Friday, July 1, 2011
July 1, 2011: A Tale of Two Sixties
Way back on December 23rd I wrote a post on Frederic Remington and his contributions to the Spanish American War effort, or at least to William Randolph Hearst’s enthusiastic support for the build-up to that war. I cite it here as an important prefatory reminder that there has long been a side to American (and probably world) journalism which sees that media’s purpose not as investigating, reporting, or analyzing the facts, but in creating and shaping them; not as responding to our culture’s events and narratives, but as dictating them. Even an attempt to locate the origin of such propagandistic journalism in that period, and in the yellow journalism that Hearst helped popularize, would likely be to falsely idealize, or at least significantly over-simplify, earlier media models and roles.
Yet I would nonetheless argue that the division between those two ends of the journalistic spectrum, between reporting and propaganda, has become wider and more blatant over the last couple decades. And this widening division can moreover be partly traced, as with so many of our contemporary issues, back to a couple widely divergent 1960s contexts. On the one hand we have the youthful journalistic ethos of a reporter like David Halberstam: as Halberstam himself told the story (in the inspiring and well-worth-reading-in-full speech at the first link below), he was reporting from Vietnam in 1963 when a group of military brass sought to intimidate him into ceasing his investigations into the early war efforts and realities; Halberstam was indeed intimidated, but, illustrating George R.R. Martin’s definition of bravery, stood up in the face of his fear and spoke back to these powerful men, arguing that his job was not to serve them or their interests but instead to find and report on the truths of what was happening for his employers and his audiences back home. This moment can be said to foreshadow very fully the work of investigative reporters like Woodward and Bernstein, and more broadly to exemplify the journalistic goal of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
On the other hand is Roger Ailes. Long before Ailes was the founder of Fox News, to my mind not only the most contemporary and salient but by far the most egregious example of propagandistic mass media in our nation’s history, he was part of Richard Nixon’s administration, and specifically of his public relations team and efforts. As the primary documents and analyses at the second link make clear, in that role Ailes not only perfected the art of political propaganda, but devised an overt plan to create a news organization that would serve as a friendly mouthpiece for an administration like Nixon’s, and for the ideology and goals of a political party more broadly. That Ailes went on to create precisely such an organization is noteworthy; that said organization has become the principal (if not the sole) source of news and commentary for a significant percentage of Americans is deeply troubling; and that said organization’s stated motto and founding principle is to provide “fair and balanced” news, in contrast to other propagandistic sources, is so ironic as to stretch the word to its breaking point. An anonymous George W. Bush staffer (probably Karl Rove) famously noted to Ron Suskind that “when we [the Bush administration] act, we create our own reality”; but he and they would not have been able to create that reality in nearly as meaningful a sense, much less communicate to it America and the world, without Fox News.
Fox isn’t going anywhere (despite Glenn Beck’s departure after tonight’s show; I’ll still try to keep occasional tabs on the doings of Beck University in this space), and neither is this ever-increasing presence, if not dominance, of propagandistic journalism. But the least we can do is remember the other possibility, remember Halberstam’s lesson and model, and seek those who continue to produce such journalism in our own moment. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1) Halberstam’s speech: http://web.jrn.columbia.edu/students/graduation2005/halberstam.asp
2) Documents on the Ailes/Nixon connection: http://gawker.com/5814150/roger-ailes-secret-nixon+era-blueprint-for-fox-news
3) OPEN: What do you think?