Pundits in the press: the joke line

by Dave Neiwert, Orcinus

The joke line

Eric Alterman yesterday:

Have you noticed that every time Klein is asked to defend something he has written, he responds with a personal attack against the person making the charge? It's not just me; it's anyone. Look at the names he calls Media Matters and the bloggers generally. Note that Tom Friedman and Howard Kurtz, among others, react similarly. Pundits are used to making Olympian pronouncements and then having everyone praise their wisdom and courage, the way Walter Lippmann defined the job. Asking people whatever happened to the last 10 times you said Iraq has only six more months, or that Bush is sure to be a centrist, and they flip out and call you an ideologue or an "obsessive."

Much of the cause of the current dysfunction in "mainstream" media, as I think Alterman has correctly identified (and I've discussed a bit myself previously), is the fundamentally elitist architecture of the Lippmann/Laswell model of communications theory: wisdom is handed to the masses by a special corps of "wise men" atop the media hierarchy and distributed downward through the system.

What's especially noteworthy about this model is that it was designed as a means of social control -- that is, it is fundamentally both authoritarian and antidemocratic in nature. Rather than trusting in the ability of citizens to become reasonably informed and aware participants in a democracy, it presumes that most people are fundamentally incapable of this and actually need to be controlled. Lippmann in particular was prone to observing that "the common interests elude public opinion entirely," and he argued that they can only be understood and managed by a "specialized class" of "responsible men" wise enough to figure things out for the rest of us.

Well, the presidency of George W. Bush and the war in Iraq has demonstrated pretty clearly how well that model has worked out. And a large part of the tide that has finally turned against this presidency, and conservative rule generally, is predicated not just on opposing their insane policies but on breaking down the old model of elite rule and social control -- beginning with the media. And the people atop the heap, the people who have benefited profoundly from that model, are rather predictably lashing out at those responsible for their slipping grip.

Journalism is a funny business. It does indeed attract some of the most civic-minded people in our society, people who truly believe that an informed electorate is the essence of democracy, and that providing the best and fullest information they can to that electorate is a sacred task. They're the only reason to continue to hold the current mainstream media in any kind of esteem.

But it also attracts some genuinely malignant personalities, and people who've been in the biz for any length of time at all can tell you about their many misbegotten dealings with them: ruthless backstabbers, cynical manipulators, and generally sociopathic users who see media work as a means for self-aggrandizement, enrichment, and most of all control over a public they hold in rather low esteem.

I've known any number of these personalities over the years, and one of their more noteworthy traits is that they are all incredibly insecure people -- the kind of people for whom the primary value of an advanced academic degree is that it certifies your superiority over others. Being atop the heap, continually moving up the ladder, is their entire raison d'etre. The only friendships, as such, that they form are with acolytes who see some value in being pulled up the ladder with them.

And what they really can't tolerate is being questioned by people they consider their lessers. It touches every little button in their insecurity complexes. Their response, uniformly and without fail, is to attack the person of the questioner -- attacking them as bad and incompetent people, rather than responding to the actual facts raised.

The other funny thing about the news biz is that, unfortunately, these are the same people who make it farther up the hierarchy and become our "elite" pundits, partly because the elite model is something of a self-sustaining system. The authoritarian personalities of the ladder-climbers clearly appeal to the authoritarians who have ruled the roost for years themselves.

This is the model that gives us people like Joe Klein, Maureen Dowd, Bill O'Reilly, David Broder, and Howard Kurtz. News Corpse the other day dissected Kurtz's response to those dirty-hippy bloggers who questioned his newsgathering methods, and satirically gave us the penultimate formulation of the elite punditry's attitude toward their lessers:

What these critics fail to understand is that it is none of their business. I don't have to answer to them. For what it's worth, I could have created the sites myself to provide corroboration for my preconceptions. Or I could have had my wife, Sheri Annis, do it. As president of Fourth Estate Strategies, she has the requisite skills and experience to produce convincing right wing propaganda. So what if we did invent these sites? What are you going to do about it, tell my boss? Go ahead. You'll be lucky if you get a response back that tells you to "stuff a sock-puppet in it."

In the end, these sniping parasites need to get off my back. Don't they know who I am? I'm Howie Kurtz of the Washington Post and CNN. I am the unassailable voice of Mainstream Media™ and I will not tolerate such impertinence from my lessers. F.O.

I really don't think any of these characters has any conception yet just how far, how deeply, and how permanently they have fallen in the estimation of the news-consuming public. Their continuing insistence in their unassailable authority, their elite wisdom, expressed mostly as ad hominem attacks on anyone undermining that authority, even in the face of exponentially mounting evidence of their buffoonery, just keeps digging the hole deeper. They are, indeed, fast becoming their own joke lines.

article originally published at http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2007/03/joke-line.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey