The deep-dish world of media politics

July 12, 2004

Do the news media have a political agenda? That’s a perennial question, but it has special resonance in this unusually shrill electoral season.

For the strongly partisan, the media are like some nightmarish mirror in a horror movie: You look into it and your bitterest enemies sneer back at you. The right, noting attitude surveys of journalists, sees a liberal cabal. The left, pointing to conglomerate ownership and market-driven news, sees a leaden centrism.

Journalists, helpfully, insist the media have no politics. That’s something no outsider with half a brain believes for a second, which is too bad, because if what journalists mean is that the media have no coherent politics, they’re telling the truth.

The politics of news is like one of those lunatic pizza pies that you used to find in the pages of Mad magazine. There, poking out from the molten cheese, you’d have your toppings: spare tire, discarded fishbowl, Yield sign, tree limb. Plenty of variety, all indigestible.

Trying to make sense of the media’s politics means looking at more than how adoringly a particular candidate is pictured or how willingly a newspaper peddles a politician’s self-serving tale. You have to look at the world the media construct for us, what they put in and what they leave out.

Welcome to the pizza. You get stories crying out for imaginative new government programs, which the news will later delight in exposing as wasteful and ineffectual. The private sector is run by brilliant and far-sighted magnates, whose greed and lust for plunder will be the focus of equally zealous coverage. Our country is kindly uncle to the world, which trusts us for our goodness and despises us for our heedlessness and wealth. All this we learn from the media.

It’s a politics of doctrinal incoherence. It arises from the fact that the realities being reported are themselves elusive and contradictory, and that news is itself a battlefield of facts and ideas, where combatants inside and outside the media are continually skirmishing over what’s happening, what it means and whether the news audience – a select fraction of the public — is interested in hearing about it.

The political impact of news often has less to do with overt positions – for this, against that — than with the ways in which issues are framed and what play they’re given. Is gay marriage about individual freedom or moral decline? And is playing it big a back-handed way to favor rightist candidates by stirring up their constituents?

These are big, messy things. Labeling journalists as “liberals” doesn’t get you very far toward understanding the same media that marched alongside a strongly conservative administration clear to Baghdad. It’s true that in polls journalists describe themselves as liberal more often than the general population does. You’d expect that of a profession that demands its practitioners to be meddlesome, skeptical, public-spirited and chronically underpaid.

But the larger politics of the media no more derives from the preferences of journalists than the politics of the Vatican is based on the concerns of parish priests. In both cases, vows of obedience to professional norms prevail. Reporters in Iraq may have doubted that aerial bombardment was a good way to spread the blessings of liberty, just as reporters in Washington wondered if bankrupting the treasury through tax cuts was sound economic stimulus. But those doubts didn’t stop them from reporting on both with often maddening neutrality.

Plus, media owners have businesses to run. If we were discussing the politics of Microsoft or Boeing, we’d start not with social philosophy but with self-interest. Uniquely among powerful institutions in this society, the media are presumed, even by their harshest critics, to be motivated by principle.

In fact, media-owning corporations have enormous interests of their own that impinge on an ever-widening swath of public policy. These are hugely important things, ranging from campaign finance reform (who ends up with those millions?), broadcast deregulation and antitrust, to virtually everything related to the Internet, intellectual property, globalization and free trade, and so on to minimum wage, affirmative action and environmental policy (SUVs are very heavily advertised.)

This isn’t to say that media shill mindlessly for their owners, any more than their reporters are stealth operatives for pet causes. What it suggests is that media politics is a tricky and complicated matter, and deserves careful examination, not hair-trigger denunciations.

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