The contemporary spin, in Black's piece and in the James Fallows book that prompted it, goes like this. It's the negativism of media that drives people to distraction. Ergo the media ought to find more constructive ways to cover politics and the workings of power. "Constructive," in this context, naturally means less antagonism and more unctuousness. It's a textbook straw man argument. Black quotes a study by the Pew Research Center for the People and Press in which "media insiders" confess their sins against civility but defend their nobly adversarial character, "arguing that such a stance is necessary to perform the role of a watchdog." Watchdog?
The real root of public disgust is plain to see. It's not the media's role as watchdog but their role as guard dog. As the authors of Citizens and Politics: A View from Main Street America, a fascinating little 1991 study by the Kettering Foundation that I've cited here before, put it: "People know exactly who dislodged them from their rightful place in American democracy. They point their fingers at politicians, at powerful lobbyists, and--this came as a surprise--at people in the media. They see these three groups as a political class, the rulers of an oligarchy that has replaced democracy." You can't put it much more simply.
It's true that the so-called negativism factor rates high when average people are asked about the faults of the media, but what they mean by "negative" is another matter. There is certainly a distaste for lurid crime coverage and mud-slinging personality sideshows, but in my experience that's the least of it. In a broader sense people hate the news media because the daily spew of newspapers and television contributes enormously to their sense of numbness and impotence. People are not apathetic and they are not stupid. (They believe the media regard them that way, however, and they are for the most part right.) They are tired of the evasive private language of the Beltway and of corporate America. What they want is journalism that speaks plainly and argues vigorously about the forces that are changing their lives, in most cases for the worse. Not less antagonism, in short, but less cant and less collusion with power.
And less collusion with power is the last thing the media can deliver, or want to. A.J. Liebling once famously observed that freedom of the press resides with the man who owns one, and the trends in concentration of media ownership have only made the underlying picture more dismal. The public is bright enough to realize that major media companies are bought, sold, and maintained by the same entities that buy, sell, and maintain politicians. Most journalists, who want desperately to believe in their own independence even as they chase the scent of the pack, can't bear to see that the real business of their industry is managing opinion. The words of David Hume are relevant:
"Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few, and the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we inquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find that, as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is, therefore, on opinion only that government is founded, and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments as well as to the most free and most popular."
HUME IS ALSO a fitting epigraph for the excerpt of Robert Samuelson's The Good Life and Its Discontents: The American Dream and the Age of Entitlement 1945-1995 that ran in Newsweek recently. Samuelson is in the vanguard of what promises to be a burgeoning literary and political genre; call it expectation reform. "We have achieved unprecedented prosperity and personal freedom," he writes. "We are healthier, work at less exhausting jobs and live longer than ever. Government provides a safety net for the elderly and poor that never before existed.... America has become a vastly better place. Yet, we disparage our leaders and despair at our prospects. There's an immense contempt for politicians, corporate executives and other leaders." Fighting back the tears, he goes on to explain that American elites, contrary to the now prevailing view, have not betrayed the rest of the country. No. The rest of the country has betrayed the elites by failing to curb its vexatious appetites. In the opinion wars, as Goebbels understood, the big lie is always the best lie.