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Welcome to the (Media) Madhouse

James Bowman, chronicler of the post-honor society, takes aim at the mass media.

By 9.9.08

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Long-time New Criterion media critic, TAS movie reviewer, and culture maven James Bowman has at last followed up Honor, A History, his seminally brilliant, epically cartographic exploration of the concept of honor and how its ghost haunts our post-honor society, with a slim yet endlessly engaging volume on perhaps the most ostentatious offshoots of that declining society: the modern mass media. The book, part of Encounter Books' wonderful "Brief Encounters" series, is entitled Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture. Bowman was kind enough to submit recently to a TAS interrogation.

TAS: For those who have yet to read the book, give us a thumbnail sketch of what constitutes "media madness."

James Bowman: The kernel -- or "nut-graph" to employ journalistic jargon -- of the book is the contention that the problem with the media culture is not bias, since we all have that, but the astonishingly arrogant belief, implicit in much of what they do even when not a point made explicitly, that the media are composed of a sort of cognoscenti or illuminati of the only people in the world who are not biased. All else flows from that -- their privileged status over the rest of us non-"professionals" is what allows them to look down, as if from a great height, on mere "partisans" who can't see as far as "objective" journalists like themselves. It is what excuses their sensationalism and their foolish preoccupation with feelings and their worship of celebrity. It is what ultimately lies behind their over-valuation of intelligence and their contempt for those they regard as less intelligent than themselves. And that, in turn, is what motivates their attempt to moralize political differences and so to represent any opinion other than their own as not only wrong or mistaken but indecent and illegitimate. So this is also what produces the well-known phenomenon of political correctness.

TAS: The "myths," you write, "of objectivity and professionalism (in journalism), came into existence for commercial reasons." Establish authority and reap the profits, essentially. Does this at least partially account for the non-stop PR campaign journalists constantly wage on behalf of themselves to prove they are on a crusade for the little guy rather than cogs in a corporate machine?

JB: Sure. But there is also their own sense of amour propre. They are an elite, a clerical class who are entitled to have opinions in a way that other people aren't. Don't underestimate the power of their vanity or the culture's rewards for what represents itself as superior brainpower to keep this going long after there ceases to be much money in it.

TAS: What are some of the other consequences of accepting that myth of objectivity?

JB: I think it is a mistake to speak of the lie as "accepted." It is often asserted, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it is accepted except in the most superficial sense. "Objective" is a sort of password a certain privileged class of reporters and commentators use to gain entrance into their own self-defined and -limited club. And if you want to gain entrance to that club, you have to use the password. It is less clear how it works on those who aren't in the club. Some, no doubt, accept it -- perhaps because they aspire to membership themselves. It is not without its prestige, you know. But I suspect that beyond its members and aspirational members there are not many who really do accept it. Of course, within the club it skews the perspective of those who actually believe in their own objectivity. But then you have to answer the question: Do the club members themselves actually believe it, or are they just using it as the not-so-secret code that gains them the membership they covet and therefore a proprietary right in "the truth" or what they are pleased to call "reality"? In any case, they don't have to think about it much once they are admitted to the club. From that point on they can just take it for granted that what they think is more likely to be the truth than what non-journalists think.

TAS: Speaking of establishing authority, you argue, "The cheapest and easiest way to appear intelligent is to claim to be the possessor of knowledge that is not obvious and so is beyond the capacity of those ordinary folks who judge things by appearances." Thus, for example, "the only thing the [Iraq] war couldn't be is what the administration says it is." Are we becoming a nation of conspiracy theorists? Or, worse, a nation that is being trained to think being well informed means eschewing the obvious?

JB: Well, yes, I rather think we are becoming a nation of conspiracy theorists -- except that the "we" is those of us in the chattering classes most susceptible to the virus of Media Madness. In other words we are, as John Edwards pointed out, two nations. Only they are not the rich and the poor. Or not just the rich and the poor. For the rich, now, mostly belong to the nation of the media mad and the poor mostly belong to those either so out of touch with the mainstream or so stubbornly grounded in old-fashioned common sense that they don't buy the intellectuals' version of reality that is so attractive to the upwardly mobile -- and, indeed, a way to get ahead, not just in the media but in life to some extent. In other words, what started us down this path is the meritocracy that has come to dominate American life in the last 60 years. If we honor intelligence above all other qualities, then the culture will have to provide us more and more opportunities to identify the intelligent and to discriminate in favor of them. Obviously, those who can claim to know what others don't know, or only suspect, have a huge advantage in playing that game.

TAS: Is media, then, not religion, the true opiate of the masses?

JB: Yes, and for the same reason Marx thought religion was: that the media encourage us to live in their fantasy world rather than the world as it is. If we buy into the intellectuals' version of reality because it is more chic and an upmarket brand for us, we are also buying into what underlies it, which is the utopian belief that somewhere, even if no one has discovered it yet, there is a Perfect Plan by which the world can be organized so as to obviate most if not all the bad things that happen to us: war, poverty, disease, etc. Some brainiac somewhere is going to figure these things out -- maybe already has, as some of the more devoted Obamaniacs seem to want to say -- and when he does, we will worship him.

TAS: So is media madness a symptom of this cultural ill, a cause, or are we dealing with a symbiotic relationship here?

JB: Clearly, I think, it works both ways. Respect for authority collapses with the collapse of the honor culture, but the honor culture is brought down partly because it is -- or was when it still existed -- an impediment to the media's natural impulse to publicize everything, or everything that there might be public curiosity about....In fact there is no "outside" of the media culture anymore. Everything is considered public property when the media require it to be, and ordinary people have by now just naturally come to assume that this is how it has to be. It never occurs to anybody, it seems, momentarily caught up in some public event, to say when the media rush up with their note pads and microphones, "It's none of your damn business."

It's obviously in their interest to be the arbiters of everything, and the rest of us seem to have bought their argument. That wouldn't have happened if we still had an honor culture, but we don't have an honor culture partly, maybe even mostly, because the media can now use the advantage they have gained as national arbiters to ridicule the very idea, or else to associate it with some bad thing like Nazism or the primitive honor cultures of the Middle East, at every opportunity.

TAS: Do you think mainstream newspapers would have a better shot at surviving in the new media age if any of the authority you describe had remained?

JB: It's an interesting question. I like the poetic justice of the idea that it is their own reductivism about cultural institutions which has ultimately brought down their position as a cultural institution. But it's pretty hard to imagine, today, any "mainstream newspaper" that wasn't a full partaker in the media madness of our times. As I mention in the book, the New York Times devoted as much coverage to the death of Anna Nicole Smith as People or the National Enquirer. In any case, if a newspaper tried to stand aloof from the madness, it wouldn't be a mainstream newspaper anymore.

TAS: Why does the media seek to endlessly uncover blame in public service even while fetishizing celebrity culture?

JB: They are two sides of the same coin, two aspects of the same process, which is the moralization of politics. First, you take as many as you can of genuinely political differences -- that is, those which men of honor will disagree about -- and you convert them to moral matters. Oops! There is no legitimate difference after all. There's a right and a wrong, and you know which side you'd better be on if you want to win the approval of the moralizers, who are the leading lights of the media and celebrity culture. They have already had great success in moralizing Global Warming and other environmental issues and, at least within the penumbra of the media culture itself which is casting its shade ever wider over the political spectrum, there are many more issues including the war on terror and the war in Iraq, government-run health care, government bailouts of the improvident and a few other matters, where debate is essentially closed.

The celebrity part of the equation comes into it because there is a huge celebrity demand for supposedly non-controversial moral issues that they can campaign about and so give themselves a pseudo-heroic gravitas. The symbiosis with the media comes because they can then cover the celebrities' political campaigns -- like Al Gore's Live Earth extravaganza last summer -- in order to sell more papers and advertising time, so that increases the incentive for them to moralize what is inherently political and therefore not moral. Celebrities, of course, love this, because it allows them to pose as crusaders against the forces of darkness -- which is what leads Madonna in her latest concert tour to associate John McCain with Hitler and Robert Mugabe. Once, people who depend on other people's paying money to come to see them would have been more chary about such things, but now they seem to be able to count on the public's giving them a pass. Oh, that's just what rock stars do. Having those sorts of infantile political views goes with the job-description.

TAS: Is there any particular topic you plan to turn your critical eye on next?

JB: Just as Media Madness follows on from Honor, A History so, I think, the next book will follow on from it. I want to take off from the last chapter on moralizing politics and look into the utopian assumptions in our popular culture that make it possible. No one has yet pointed out, I think, the extent to which -- for example -- we base our discussions of foreign and defense policy on essentially pacifist assumptions, or our economic decision-making on the assumption that it is the government's function to make sure that everyone is happy. But this kind of assuming extends far beyond the political culture to affect our outlook on health and safety -- because no one should ever die -- or sex -- because (in the words of an impotence clinic that advertises on the radio) "everyone has a right to a healthy sex life" -- or popular entertainment -- which is increasingly dominated by utopian fantasies of one sort or another. As usual, everything comes back to honor: once the honor culture has decayed, something has to take its place, and we find that this is both the media-celebrity complex and a utopian politics and foreign policy.

TAS: You end the book: "We must simply hope that, happy in our media niches, we won't find that we have taken our media madness with us." You're a regular in the niche media world. How hopeful are you?

JB: Not very. I'm particularly disappointed that the relative anonymity of the blogosphere seems to have produced a level of incivility and hyperbole and vitriol that even the media would be ashamed of.

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