January 2009


My understanding of “too big to fail” is: Tom and Daisy always win. Tom and Daisy are ontologically necessary, like gravity or the conservation of matter and energy: someone has to smash up things and creatures and then retreat back into their money or their vast carelessness. The problem is that too often we think of this as contingent and are borne back ceaselessly into the past.

UPDATE: For the record, I’ve made the point below dozens or hundreds of times. Hardly anyone ever agrees, and often no one disagrees either. Apparently the idea is just unthinkable, probably because of the Chomsky cooties. (Have I ever mentioned that I hate liberals?)

At the moment we’re having another episode of the same old grumbling about the media, and as always, I think people are missing the point. Below is an edited and enlarged version of a comment I made to the linked post:

I’m really becoming a nag on this question, but “journalistic incompetence, laziness, and the knowing distribution of unadulterated bullshit” are management problems. The journalists whose names and faces we see are doing exactly the jobs they were hired to do. When Jonah Goldberg or William Kristol gets hired by a major newspaper, it’s not because the person who hired him has made a mistake.

The reason why there’s a journalism groupthink problem is that there’s a management groupthink problem. For a long time now, up-and-coming people in the business have been seeing dishonest, frivolous journalists hired and promoted while better journalists are deadended or fired, and they have learned to conform their work to what their bosses want.

The interests and ideologies of the owners and publishers of the various media have overwhelmed whatever journalistic standards they ever had, and their primary interest is low taxes.

The Republicans’ extraordinary emphasis on the inheritance tax, which affects only 0.5% of the population can be explained in large part by the fact that the owners of the old privately-owned newspapers (the Washington Post, the New York Times,the Seattle Times, and others) are in that 0.5%.

The publicly-owned media are controlled by enormous financial organizations whose primary political interests are, again, low taxes (and favorable regulations). And like all media, they have to be responsive to advertisers, whose interests are similar. (And many institutional advertisers aren’t selling an actual product, but just getting their company’s name out there. If an oil company buys an ad, it’s not selling gasoline, it’s buying favorable coverage and trying to flimflam the electorate.)

The media need subscribers, viewers and readers, but they don’t get their money from them — they get their money from advertisers. Readers and viewers are not the customer, but the product: advertisers pay good money for access to your mind. (When a TV talking head says “The American people think such and such”, they’re not telling you what the American people think. They’re telling you what you should think.)

I’ve been reading this kind of media criticism for five years now, and while it’s valuable and good, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone except maybe Billmon try to understand why the media are so bad. I’ve tried to tell people dozens or hundreds of times (DeLong, Somerby, everybody), but no one picks up on it. It must be pure Chomskyphobia, because this isn’t a new or a difficult idea.

The media we have now like themselves the way they are. They’ll accommodate themselves to Obama and the Democrats as much as they have to, but they’ll also do what they can to bend him and break him. What we need is new media. The internet and Air American help, but they’re not nearly enough.

We need new media. Maybe Soros will cough up a half a billion, or maybe a couple million people will buy hundred dollar subscriptions. Without something like that, things will be as bad ten years from now as they are today. Neither I nor anyone reading these words will be able to get new media started by ourselves, but it’s not something that’s impossible. Neuharth did it with USA Today, and Murdoch did it with Fox. It wouldn’t even have to be a for-profit company. But I’ve never heard anyone but me even speculate about doing this.

Anyway, don’t sit around waiting for the media to get better. Not going to happen.

UPDATE:

If you look at the organizational charts of the Post and the Times, you’ll see that while both of them have separate boards for operations (the actual publication) and for business and finance, in each case the same man heads both boards:  Donald Graham in the case of the Post, and Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. in the case of the Times. (And each of them also represents the private ownership families). What I suspect this means is that there’s no advocate specifically for journalism, and that journalistic concerns are usually overridden by finance concerns.

Considering how badly these enterprises are doing financially, you might argue the opposite — that professionalism is dominant, and that for this reason finances are bad — but this doesn’t ring true at all. It seems more likely, given the perilous fiscal state of print journalism, that these two newspapers are in emergency lockdown, and that finance always rules.

The significance of these two publication is that if you were to find journalistic independence and integrity anywhere in big media, it would be at the Post or the Times. For most of the rest of them, the dominance of finance is unmistakable. (Anecdotally, I’ve been told that radio stations are almost always run by former ad salesmen, and almost never by former on-the-air talent. You can just  extrapolate from there.)

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