Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture
By James Bowman
(Encounter Books, 130 pages, $20)
Reviewed by Shawn Macomber
AS JOHN MCCAIN TRUNDLED OFF to appear on ABC’s invariably insipid gals-led gabfest The View one morning last September, the Republican presidential nominee could have been forgiven for believing he wasn’t in for a girl-power reinterpretation of the Spanish Inquisition. After all, when his opponent, Barack Obama, last appeared on the show Barbara Walters (Serious Journalist™) opened the substantive grilling by confiding, “We find you very sexy-looking.” How large the “we” demographic Walters presumed to speak for was never quite established—her View co-hosts? The studio audience? All womankind? Humankind? Suffice to say, whomever “we” may signify, McCain received a much less cuddly reception from the girls on their behalf. Specifically, comedienne-cum- Serious Journalist™ Whoopi Goldberg inquired whether, considering his support for placing “strict constitutionalists” on the Supreme Court, she shouldn’t “worry about being returned to slavery” were he to ascend to the Oval Office.
Yes, well…what’s truly amazing about this isn’t McCain’s remarkably fey retort (“That’s an excellent point, Whoopi, and I thank you”!) or even hearing Barbara Walters promising Whoopi, “Us white folk will take care of you,” but rather that Goldberg felt comfortable implausibly posing as an undecided voter to the New York Times scant days later. “I’m going to wait until the debates to figure out who really has what it takes,” she insisted. (Perhaps she has yet to conclude whether plantation life under Master John was preferable to co-hosting The View with Missus Walters?) The conceit was plainly absurd. McCain has as much chance of weaseling Goldberg’s vote out of her as Obama has of getting Cindy McCain to wittingly punch his hole on the proverbial butter- fly ballot. So why go through the rhetorical motions?
Long-time New Criterion media critic, TAS movie reviewer, and culture maven James Bowman provides an answer in the follow-up to his seminally brilliant, epically cartographic Honor: A History. This slim yet endlessly engaging volume, Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, expertly dissects perhaps the most ostentatious offshoot of the post-honor society he previously documented. Bowman writes:
Objectivity is the established church of the media. You don’t have to be a regular worshipper; you may even attend another church unofficially. But you do have to genuflect to it on all official occasions, since it is what stamps your credentials as a journalist….Claims to objectivity also have a side benefit, as the media see it, in largely eliminating the need for fairness. For objectivity and fairness are antithetical terms. If you are truly objective, what need do you have to be fair? You speak, as it were, from no point of view—or all points of view at once, which comes to the same thing. In other words, you speak with the voice of God…It is only when bias is acknowledged that fairness becomes a consideration.
There is, as Bowman further notes, “no shame in not being objective, since nobody can be,” only “shame in obstinately denying what must be true, or affirming what must be false, as so many in the media do with respect to their own objectivity.” Perhaps if the self-delusion began and ended with what Bowman christens the Myth of Objectivity this would be an acceptable, if somewhat distasteful, arrangement. Alas, media madness (“a sort of folie de grandeur on the part of ordinary but self-important people who haven’t the excuse of insanity for their lack of humility and a sense of proportion”) has hardly been confined to the Fourth Estate. Piece by piece, chapter by chapter, Bowman demonstrates, adroitly and with panache, how this “madness” has metastasized into the political and intellectual classes, empowered and exacerbated our celebrity culture, and popularized the “arrogance of assuming that no other belief is possible without the assumption of the believer’s lunacy, imbecility, viciousness, corruption, or some other combination of all four to explain it.”
This is how, one presumes, a presidential candidate in 2008 ends up offering little more than an accommodating smile and sheepish demeanor as live on national television he is accused of being potentially the first pro-slavery chief executive on American soil since Jefferson Davis. Far from being embarrassed by the crude inanity of his harem’s performance, The View’s executive producer Bill Geddie gushed to the New York Times that after the McCain interview Bill Clinton “wanted in on the action” and ratings are way up. “We’ve worked very hard to be a player,” he added, suggesting this escapade had turned The View into something resembling a reputable news operation. And to think it was all accomplished simply by subtracting the brains and doubling the poor taste.
Sadly, unlike Pinocchio, in the media world it is egos and paychecks rather than noses that grow with each accumulated fib. Truthfully, if there were any justice in the world, what tourists would hear when they walked past the Newseum in Washington, D.C. (the gallery that “tells the timeless story of news, of many voices struggling to be heard, and of the people and machines that spread that news”) would be the sound of naughty reporters braying like Pleasure Island donkeys.
IN HIS EARLIER WORK, Bowman defined honor, distilled to its essence, as “the good opinion of the people who matter to us, and who matter because we regard them as a society of equals who have the power to judge our behavior.” This is manifestly not the milieu in which the modern media operate. Indeed, the only way the media feel they can properly establish the authority necessary to remain professionally and commercially viable these days is to convince themselves and us that this society of equals is a sham.
“The cheapest and easiest way to appear intelligent is to claim to be the possessor of knowledge that is not obvious,” Bowman writes, “and so is beyond the capacity of those ordinary folks who judge things by appearances.” This is their bread and butter. Appearances can, of course, sometimes be deceiving. Actually, for the media as currently configured appearances must be deceiving. It is a matter of survival, and, thus, the aberration absolutely must become an article of faith. The denizens of the media never stop to ponder whether there mightn’t be some degree of cognitive dissonance in placing themselves— fallible human beings, no?—as the ultimate determiners of What Is, What Is Not and, most importantly for today’s Americans, Who Is to Blame. This supremacy—the “ability to define reality according to its own beliefs and assumptions”—is essential, Bowman writes, for once defined “it becomes easy for [the media] to assume that it must be the politicians”—or any other dissenters—“who are out of touch with reality, not themselves.”
Walter Cronkite, for example, had no qualms about declaring in a column: “We are inclined to side with the powerless rather than the powerful. If that is what makes us liberals so be it, just as long as in reporting the news we adhere to the first ideals of good journalism—that news reports must be fair, accurate and unbiased.” This was generally taken in the mainstream press as a sensible, unremarkable comment. No one asked how Cronkite defined “the powerful,” or “we,” or asked him whether “the powerful” might not occasionally be something other than fanged demons menacing all that is good in the world.
It would be interesting to see how those same self-appointed arbiters of fairness would react if a high-profile conservative or libertarian journalist said, as they probably frequently do in liberals’ fevered nightmares, “You know what? I’m more inclined to side with the powerful over the powerless, but my coverage of economic and environmental issues is going to be totally fair, accurate and unbiased. Trust me!” Something tells me such a reporter would not be allowed in the mainstream media clubhouse, never mind have his reporting taken seriously or advance up the old corporate ladder.
UUNFORTUNATELY, MEDIA MADNESS is a symbiotic disorder. Vast swaths of the public seem cheerful enough about infotainment replacing religion as the opiate of the masses, peddled by reporters who believe intellectualism means scuttling common sense in favor of 24/ 7 conspiracy theories shot in stark black and white. Who is going to stop the excesses now that the pattern has been set? Even as the media insist only an independent, outside force such as themselves can truly police government and industry, they’ve simultaneously convinced us that they’ll just go ahead and patrol their own boundaries thank-you-very-much.
Predictably, Bowman dissents:
Mr. Kurtz’s column in the Post is, like the various “ombudsman” columns that have sprung up like mushrooms in the newspapers of America, practically founded on the journalistic trick of citing allegations of bias or malfeasance, beating the columnar breast about it for a paragraph or two, asking if objectivity and professionalism can be preserved or reestablished, and concluding that—well, yes they can. Merely asking the question thus becomes a means of reinforcing the self-satisfaction that creates bias in the first place while simultaneously implying that it doesn’t exist, except in trivial ways or by inadvertently going “too far.”
Self-regard is no substitute for self-restraint or humility, and neither Bowman’s diagnosis nor his brand of eviscerating clarity is likely to be very popular with those who play such games. For anyone seeking a deeper examination of the media- industrial complex, however, Media Madness will likely be a revelation. Indeed, it is a book that, especially if taken in tandem with the superlative Honor, can in the space of a few hours radically alter the way one understands the structure (and frequent artifice) of the modern world.
Such is the incisiveness of this singular cultural critic, although he would probably warn us not to take his or anyone else’s word as the end-all decree on this or any other matter: “The word ‘reality’ as used by the media carries the same import as it does in ‘reality TV,’ ” Bowman writes, “which is to say that, whatever else it means, it cannot mean reality.”
Shawn Macomber is a contributing editor to The American Spectator.
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