Wolin and Greenwald on the Media

The recent Scott McLellan book on his time as a wind-up mechanical press secretary has generated a lot of commentary; perhaps the NYT’s sardonic categorization of Washington tell-alls puts it best:

There are several kinds of Washington memoirs: “I Reveal the Honest Truth,” a kiss-up-and-tell designed to settle scores (nod to honesty optional). “I Was There at the Start,” designed to make the author appear to be the linchpin of history. And, most tedious: “I Knew It Was a Terrible Mistake, but I Didn’t Mention It Until I Got a Book Contract.”

Nevertheless, amidst the choreographed effort to discredit the new McLellan as a zombie, it’s useful to step back and think about the press corps we now have. As many have already noted, the McClatchy newspapers managed to report truths about the buildup to war in Iraq long before more popular and established outfits did. Why was this?

Noted political theorist Sheldon Wolin has recently published Democracy Incorporated at Princeton University Press; he suggests the following:

In an earlier time it was common to liken the free circulation of ideas to competition in a free marketplace: the best ideas, like the superior product, would prevail over inferior competitors. In the highly structured marketplace of ideas managed by media conglomerates, however, sellers rule and buyers adapt to what the same media has pronounced to be “mainstream.” Free circulation of ideas has been replaced by their managed circularity. The self-anointed keepers of the First Amendment flame encourage exegesis and reasonable criticism. Critics who do not wish to be considered as “off-the-wall” attract buyers by internalizing co-optation. Accepting the conventions of criticism entails accepting the context created and enforced by the “house” voices. The result is an essentially monochromatic media. In-house commentators identify the problem and its parameters, creating a box that dissenters struggle vainly to elude. The critic who insists on changing the context is dismissed as irrelevant, extremist, “the Left”—or ignored altogether.

But one question that immediately comes to mind in light of Wolin’s critique is whether voters have the background necessary to assimilate the types of commentary he’d like to see. Consider the latest attack on common assumptions about democracy from George Mason, by Rick Shenkman:

[I]n Just How Stupid Are We? [Mason Prof.] Shenkman cuts through the Gordian knot of contemporary politics with a shatteringly simple claim: the problem lies not in the machinations of elite business leaders and policy-makers, but in the gross ignorance and irrationality of millions of ordinary voters. . . . Only 2 out of 5 voters can name the three branches of the federal government. Only 1 in 7 can find Iraq on a map. . . A Washington Post poll in September 2003 found that 70% of Americans believed Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. A majority continued to believe this even after the 9/11 Commission reported that the claim was groundless.

Though I’ve found much to commend in Bryan Caplan‘s and Ilya Somin’s worries about voter competence, I ultimately feel the George Mason revival of Walter Lippmann’s classic complaints about democracy goes too far. There simply is too much self-serving media refusal to acknowledge basic facts–whether irrefutable facets of science or history, or the types of biases that drive media coverage.


This is where Glenn Greenwald’s tireless analysis of media coverage proves a helpful empirical confirmation of some of Wolin’s theoretical claims. He shows that some leading anchors disclaim the responsibility to ask even basic follow up questions to officials on fundamental issues of war and peace. He also notes extraordinary government-media cooperation in managing public opinion about the war. And most embarrassingly, the leading TV news outlets still appear not even to have acknowledged the NYT expose on the subject.

I can foresee some of the George Mason school’s response at this point–if the public has been misinformed about war, why am I confident that collective action in any other area will work? I can only say that it appears to me uniquely in war-situations that the government has so much at stake in aggrandizing its own popularity by focusing fear on an external enemy. And while all individuals have a direct experience of health care or infrastructure, a much smaller percentage of American voters has actually been in Iraq. As Wolin notes, in a post-draft era, for the vast majority, “War is an action game, played in the living room, or a spectacle on a screen, but, in either case, not actually experienced. Ordinary life goes on uninterruptedly: work, recreation, professional sports, family vacations.”

So while neo-con Michael Ledeen even now calls for conflict with Iran entailing “sacrifices on many fronts: in the comforts of our lives, indeed in lives lost, in the domestic focus of our passions – careers derailed and personal freedoms subjected to unpleasant and even dangerous restrictions – and the diversion of wealth from self-satisfaction to the instruments of power,” we still have yet to raise taxes to pay for the extraordinary borrowing binge that funds the war in Iraq. Given these documented and predictable biases for war, I hope that some of the safeguards outlined by Bruce Ackerman are adopted before the next one is launched.

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