Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Defending the Fourth Estate

I haven't seen much debate in the blogosphere over the story in the New York Times on Sunday about the Bush administration's increasingly common and sophisticated use of prepackaged video segments, generally passed off as "regular" news stories, to get their message out to the public. Timothy Burke has a typically smart and unconventional take on it: whatever else is wrong with the practice, it is also clumsy, banal, classless, "tinpot"--making the U.S. that much more like every other place in the world which lacks a robust public sphere. And John Quiggin brought it up over at Crooked Timber, tying it into how the age-old collusion between advertisers and the media often crosses over into plain propaganda: "Of course, reprinting press releases with minimal editing has been a standby of lazy journalists for decades. But...[e]ven if the reader is led to imagine that the statement was actually made to an audience of reporters, there's no serious deception, though a well-designed press release can certainly ensure that the writer's key points get prominently reported in a way that makes them seem like fact rather than opinion. But the video news release goes way beyond this. The closest analog in the print world is those supplements, designed to look like news, with 'advertisement' in small print at the bottom of the page." I agree with John, though I think the problems inherent in this practice (which, to be sure, long predate the Bush administration) go way beyond the advertising mentality. In fact, I think the important issue is the need to distinguish between what government does and what advertisers do.

Advertising exists to sell things. In a very crude way, so does the government, at least in its executive function; it's the branch responsible for enacting policies and enforcing laws, and communication is a big part of that. Every department in the federal government--Agriculture, State, Defense, Education, etc.--has public relations people who are responsible for communicating with Congress and innumerable constituents, making a case for what they're doing and how they're doing it; if they fail to do that, then they aren't going to be able to do their job. That's a reality of public administration, and no one denies it. But advertising, in its selling, seeks to make a particular kind of case for its product, a case which involves a good deal of selectivity, misdirection, even deception in how it conveys its message. We don't want the government to make that kind of case for itself, however much it might increase its public effectiveness in the short or long term. Why? Because, to invoke Rousseau, we do not want the government--meaning specifically the executive branch--to exercise its own institutional or "corporate will" independently of what the people (ideally the legislative branch) desire. (As he put it (Social Contract, Bk. III, Sec. 2), the corporate will is "the common will of the magistrates, which is relative solely to the advantage of the prince"--or in other words, those actually holding executive power.) It is a precarious but necessary thing that certain specific persons and agencies be entrusted with the power to enact and enforce policy; a legitimate polity will be one which limits and watches the power of the executive to do so. To allow such limits to collapse is to allow the executive too much command over not just the establishment of policies, but also the determination of such. We're tolerant of advertisers exercising a significant degree over control over how their work is received by the public; after all, it is private goods they are selling (though we properly lay down certain standards, especially when it comes to goods that could potentially impact the health or safety of buyers and others--medicine, automobiles, etc.). But the government is selling public goods: our own business, in other words. And hence, we ought to be careful about letting the people in executive positions determine what or how much about that business is known.

In other words, we want an independent media. One needn't go deeply into political theory to make this case--the idea that press ought to form a "fourth estate" representing a defined body of interests in society, one set in opposition to those who are actually in government, is practically synonymous with the modern age. Still, I think the detour into theory is helpful, because it clarifies some important distinctions. Consider the obvious defense one might make to this article (a defense which, in fact, an old friend of mine, a former employee of the Department of Energy who regularly handled press releases and all manner of "strategic" communications): it's the journalists fault! The article makes it clear that financially strapped local affiliates and unprepared reporters can be counted on to desperately make use of any prefabricated story which falls into their laps; if they don't do the work to come up with "the other side of the story," or at least identify the source of the footage or words, it isn't the government's fault, right?

The reply to this response can take one of two forms. First, you could argue that the media is supposed to be "neutral," and that, by taking advantage of the decentralized structure of the American media today, the government's clever use of prepackaged news stories undermines the "objectivity" which news organizations are committed to. The news, in short, is supposed to be disinterested and trustworthy enough to give us the facts without interpretation, thereby enabling the people to decide things with an open mind. This ideal of journalism as a selfless, impartial labor on behalf of democracy is a great myth, and it makes for a strong argument against tolerating, at least not without strict limits, the ability of government agencies to use their PR resources to provide unnecessary crutches to media affiliates across the country. Unfortunately, I think this argument also has a serious flaw: as soon as anyone can plausibly make the case that reporters are not, in fact, neutral, objective, impartial and disinterested, then the door is kicked wide open for the party in government to step right in and claim that the "real story" hasn't been told, and justify using their position to spread as much partisan (that is, in service to their own party) information as possible. The fact that Fox News, which has never seriously pretended to be anything other that a voice for the Republican party, can insist that they're just playing the same objectivity game as everyone else ("we report, you decide"), I think shows just how weak this liberal ideal in practice actually is.

I don't particularly mind a partisan media, at least not in many things. Michael Kinsley made the argument years ago that, especially in regard to stories involving highly contested political, social, or economic facts and issues, he'd rather read the Wall Street Journal or some other similarly slanted paper, because someone not worried about hiding their opinions is more likely to dig into the real implications of the story than someone who feels constrained by an "on the one hand, on the other hand" ethic. I think his point is basically correct--the goal is to have a responsible media, and such responsibility isn't necessarily incompatible with a partisan one. The way to preserve that responsibility isn't primarily making certain that the media has no interests; rather, it is making certain that the media remains an interest entirely distinct from the institutional or corporate interest of those actually making and enforcing policy. That makes, I believe, for a much sharper and brighter line--no running of news stories which directly originate from the government without identifying them as such!--than the attempt to impose a nonpartisan perspective on the mainstream media itself.

Of course, the problem with partisanship is that partisans will form alliances, and from there you're only a step away from the government (or business, or liberal advocacy groups, or whomever) just writing the news themselves. Even the sharpest line will have some gray edges to be negotiated, and negotiated again. But to baldly accept the idea that the government has every much "right" to sell it's own version of the news to supposedly independent institutions is to blind oneself to the very real power imbalance here. It is one thing for a reporter to tell a story in such a way to make it easier for his or her preferred lawmakers to do what he or she hope they'll do; it's another thing for the lawmaker herself to tell a story to increase her own popular power. I see the real harm here not in the willingness of some news organizations to do some advertising, and let their sympathies show, but rather in the blinkered arrogance of a state or party that makes use of the needful and important tropes of journalism directly on its own behalf--and the fact that many journalists, too concerned about political goals or slashed budgets, are apparently happy to let them. To the extent that such is the reality of television journalism today, then the fact that video segments are flowing out of Washington D.C. without big red stamps on them, marking them "A Department of Agriculture Production," is a potentially a far greater threat to democracy than it may first appear.

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