts” in the service of an ulterior progressivist design. “They make us stupid,” he concludes, “because stupid is how they want us.” The consequence is chastening. Far too many of us have been craftily seduced into believing that raw opinion and cognitive gerrymandering constitute objective reporting and that we are encountering a free press when we have become the intellectual peons of a media establishment practicing agenda journalism. We would have been better off reading Pravda.
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