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The One Media Conspiracy Theory That's True
It's kind of impressive how long cable news has been openly corrupt.
When you work in the parts of the media where I have spent most of my career—alt-weeklies, online news, progressive magazines—popular conspiracy theories about “the media” usually look pretty ludicrous. You can look around your newsroom full of failed English majors and earnest DSA members and by-the-book moral fanatics and people actively getting high and think: This? This is the shadowy group of radicals plotting to overthrow American values? This bunch of people who are scrounging for rent because they deeply believe in the civic necessity of reporting on City Council meetings is the Soros-funded weapon of cultural war? These weird grammar addicts are attempting to do propaganda on behalf of their Corporate Media Paymasters? There are certainly plenty of people in the press with extreme left wing beliefs, but that’s mostly because they are broke, and they know how dirty the cops are because they report on them. They also write these very beliefs for public consumption. It would be a pretty poor conspiracy even if a collection of misfits like this were capable of keeping something secret, which they aren’t.
There are, to be sure, segments of the American media that are riven with devastating flaws. But like most conspiracy theories, the real conspiracies aren’t secrets. They’re the things we already know. The “elite media”—the NYT, the New Yorker, the Washington Post—is, in fact, a schmoozy high class backwater riddled with people who got their jobs because they were roommates with the right person at Yale. They come by their elitism honestly. They are products made by and for people whose entire lives have been defined by their ability to ascend America’s cultural ladder. This is their biggest failing, and the cause of their worst blind spots, which are significant. These types of publications also navigate the demands of access journalism with varying levels of success, always in danger of becoming too cozy with the other elite power centers they are covering. At the same time, these are big institutions that employ more good reporters than any other institutions in this country and have the resources to produce a quantity of useful journalism that nowhere else does. They are flawed, they are elitist, and they are vital. All of these things are true. When they fuck up, we all yell at them, and if the yelling gets loud enough they sometimes make a change. None of this is shadowy or concealed. Have the brightest writer at your Oklahoma community newspaper try to get a job at the New Yorker. They can’t! Ta-da! Elitism! It ain’t hard to sniff out.
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Understanding the (pretty modest) amount of nuance in all this is enough to make the classic “Liberal Media Conspiracy” (on the right) or “Corporate Media Conspiracy” (on the left) seem pretty goofy, kindergarten-ish attempts to concoct grand explanations for why David Brooks sucks. Likewise, there is a strain of media criticism that attempts to define what does or does not qualify as real “journalism,” which I have always disliked. Journalism is an action. If you go out and find stuff out and then write it down and publish it and do your best to make sure it’s true, you are doing journalism. It is possible for an average citizen to Do Journalism very well and it is possible for a professional journalist to Do Journalism very poorly. It is possible for a news outlet to do great journalism one day and shitty journalism the next. Thanks to the First Amendment, you do not need a laminated press pass to be an Official Journalist. You just go do it. Every day you do it anew. Every day, a new chance to do well or fuck it all up. The regular citizen and the professional reporter have this in common. Fancy titles don’t define it.
With all of that said: Cable news networks, as institutions, are not journalism. I know I’m breaking the rule that I just laid out, and I’m sorry. But even after all of these years, I find that cable news still has the ability to take my breath away with the extent to which they are willing to boldly wallow in shit. I’m not talking about whether one story or another was good or bad here; I’m talking about institutional-level shit. I am forced to think about this a lot, due to the unapologetic and frequent nature of cable news networks’ transgressions against the pretense of caring about the most basic rules of ethical journalism. The most recent thing that has forced me to think about this—and to inflict these thoughts on you, the innocent readers—is the fact that the daughter of recently indicted United States senator and crook Bob Menendez is a news anchor at MSNBC.
If you were to make one single rule to follow when it comes to hiring journalists at a news organization it would be “Try to avoid hiring the direct family members of prominent politicians, for your political news outlet.” And yet. And yet! This. Shit. Happens.
All the time!!!!!!!
Chris Cuomo. Chris Cuomo was the fucking. BROTHER. Of the sitting governor of New York! And CNN gave him his own fucking talk show! To talk about political news! What the fuck!!!!!!!!
Alicia Menendez, the MSNBC anchor, promised viewers that her colleagues would “aggressively” cover her father’s crookedness, and that she would not report on his case. As if that made it okay! It doesn’t! People like Alicia Menendez or Chris Cuomo or Jenna Bush Hager should not be within one million miles of a news anchor chair. It should never happen. These people should be gently told: “You are so very lucky to have such prestigious family connections, which will ensure that you live a good life, because every door in life will automatically open to you. Except for the door to journalism, which will be closed. Do anything else! Journalism sucks anyhow.”
It is staggering to imagine that these are not even the most egregious hiring decisions that cable news networks make. Yet I would have to say that even more grotesque than hiring the family members of prominent politicians for news anchor roles is the practice of hiring people who formerly worked as paid spokespeople or strategists for politicians directly into news anchor roles. Straight from the fucking White House into the anchor chair. This is a hilariously corrupt practice. This should never happen, and yet it happens so often that I am aware that I sound like kind of crank going on about it right now. George Stephanopoulos? Get a new job. Dana Perino? Get a new job. Jen Psaki? New job. If people like this—political flacks—want to be involved in TV news, the role they can have is “commentator,” which is to say “a person who is there to be a mouthpiece for a political party, and that fact is clear to viewers.” That is a very distinct role from “anchor,” which is “a person who appears to the average viewer to be a journalist, but little do they know that they were until very recently working for the fucking White House, writing talking points to mislead the media.”
Ugh. The reason it is worth continuing to talk about this despite the fact that entire generations of cranks before me have been worn out by the persistence of this situation is that millions and millions of Americans draw their mental picture of “journalism” from cable news. For an alarming portion of the (mostly older) population, CNN and MSNBC and Fox News are what journalism is. In this context it is easier to forgive these people for becoming goofy media conspiracists. Cable news is where the broad outlines of media conspiracy theories come true. Fox News really is an evil political propaganda operation. MSNBC really does stock its cabinet with politically connected employees to create good government relations for its corporate parent company. CNN really does use the studied facade of journalistic credibility to conceal a purely revenue-driven gutter sensationalist operation. And, as always, they all produce enough regular normal fine journalism to leaven the underlying bullshit. If you want reporting on a hurricane, you could watch Fox News and be fine. CNN can cover train derailments just fine, and they feature many interesting and enlightening guests pontificating on matters of public importance each day, alongside the hacks. Likewise with MSNBC. Hell, I sometimes write for MSNBC.com, one of the many tentacles of that sprawling beast. But viewed as an institutional whole, cable news networks probably do more to warp and pervert the public idea of what journalism consists of than any other part of the United States media. Which is impressive, considering how many trashy websites there are.
“Well paid news anchor” falls in the category of jobs that many people would like to do because you get kind of famous and make good money and they’re not very difficult. Thousands and thousands of experienced television journalists across the country are well qualified for these jobs and if the cable news networks hired them they would do the job just fine. And also they are not former White House flacks, and also they are not related to any sitting politician likely to be a subject of news reporting. They are just journalists. This profession is hard enough to make a living in without political nepo babies and unemployed White House strategists sucking up the few good jobs. It is hard enough convincing regular people that reporters are not caricatures of elite corruption without the flashiest news channels in America conducting themselves like caricatures of elite corruption.
Stop doing that. (They are not going to stop doing it.) Or at least let the public know that your networks have this weird form of quasi-entertainment wrapped in with your regular journalism like a poisoned soft serve swirl. Some of us are trying to be fucking respectable out here.
My book about the labor movement, “The Hammer,” is full of reporting, and it is coming out in just a few months. If you preorder it, I would like that very much and that would be helpful. Another worthwhile thing you can do instead of watching cable news is to go join a picket line with SAG-AFTRA or UAW workers.
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