Thursday, June 24, 2010

Matt Taibbi's Diagnosis

Having just invoked the medical metaphor to characterize our current situation in Afghanistan as a "disease," I feel obliged to report that the dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal seems to have provoked Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi into "diagnosing" the prevailing enfeebled state of political journalism in this country (if not elsewhere). In his latest post to Taibblog on the Rolling Stone Web site, entitled "McChrystal and Us," he suggests that, when it comes to providing news about politics in the United States, the practice of journalism "has been reduced to an access-trading game, where reporters are rewarded for favorable coverage of those in the know with more time and availability." At the risk of following The Nation's John Nichols down the primrose path to PowerPoint rhetoric, here is an itemized list of the symptoms described by Taibbi that support his diagnosis:

  1. This symbiotic dynamic affects not just individual reporters but whole publications and news channels; it's a huge reason why reporters have in general resisted challenging political authorities. Nobody wants to be the guy who gets not only himself but his whole paper shut out of the access game. Since many recent politicians have made good on this implied threat (George Bush's shut-out of the Washington Post's White House reporters is a classic example), what we get is coverage that across the board fails to ask hard questions and in general treats leaders with a reverence they don't always deserve.
  2. Or we get the other thing: partisan coverage in which the right-wing guys hammer the Democrats and the lefties hammer the Bushes and the Cheneys. That's a sort of Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact approach to the access question. You agree to forswear attacks on your own team, then you can get all the access you want from the guys in your locker room. A lot of outlets make this choice and that's why we get the impression that news coverage is negative, because there is in fact a lot of screaming and finger-pointing on the airwaves — but mostly that's partisan entertainment, not a healthy free press challenging authority.
    The media business is so used to associating the whole idea of challenging or negative reporting with partisanship that even the coverage of our role in the McChrystal thing is being pitched to audiences as a kind of extreme version of the usual crap — that what Rolling Stone is doing is "attacking Obama from the left." It's almost like it's not considered possible anymore for tough reporting to exist without some kind of partisan angle, which is sad, because just a generation ago an almost completely apolitical iconoclasm was the expected ideological orientation of the investigative journalist.
  3. A third thing we get these days is outright prostitution, and unfortunately I can't even tell all the stories I've heard about the kinds of things that go on in our business. I will say that in the world of business journalism in particular there are prominent news organizations that will openly promise favorable coverage in exchange for access to major business figures. This behavior is common enough that it's not at all a surprise that the major business networks missed the signs leading to the financial crash; they were too busy lobbing softballs to bank CEOs as part of pre-arranged interview deals.

I find this analysis particularly ironic in light of the recent move by Yahoo! News to a crowdsourcing model. Those who still believe in the wisdom of crowds believe that the truth will always be revealed, regardless of Taibbi's diagnosis or the list of symptoms he cites. However, as I recently observed, the crowd is more interested in amusement than truth, which is why "Katherine Heigl's dowdy dress" gets a higher "crowd rating" than the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano. ("Dude, what did you expect? That was in Iceland!") To invoke the title of Nicholas Carr's recent book, we have become a society hopelessly mired in "the shallows;" and that setting is the perfect breeding ground for the metaphorical microorganisms responsible for the disease Taibbi has diagnosed.

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