News Media and The Transatlantic Chasm

Thank heavens for The Daily Mail.

And The Sun. The Daily Mirror, The People, The Daily Express, The Morning Star, all of them. Every grotty little tabloid out there, thank you. And it goes without saying to the broadsheets, former and current, The Telegraph, Times, FT, Guardian, Independent, Observer, thank you. We don’t stop at the papers either, thanks be to BBC News, ITN News, CH4 News, Sky News, Newsnight, Question Time, The Daily Politics and any and every print or broadcast medium for the dissemination of information and current affairs that I’ve missed, we in the United Kingdom are truly blessed.

We should all be so goddamn grateful to the British news media establishment, and here’s why. It could be the USA’s news media establishment.

I’ve spent as much time as was wise and a good deal more in the past several months tracking the run-up to the 2012 presidential elections. That’s what I call entertainment. Not because I’m that much of a political junkie, even thought I am, and not because the outcome of these elections is still profoundly tied to the trajectory of the world, even though it is, but because of the theatre.

Obama, Romney and their respective campaigns play their part, as getting people to vote for you will always push you to do some fairly daft things not particularly in the presidential mould. Playing to the base is always a dangerous exercise and again in both cases we’ve seen some surprising rhetoric, although I’m not one for false equivalence and can comfortably state the Republicans have a more particular and unsubtle brand of electoral psychosis. But both of the recent conventions were lock step with the party line and brimming over with varying degrees of enthusiasm and vitriol.

But the real show comes from the USA’s ever degenerating gaggle of 24 hour news networks. I refer primarily to CNN, MSNBC and above all Fox News, who between them dominate the viewing figures for news broadcasts. Before I go any further I would like to give praise to some well-recognised and respected news outfits… ABC, CBS, PBS… and plenty of print formats from the NYT to The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. The sad truth however is that while they and others do hold up the proper end of news journalism, they don’t hold up the popular end and so don’t effect the national discourse quite so dramatically. Your average Republican punter would probably refer to them as intellectually elitist.

Filling the eyes and ears and minds of most Americans are those three big networks, and what a perpetual tussle for ratings they’re in. It’s the source of all their problems that they are commercial enterprises and so must pander to the bottom line, but it doesn’t take a genius to see this. The dynamic is clear, with Fox touting for the right and MSNBC the left, while CNN wriggles around in the dark like a blind and limbless lobotomite attempting neutrality but mostly producing the aforementioned false equivalence that has hammered their viewer numbers down to third from first a decade ago. And how they go about this with gusto. The briefest perusal of any of their website’s media can highlight this for you.

You might be thinking at this point, well, don’t we have the same spectrum of media representation in the UK? How is the USA any worse? For two very important reasons.

First, the tailored bias in the USA is far, far worse. Rachel Maddow and the now defunct Keith Olberman offer(ed) a firebrand-like commentary for MSNBC that gleefully assault(ed) any and all infringements of the right on leftist sensibilities. Poor Wolf Blitzer at CNN must be crying himself to sleep at night knowing how gingerly he must navigate even the most patently one-sided issue the following day. Fox are the standard bearers though. If being generous you only called the other two networks flawed, of Fox you can say without fear that they exist as the PR extension of the Republican party and are only growing more comfortable in this role.

The sheer audacity of their news teams, news anchors, morning shows, feature pieces and all is almost admirable if it weren’t so horrific. Glenn Beck may be gone but the rampant culture of distortion remains as strong as ever, with the likes of Hannity, O’Reilly, Doocy, Carlson, Kelly and Kilmeade using every ounce of discipline to stare straight into the camera on a daily basis and misinform, misrepresent and mislead. Even the so-called “serious” journalists of Fox News are complicit, if in a slightly more inconspicuous and ashamed fashion. I think of Bret Baier and Shepard Smith, and perhaps in the netherworld between these two groups, Neil Cavuto. And there are many more indeed. Sadly for America they all exist in this framework of right-wing ideologues further represented by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and yet further still into the blurred lines of media and politics. We see Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin lapping up Fox News air-time to complement the anchors with “real” perspective.

It is a truly corrupt media culture, and even though Fox flouts the laws of honest journalism more than the rest, they are all three guilty to some extent. With each trying to fill a distinct social niche so as to best optimise commercial value, they fail themselves in what should be the critical aim of the news to offer information and unbiased interpretations where possible.

The second key distinction is an obvious one. I may find a comparable view in The Sun, The Daily Mail or Daily Mirror (the UK’s strident leaders in readership, not to mention their Sunday editions) as unpleasant as one on any of these American networks, but they are, and I pray will always be, only tabloid newspapers. Giving a vocally prejudiced entity a 24 hour television broadcast is probably the easiest way to annihilate rational conversation that I can think of. Sky and BBC News may have 24 hour news services but they are neither openly partisan nor terrestrially available.

We are lucky in the UK for our news media establishment, something that has been very easy to forget in the past couple of years after the atrocity of the phone hacking scandals and reanimated debate as to where the line is drawn in terms of privacy. No matter how disagreeable one might find the tabloids, their existence is important for allowing us to say we have an legitimate and broad discourse that is fairly represented. Even if they spend half their time printing retractions (something every paper has to do occasionally), they are subject to actionable scrutiny. To the best of my knowledge these American news networks are not in the habit of putting their hand up and saying, “Sorry, we were wrong”. In a nation where the major players are engaged in this warped incarnation of the news, this is hugely damaging.

In the wake of the Leveson Inquiry we are more inclined to critique our tabloids, and so we should in the knowledge that this is part of, and constructive to, a healthy media culture. So while even today I lament the attention given to some risqué photos of Kate Middleton, just as I did not so long ago with Prince Harry’s similar predicament, I remain convinced that the tabloids are at worst a necessary evil to those who oppose them and their content. And in light of what they could be transformed into I am grateful for that. Commercialism and the capacity for televisual broadcasting grows ever greater and as a format that allows for a much larger and more easily engaged audience, the absence of a popular American media culture facsimile is nothing short of a godsend.

And on the more serious end of the spectrum we have an astounding track record. Print journalism on par with the finest in the world, exemplary analytical broadcasting like Newsnight and hugely popular interactive forums like Question Time can allow us to say we are, in the majority of cases, doing it right. Suck my informed democracy Aaron Sorkin.


1 Comment

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One response to “News Media and The Transatlantic Chasm

  1. Another lively and well reasoned critique. Perhaps it won’t surprise you that I agree with everything here. If we occasionally find ourselves on opposite sides of the political fence, at least we can unite in our condemnation of the irredeemable Fox News.

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