The Abdication of the Press

I have claimed that America now faces one of the most profound crises in its history, but unlike with the other major crises, this time our national conversation has not focused on discussing what’s gone wrong and how it might be set right.

If I’m right, what does that say about the performance of the press?

Our founders instituted special protections for the press not because they had a love for journalists, but because they recognized that a free press is necessary for the maintenance of a free society.

I have also claimed that a force more destructive and dishonest than anything before seen at center stage of American politics has taken over one of our major political parties and is wreaking great damage on American civilization.

If alerting the American people to such a portentous development is not precisely what our founders had in mind, when they enshrined protections for a free press into the Constitution to protect the democratic system they had set up, what would be?

I had an opportunity to experience this “abdication of the press” first hand, in 2011-12, when I ran for Congress as one of the two major-party nominees in the District in Virginia where I live.

My campaign motto was “Truth. For a change.” And I explained why I had jumped into the political arena, despite being too straight-forward for politics under ordinary circumstances, saying: “Nowadays, the lie so often defeats the truth that I figure this is a time when truth-telling needs its champions.”

My opponent was the 20-year Republican incumbent Bob Goodlatte (now the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee), and I spent much of the campaign calling him out on the many falsehoods in his communications to the electorate. Not that Mr. Goodlatte was a special case of lying. He was just continually spouting the Republican Party line which, in our times, is almost habitually dishonest even by the standards of the usual politics.

Here’s where the press let me down. Or rather where they let down their readers and viewers, as well as the noble standards of good journalism.

The press would cover what I said, and they would cover what Mr. Goodlatte said. And they’d stop there. Although our claims were in direct conflict, the press did nothing to help their audience to judge which of our claims was valid and which false.

One might say, in defense of the press in my area, that it’s not reasonable to expect small-market media, such as we have in my in my largely rural Virginia District, to separate truth from falsehood on the issues that arise in our politics.

But how much less reasonable is it to expect that the citizens – who spend only a few minutes a day, on average, keeping track of the news – will be able to make such a determination on their own. Is it not the job of the press to help their readers to understand the truth about the matters before them as citizens? If the press does not give them that help, how can they possibly make sound political judgments?

Besides which, it is not only small-market media who, in our times, have regarded it as their job to treat truth and lies equally. We see this kind of pseudo-evenhandedness all over the nation’s main news media. “This person says the earth is round, while this person says the earth is flat.” In the name of “balance,” that has been considered a sufficient report.

Not long ago, a New York Times ombudsman felt it necessary to ask his readers if it were the responsibility of journalists to tell their readers when some statement from a public person was downright false. What does it mean that such a question should need to be asked?

With a press that regards itself as having fulfilled its responsibilities when it treats the truth and the lie evenhandedly, is it any wonder that we are in an era where the lie so often defeats the truth?

In any event, the victory in my race went to the veteran politician who knows how to present a false picture in a bland way with a straight face, secure in the knowledge that the press will not expose him.

My little vignette is but a tiny corner in a vast tableau of a political landscape insufficiently reported by most of the American press. Huge stories are right in front of our eyes, but go essentially uninvestigated by the press from which mainstream America gets its understanding of the wider world.

Consider: The great majority of the American people feel that the nation is heading in the “wrong direction,” and this striking and worrisome popular judgment has persisted almost uninterruptedly for some years now. Is it not an indication — as clear as could be — that something of great importance has gone wrong in the nation, when most of the people feel their country has lost its way?

And when the nation has a deep problem — as this one surely is — is it not the job of the press to get to the bottom of the matter? Would not a responsible press be asking: what is it that makes people feel that things are heading wrong, and what is responsible for the direction things are going?

Obvious questions, these. Questions that should be getting the full journalistic investigatory treatment — like an oil spill in the Gulf, like the crash of an airliner, even like a stain on a blue dress, only much more so, since the problem in this case is so fundamental. But where in the American press are these obvious lines of inquiry being pursued?

And consider: It’s almost universally recognized that the American political system has become dysfunctional. The Congress, held in historically low esteem, is making the “do-nothing Congress” Truman ran against look like a hive of productive activity.

Clearly, it’s a major national problem when the instruments our founders gave us for meeting our national challenges are failing to work. And is it not the job of the press to help the citizenry understand what it is that’s gone wrong, investigating such questions as: Whose fault it it that our politics are so messed up? Are both sides equally “extreme” and uncompromising? Are both sides equally unwilling to confront our national problems? Is one side or the other acting in an unprecedented manner that might explain this unprecedented dysfunctionality?

Obvious questions. Important questions, the very kind a responsible press in a democracy would tackle. And questions unasked.

Why has the press abdicated its important responsibilities?

I have claimed that the central reality of our national crisis is that the Republican Party has become the instrument of a destructive force, while the response of Liberal America (including the Democratic Party) to this threat has been woefully weak.

Should the failure of the press be added as another – third — component of the crisis? Or is the failure of the press in the face of this crisis to be subsumed under one of those two, i.e. either as part of the destructiveness on the right or of the weakness on the left?

Is the failure of the press, for example, a sign that this increasingly corporate “infotainment” industry is in cahoots with the set of forces — among which are the forces of corporatism — that have taken over the right?

Or is its failure to confront the lie a sign of the press being intimidated, and/or blind, in ways like those that have fostered the weakness in Liberal America?

Or perhaps some of each.

Whatever the reason, it becomes increasingly clear that there is a kind of disease – manifesting in different ways in different components of America – that afflicts all the major organs of the American body politic.

10 thoughts on “The Abdication of the Press

  1. Dave Pruett

    NASA’s finest hour was the failed Apollo 13 mission, when mission controllers worked around the clock and against all odds to successfully bring home a crippled spacecraft. Similarly, the nation’s finest hour of the latter 20th Century may have been the Watergate crisis when a crippled country was rescued. When the dust had settled, Richard Nixon, who had truly committed high crimes and misdemeanors, was deposed without the shedding of a drop of blood. The system worked as intended. The Press would not take lies for the truth and dug relentlessly to “follow the money.” And both houses of congress, regardless of political affiliation, recognized that the President had abused power and must be held to account, but that ensuring a smooth transition was essential to the national well-being.

    In contrast, we now have a mainstream media that is asleep at the wheel, or in some instances (FOX) actually promoting the lie, and a partisan House willing to impeach a president who has done nothing deserving of impeachment, all for political game. Meanwhile, the Press treats this as business as usual. It’s not.

    When Andy says we haven’t seen anything like this since (possibly) the Civil War, he ain’t kidding.


  2. James

    Perhaps it is time to return to the distribution of the pamphlet of Thomas Paine, “Common Sense.” These pamphlets were useful in proclaiming the truth of the poverty of the workers and the excesses of the wealthy and privileged landowners of the time. Glen Greenwald in one of his recent pieces said of the press that they were nothing but scum. But disparity of equal status between the rich and the poor is age-old, with the privileged declaring that wealth and power is considered to be in it`s proper place. What is proper however, is the equality that is a necessary and essential balance in the restoration of a civil society.


    1. Andrew Bard Schmookler Post author

      Every once in a while I will let one of the right-winger zingers get through so everyone marvel at the qualities of mind these folks consistently bring to their arguments. Note, for example, how Mr. LaRue carefully demonstrates the weakness in my points. Note, too, the mastery of the evidence he exhibits. Anyone who’d been led astray by my account of my own experience, or by my naming of specific major questions that I claim should be investigated by a responsible press, would surely be led back to a more valid understanding of the functioning of the American press in our present situation by Mr. LaRue’s masterful rejoinder.


  3. Robin M. Pettit

    IMHO, the impeachment of Richard Nixon was, in part, the cause of our current mess. Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld and others, including the powers of Fox News were anointed in the fire of the impeachment of Richard Nixon and have been on a mission to make sure that never happens to a Republican Candidate again and also to try to do it to a Democratic President if possible too. Hence the constant drumbeat of impeachment for both Bill Clinton and now Barack Obama and the feeding of the lie. It was and is a force powered by revenge and complicit shame of getting caught.

    My paragraph above may be controversial, but Roger Ailes learned his craft with Nixon and teamed with Lee Atwater. So there is definitely a thread of anger that fuels this behavior and, I believe, ignoring it does no one any good. If I can see this then any reasonably good journalist should be able to see it as this is their specialist domain.

    I wouldn’t let local journalists off either. If it is important to the audience they serve, it behooves them to know the details or go find someone who knows the details and can help them understand and report on it for them.


    1. Andrew Bard Schmookler Post author

      Just thought I’d give the folks here one more glimpse into the mentality of the right-wing troll.

      Somehow a culture has been created in which insult passes for thought, and bluff and bluster pass for cogency.

      It is the way of the bully, and I’ve seen it so many times — occasionally on the left, but rather seldom — and I believe it has long-standing roots in some parts of America. But as for the cultural and historical sources of these displays, my knowledge is sketchy and intuitive.

      One of the things I wonder is whether, with these people, this same manner of interaction and same intellectual vacuity characterize their demeanor in other realms of their lives. What would be most interesting is if they did NOT, if it were a compartmentalized component of a life, in which someone in a particular realm — e.g. dealing with “librels” on the field of political combat — takes on a particular role, while in the neighborhood, or in the church, that person wouldn’t dream of dealing with other people, or with substantive issues, in that bullying way. But I don’t know that there is this compartmentalization, with these right-wing trolls, though I do have a bit of experience suggesting this.


  4. Robin M. Pettit

    Harless LaRue, I agree Insanity needs no exposition – It is patently obvious in this case and this case applies to you, but you don’t realize it.

    The above is my instant rejoiner to Harless LaRue, but just in case he doesn’t get it I will expand. The right wing is insane, after all what is one definition, doing the same thing many times and expecting a different result. Perfectly example of the greater than 50 attempts to remove the ACA laws from the books. So many things the right has said has been proven untrue that it is insane that he persists to believe in it. The right wing clowns of the George W. Bush Presidency said that there were Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq and we went there to keep them from being used, there were none. The right wing claimed to be working on their own version of a healthcare law and 6 years going, nothing. They believe in tax cuts and how this will stimulate the economy, and yet every time a Republican is President they cut taxes and the economy sinks, often after a delay.

    The press doesn’t do it’s job and fails to present facts as facts and Harless LaRue objects because if they did present facts as facts, they wouldn’t reinforce Harless LaRue’s view of the world. The fact is much of what passes for “Press” in this country are just corporate shill talking heads. And he is clearly unaware of this or perhaps he is actively one of the manipulators. Corporations lie when facts go against the bottom line. This has been proved in case after case. Tobacco is one. Asbestos is another. Oil and gas are the current ones. Even black lung was not real for a long time so that the coal mine owners wouldn’t have to pay these people for the damage to their lungs from working in the mines for many years.


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