Career Journalists (March 19, 2003)

One of today’s prevailing myths is that the American media has a liberal bias, that it is a press fueled by left ideology. Leftists, of course, disagree with this notion, claiming that the media is right wing and that those who have the most influence in the press are also right wing. While both camps have a point, neither are correct.

While it is undeniable that the mass media is owned by corporate America and that an overwhelming number of television and radio commentators or pundits, sit center to right, the press corps, the journalists who ask the questions and write the stories, are generally apolitical. If we are to judge the press as a whole by the people who work in it, we have to acknowledge that the press possesses no politics at all.

This assertion does not mean that the press takes no stances on issues. Often you will find an editorial supporting a development project or opposing a restricting law; but most often these stances are formed out of an editorial board’s self interest, rather than some deep political conviction. What a person’s self interest is depends on a number of things, including race, gender, sexuality, class, and religion. However even with self interest, too often, editors and reporters have no firm thoughts or ideas about the world around them — in other words, the press is a lot like us.

“Like us,” you say. “What about the media elite?” Well, if by “media elite” you are referring to Sam Donaldson, Connie Chung, and Dan Rather, then I suggest you examine what makes them elite. Are the Rathers of the media elite because they are so much smarter than the rest of us? Is it because they possess oodles of secret knowledge? No, the media elite is elite for the same reason the entertainment elite is elite or the corporate elite is elite or the sports elite is elite or the “I can drink you under the table” elite is elite: For one reason or another, they are at the top of their profession. Because they are at the top, they have a status that the rest of us do not have. For the media, entertainment, corporate and sports elite, that means they have more money. The alcoholic elite have more damaged livers.

However, the majority of the media is not the elite. Everyday members of the press are like the people who have a beer after work or who get tossed on the weekends. Most of the media are our neighbors — the lady at the bus stop, the guy at the end of the bar. The press have the same worries and problems we all do: What will I do about my retirement? Are my kids in a good school? Will I ever be able to afford to own a house? Are the Kings going to beat the Lakers? Do I have to listen to that god damn Norah Jones song again and why does she have a frickin’ “h” at the end of her name?

Actually, I don’t think that many members of the press ask that last question. Instead they ask, “Don’t you think it is neat that Norah Jones won all those Grammies? Do you know where I can get her CD?” The media are America. And like America they have the same tastes and desires as most Americans. They, too, would like to go on a cruise. They are also infatuated with the latest electronic gadget. They don’t think about politics unless they have to. And, like a lot of Americans, the people in the press chose the job they chose because it is a good career.

Years ago, back in the legendary days of muckraking and hard-nosed reporting, the press was not a respectable profession. Maybe an editor or two had some college behind him, but most reporters were folks whose obsession with investigation or crime or politics or sports pulled them into the job of writing. Most of these guys (and most of them were guys) came to their job from high school, toiling over reports of garden shows and hog futures before getting to the city beat. These folks made money but not a lot.

The conclusion of World War Two changed that. WWII’s wake brought three things that changed American society, and, subsequently, the press: The GI Bill, television, and a boom in labor union membership. The GI Bill enabled thousands of WWII vets to attend college. For the first time in US history, the college system was open to popular America. Yes, many colleges presented ethnic, racial and gender barriers; however, the GI Bill allowed a lot of working class folks entrance to college.

While television got off to a slow start, economically speaking, by the mid 1960s, the newest of media was to become a very profitable industry. From the actors appearing in TV dramas to the reporters on the news shows, television personalities were making good money. More often than not, the television newsman was better off economically than his brothers in print.

During World War I, industrial America and the government used private and public police to crack down on a growing worker’s movement. And while the ruling class was largely successful in crippling the socialist movement, they were only able to injure the labor unions. The US called upon millions of young men to serve in World War II. All the men overseas created a labor shortage back home.

Whenever labor is low in supply, unions step in to demand more for the workers. During WWII, unions were able to organize so thoroughly that by the wars end, to be a union member in America was commonplace. In 1938, only 800,000 women were members of a union. At the end of 1944, that number increased to 3,500,000. At the start of the war, union membership among African Americans was in the tens of thousands. By 1944, 850,000 Black people were union members. According to the book Labor’s Untold Story, “…during the five years of the war, organized labor increased from 8,980,400 to 14,776,000.” The news industry also saw union growth. Not only did grunt workers such as pressmen and drivers see an increase in union membership, but on their backs, reporters were able to organize into guilds, giving their members increased pay, benefits, and protection — in other words, a career.

The combination of a college educated working class, television creating good paying careers in news and entertainment, and the rise of unionism pushed news reporting from a blue collar job to a white collar career. While the profession still attracted those who were moved to document the ills of society, jobs in the media were more and more about pulling a good pay check. This is especially true of television, where there was no history of muckraking to deny.

Fast forward to the 1980s and news reporting was firmly a career. Entry into the field without a college diploma was very rare. More and more, the folks who filled the media’s ranks were there to make a good living. Politics, if they ever had any, fell to career ambition. To succeed was to not make trouble, to go with the flow. In places like Washington DC and Sacramento, in order to get prime access to those in power, a journalist had to avoid not only controversy, but conviction. For some, this meant self censorship, however, for many a media member, the mores of the press were the mores of television: That is, what is good is what sells and what sells is what looks good. Dress up, show up, nod your head, get your picture, get your quote and pick up the paycheck. To have politics only gets in the way of the career so in order to succeed a reporter must either deny their politics or have none to begin with. After all, no one likes a troublemaker.

The media deludes itself into thinking that having no politics is objectivity. No, having no politics means having no knowledge of history or philosophy. Having no politics means being ignorant about what is around you, or at the very least not caring. What the media holds up as objective reporting is usually just ignorant reporting, the failure to ask the hard question. And what is passed off as political — punditry of the right or left — is just ignorance with the volume cranked to ten.

So when you look at the mass media and what it lacks, do not forget to look at the people in it. They are normal every day people with normal every day concerns. They hold down careers and like those careers and will do nothing to risk their careers. The newsperson of today is not the muckraker of yesteryear. Nowadays we would call that muckraker a troublemaker. If we were generous, we would call her a whistleblower. Look around you. How many troublemakers or whistleblowers do you see? How many people do you see just drawing a paycheck? Now look at the media and ask the same questions.

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