The political-media axis

Charles Davis recounts how as a newly minted reporter starting his first job in 2007, he learned first hand how the system works when he reported on what should have been an important story only to have his editors quash it because they feared that if they published it they would lose access to the powerful politician who had spoken to him on the record.

Davis says that much of news organizations’ efforts are directed towards getting politicians to give them quotes, but that also requires them to maintain good relationships with the very people they are supposed to cover.

Though Hollywood often portrays journalists as courageously speaking truth to power, ever on the prowl for the next Watergate, I knew that not to be the case going in. This was after the media’s performance in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, after all. But I wasn’t expecting the ass-kissing-for-access part of the job to be stated so vulgarly.

In Washington, it doesn’t pay – literally – to question power. Even small non-profits like the one I worked for simply mimic the establishment venues. It’s not a story unless it makes The Washington Post and, even then, no one really cares for all that stuff about covert wars and dead foreigners. And if you depend on getting quotes from politicians for your 30-second new reports, making them look bad is simply bad for business.

Whatever the truth, though, this much is clear: Don’t expect members of Congress to do much about it. And don’t count on the media to ask them why.

There are deep-rooted structural reasons why the top ranks of the media are like this. As I wrote some time ago, a well-structure oligarchic system works not by coercion but by cooption.

It is much more effective to have a structure in which the people in the media share common values with the ruling classes so that they sincerely spout the desired message. This is far more effective than forcing them to toe the party line against their will because the people in the media are truly saying what they think and thus the public thinks that they are being told the truth. And they would be correct in a narrow sense. You will almost never find outright lying by mainstream US journalists. What the media does is three things: they will not cover certain kinds of stories, the stories they do cover will be viewed through a particular prism that is advantageous to establishment interests, and the range of analyses will be restricted to a narrow spectrum. Everything that falls within these limits will be called ‘moderate’, ‘centrist’, ‘reasonable’, ‘mainstream’, and other favorable labels and gain easy access to media outlets to repeatedly propound their message while anything outside will be labeled ‘radical’, ‘extreme’ and be rarely heard.

How is this remarkable consensus achieved? By creating a media structure that has filters built into it that, as you rise in the ranks, steadily weed out those whose values and ideology do not conform.

The classic 1988 work Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman remains in my view the best analysis. (See here and here for a brief review that explains how their model of media filters work.) The process is aided by the changing class nature of journalists that now make them even more instinctively sympathetic to the ruling classes.

Much of the behavior of journalists and politicians can be understood by them being in a symbiotic relationship with each other. Davis’s experience is one that every new journalist will encounter sooner rather than later and how they respond will determine if they have a future in the establishment media.

The one thing that you can be sure of is that the prominent people currently in the media have long ago decided to conform.


  1. unbound says

    I do have a chicken and egg question.

    Apple has been doing this for a long time too. The reason that all initial reviews of Apple products are always glowing is that the tech media reporters have been filtered by Apple. Anyone that gives Apple products a bad review will simply not get a preview of the next product, effectively destroying that reporter’s ability to do their job.

    So who was first…Apple or politicians? And how widespread is this overall?

  2. Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc says

    Politicians have been at it for as long as there has been press (certainly in the UK) so I’d assume that it was them!

  3. Art says

    I know the process is much more subtle than this but it is easy to understand why a young journalist presented with the choice between being broke, unknown, but principled; or wealthy, well known, and a tool for the powers that be, chose the later. In a capitalist society all that really matters is money. How you get it, selling crack to the poor, or pandering to the powerful, doesn’t matter.

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