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More MSM Madness

I've gotten some interesting--though not unpredictable--responses to an essay I wrote a few weeks ago about how the term "mainstream media" is used as political code and sloganeering rather than as a smart critique of big powerful media institutions.

In the piece, I called Amy Goodman and Ann Coulter "smug ideologues" who use the term as "a favorite punching bag, an omnipresent boogie man who manipulates, digests and excretes a pile of propaganda."

To which I got a ration of shit from Louis Bedrock of Roselle, New Jersey, who called the essay "shallow" and "silly" (I'm an "intellectual dwarf"), and wrote:

1. Comparing Amy Goodman with Ann Coulter is ludicrous. Goodman is a serious journalist who has earned her reputation by risking her life in East Timor to cover a massacre by the Indonesian army, being arrested in Minneapolis, and detained at the Canadian border while covering news stories in the field. She’s known for asking hard questions to people in power — most famously to Bill Clinton, unlike Coulter whose forte is spawning facile, uninformed opinions like recommending that the US convert all the inhabitants of Iraq to Christianity or calling the murder of a doctor a “retroactive abortion.”

2. Equally demeaning — to Mr. Stelloh, is dismissing Noam Chomsky as a “lefty media critic par excellance [sic].” If Stelloh had read any of Mr. Chomsky’s books instead of the blurbs on the back of the book, it might have enhanced his comprehension of the limits of mainstream corporate media.

In “Manufacturing Consent,” Chomsky explains that five factors act as filters in the corporate media in determining what news is fit to print:

1. Size, ownership, and profit orientation.
2. Advertising as the primary income source. (My local NPR station, WNCR, receives a large grant from Monsanto. This doesn’t give the station much incentive to investigate the dangers of BGH or GMOs.)
3. Reliance on information provided by government, business, and “experts” — often funded and approved by the aforementioned primary sources.
4. “Flak” as a means of disciplining the media.
5. Anti-communism (and anti-socialism) as a national religion and control mechanism.

Thus, whether it’s Fox News, The New York Times, or your local NPR station, the tone may be different, but the message is the same: Support for imperial wars, scant information on the destruction of the planet by corporations, skepticism toward or omission of serious discussion about global climate change, bovine acceptance of the status quo.

Stelloh is an intellectual dwarf attempting to gain attention and credibility by smearing Goodman and Chomsky, and obfuscating the dangers of mainstream media. He recalls the lyrics of Bob Dylan:

“And the words that are used
For to get the ship confused
Will not be understood as they’re spoken.”

In last week's letters to the editor, I responded thus:

Whoa’ there Louis, easy on the invective. I’m not sure what article you read, but I never said the MSM critique was dead—I said the word is. To quote myself, “MSM” isn’t “a critique of powerful institutions anymore; it’s simply a way for politicians and political organizations and powerful people to talk about politics.” My point in comparing Goodman to Coulter was simple: On issues of domestic politics, each represents an ideological position so entrenched their critiques and commentary feel like talking points from their respective ends of the ideological spectrum. Yes, Goodman has one of the best digests of undercovered foreign news around. But just as you’ll never hear Coulter criticize James Dobson or Mike Huckabee or Dick Cheney, you won’t hear Amy Goodman critically interview Dennis Kucinich or Ralph Nader or Barbara Lee, or any other of the left’s sacred cows. Which is a shame, because the real left—not the fictional left of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton—but the real left, is in laughable shape. They have no power—and perhaps a few “hard questions” would do them some good. Regarding Chomsky, I’m not following you on the one-man smear campaign I’ve apparently initiated, as I’m not sure how “lefty media critic par excellence” could possibly be interpreted as derisive. For your benefit, I’ll translate without the fancy French: He’s one of the left’s most sophisticated public intellectuals when it comes to media. I’ll be even plainer: I like him. I respect him. And I respect his ideas. I certainly don’t want to leave the impression that I’ve besmirched the good name of Noam.

Apparently my response didn't make Jeff Blankfort of Ukiah too happy. In this week's letters to the editor, he writes:

Finally, somehow I missed Tim Stelloh’s piece comparing Amy Goodman with Ann Coulter which is simply ludicrous, particularly when he seems to infer that Dennis Kucinich, Ralph Nader and Barbara Lee are simply liberal-left mirror images of the likes of Mike Huckabee, James Dobson, and Dick Cheney, as if the relative power of those ultra right wing kooks compared to the trio of liberal leftists as well as their contrasting public records are irrelevant. It isn’t that Kucinich, Lee, and Nader couldn’t stand to be asked more than the usual softball questions by Amy or anyone else, but what, aside from Lee’s general subservience to the Israel lobby, would you expect to uncover?

I also take issue with Tim when he lauds praise on Noam Chomsky whose name at this point in time I have no problem besmirching. Chomsky has been for some years and proudly so, the most important defender of the pro-Israel lobby within the ranks of the liberals and the left, not by praising it of course, but by going out of his way to dimiss its influence on US Middle East policy. To do that he has had to distort the history of US-Israel relations to such a degree that anyone who has actually studied the subject, as have I and others, might have legitmate reasons to question his motives as well as his intellectual honesty, particularly when he has also openly opposed the boycotts, divestment and sanctions movement designed to put global pressure on Israel.

Several years ago, I decided that he had to be challenged and I wrote an article: “Damage Control: Noam Chomsky and the Israel-Palestine Conflict. I think AVA readers will find it enlightening.

Jeff Blankfort

To which I was happy to respond.

“Uncover” isn’t a word we can use with good ol’ Amy, as that would assume she (still) practices the respectable craft of investigative journalism. Yes, occasionally she’ll feature the reporting of somebody else, but investigative journalism isn’t what she does. She’s a host. She does news from the left, for the left, that, much of the time, seems little more than PR. That’s fine, but that’s why I called her an ideologue (like Coulter). Both she and Coulter bag on the “mainstream media” with the same holier-than-thou glee for not covering the stuff they think the MSM should cover or for being complicit in the crises of the day. That’s why I called her smug. That was my only point of comparison — 13 words in an 800 word essay about the MSM. To be clear, I agree with our esteemed editor, who pointed out last week that Goodman isn’t a lying, raving fascist like Coulter. She’s just overly-earnest, painfully dull and a terrible interviewer. To get back to the point, I don’t want Goodman to try and “uncover” anything. I want something much more basic: a thorough, probing interview instead of drab asskissery. Re: Chomsky. I was talking about media, not Israel. But we appreciate the self promotion.

It wasn't all bad. Author and AVA contributor Bruce Patterson wrote:

Dear Mr. Stelloh

I enjoy your writing and especially liked last week’s Mainstream Media Madness, given its relevance. The AVA is the best little newspaper in the west precisely because it isn’t mainstream. Over the decades the AVA has been allowed to publish so much subversive material because it is whispering into the whirlwind. What’s remarkable about the mainstream media is the unity of its ownership and voice. It controls not just the national agenda but the people’s vocabulary, values and “world view.” The best media critic ever was George Orwell.

What Henry Adams wrote during the 19th Century is doubly-true today, “The press is the hired agent of a monied system, and set up for no other purpose than to tell lies where the interests are involved. One can trust nobody and nothing.”

One last note. The premise of my essay was about how "mainstream media" used to be a sophisticated critique of powerful media institutions. As I said in the essay, I don't disagree with Chomsky's view--that big media is a profit-driven monster controlled as any mega corporation is, from the top down--though I often do, particularly when we're talking about newspapers, which still break much of the news that winds up in Huffington Post and on the cable channels. Yes, the fact that newspapers have operated wholly as public (and private) corporations dependent on ad dollars is insane--and the industry is feeling the wrath of that now. But there's no accounting for individuals in Chomsky's critique. It's all systemic: Reporters and editors merely do what the top of the food chain tells them to. Sometimes this is how it works--it certainly seemed like there was a conspiracy in the run-up to the Iraq War (McClatchy nothwithstanding). Often, however, I think that view is completely off base. Reporters do terrible things independent of their bosses: They're lazy, unimaginative and simply not interested in one of things I find most exciting about this profession (as corny as it s0unds): being driven enough to follow where a story leads you.

The collapse of our industry  shouldn't be underestimated either: Having to write three stories a day because the rest of the newsroom has been laid off doesn't foster solid reporting skills.

When I was a beat reporter at a daily owned by a giant media corporation, I never once had a story killed because it was too controversial--which seems to be the fear among people who talk about "corporate media" like it's the anti-Christ. I wrote four to five stories a week, which allowed time for longer, deeper projects. Our competitor daily, however, was locally-owned and run by the ex-head of the Chamber of Commerce, who had deep ties to local businesses and politicians. It was a terrible paper--mostly because their reporters were expected to pump out two to three stories a day. They rarely broke news and they did no investigative work.

What's my point? Media is complicated. Not all "corporate media" should be derided as such. And not all locally-owned media are bastions of independent thought.

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