Friday, December 03, 2010

The Media and the State

Left journalist Glenn Greenwald and libertarian Matt Welch discuss the current state of American politics. This is one hour but an hour well spent.

What I found most fascinating was their discussion of the relationship of the media to the State. Both note how the media tends to defend the political class. Through most of history the media was seen as a check on the State, a watchdog on politicians.

Thomas Jefferson suffered one of the most concerted press campaigns in history yet he remained a strong defender of a free press. He went so far as to say that if he had to choose between a government with no newspapers, or a society with newspaper but no government, he would take the latter.

But the media, of late, has shifted. Instead of being the bane to politicians it is their ally. And Greenwald and Welch suggest that the reason is that the make up of journalists has shifted. Many journalists no longer see their job as adversarial when it comes to the ruling elites. Quite the contrary, they see themselves as part of that elite. They are defenders of the regime because they view themselves as part of the social elite who know best how to run the lives of others. Certainly when this blogger was studying journalism at university the shift was already apparent.

I attended a decent state university, not one of the Ivy League elite schools. But even in that journalism department many of my fellow students came from the well-off strata of society. I came from a rather working class, middle class family. My father was a fireman, my mother a nurse, by grandfather still worked in the steel mill and both grandmothers worked as clerks at a major department stores. My fellow students were, however, often from much wealthier sections of society. And these were the ones who, for the most part, were heading for minor journalistic posts. The sought-after journalism majors were those who attended Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc.

To a large extent this meant that the most sough-after journalists came from precisely the same social circles as the people they were covering. The politicians they were covering could be former classmates, even relatives, at worst they were people who shared similar values, who saw themselves as part of the intellectual classes endowed with a superior ability to determine what is best for others. This does not mean this social elite is always wrong, sometimes they are quite correct in what they are trying to do. But what it means is that do not see media and government in adversarial positions. And that changes how the media reacts when faced with government overstepping its bounds. They will tend to be protective of their own class first, and journalists seconds.

In recent days we witnessed precisely this happening. Consider Prop 19 in California, which would have legalized marijuana usage. The political elite wanted to keep their powers in this field and the "liberal" media, instead of taking the "liberal" position of defending freedom of choice, defended the State and almost universally opposed the measure.

With the Wikileaks scandal we again see a widespread consensus among the media that this is a terrible assault on the State and that the State's secrecy must be protected at all costs. And the recent outrage concerned the TSA's new intrusive policies was dismissed by the journalistic elite. Many editorialized that the public should just shut up and endure it.

Even where the social elites tends to be correct they are still being true to their own social class. Consider the matters of prejudice and bigotry. Contrary to Left ideology the working classes are not defenders of the downtrodden and oppressed. The working class tends to be highly prejudicial and bigoted. This applies religiously (such as toward Jews, Muslims), economically (illegal immigrants, and foreign competitive trade) and sexually (gays, transgendered people), as well as racially (blacks, Mexicans).

The social elites share some such prejudices but in a more genteel way. They would be less crass and obvious and, in many cases would overlook these "undesired" traits provided the individual in question shared the correct cultural values, especially about the role of a social elite. The media, as part of the upper classes today, is relatively unified behind the case for marriage equality. And here, I think, they are correct.

But this is not surprising. The social elites have always been less horrified at the existence of homosexual people than the working classes. Revolutionary Marxist have tried to claim that the oppression of gays is a phenomena of capitalism and that the worker's vanguard would defend them. But in reality the "fag bashers" in society tend to come from the lower classes, not the upper classes.

This has been the case for a very long time. The Oscar Wilde trials is an example. When it was clear that Wilde had been guilty of violating "sodomy" laws in England the reactions of the classes were quite different. While the upper classes acted horrified they also took their time to bring the matter to court. It was made quite clear to Wilde that he would be arrested and he was given time to pack his things and cross the channel to France in order to escape the ordeal. Wilde, under pressure from Alfred Douglas, didn't take advantage of the escape route conveniently offered to him. But while Wilde foolishly stayed in England many other gay men were heading for the coast in case the campaign expanded. What most offended the social elite was not that Wilde had relations with men but that his relationships tended to pay little attention to class distinctions.

I think Greenwald is correct when he notes that journalists today see their position as being part of the ruling class. This is especially true of the journalists at the top media outlets: the networks, the New York Times, Washington Post, etc. And that changes the nature of the media and its relationship to the political classes. This will dramatically reduce criticism of the political elite and turn the media, not into an adversary, but into the lap-dog of government.

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