Friday, August 24, 2018

When Coherence was a Thing

“When Journalism Was a Thing,” by Alexandra Kitty, 2018

This paperback book is a long (375 pages), expensive ($38.95 USD), rambling and repetitive screed whose point is correct, but which is written in such a poor manner that the point gets lost in the weeds.  It makes one start to ask questions about the qualifications of the author.  Few journalists or editors would structure a book in such a disjointed way.  The chapter titles mean nothing – you could swap them around randomly and there would be no loss in clarity.   Kitty is the author of two prior books on the failures of journalism, is a professor and a news columnist, so it’s a bit of a mystery.  But then she’s the one who says the experts are wrong and she certainly bears out this theory splendidly.
When Propaganda Is A Thing

Scattered throughout the book are the remains of every single journalistic scandal or terrible journalist in the U.S. and Canada in the last 15 years, which is its main benefit.  Perhaps a book of case studies would have made her point better. Noam Chomsky did that in the book “Manufacturing Consent” and it worked.  Most maddening of all, the book has no theoretical framework above and beyond a reverence for Watergate reporting, Walter Lippman and a love of ‘objective facts’ to frame events.  The 'propaganda model' is nowhere to be seen.  Media ownership and consolidation is almost invisible. As is billionaires buying news organizations.  Her grasp of politics is vague, as she can’t seem to understand why some journalists link up with one faction of the capitalist class or another. A class analysis of journalists is missing. Her definitions of “Left” and “Right” are off. Quite honestly, I read most of it so you don’t have to.  After the first 200 pages I skimmed, looking for actual new content and finished those 175 pages quite quickly.

Kitty is neither a clueless upscale liberal nor a vicious conservative propagandist.  She tries to steer between the conventional political poles of North American journalism, but in a conventional way.   All to the good.  Her holy grail is ‘objectivity’ – more of a goal than a reality, as nothing is fully objective.  She is basically seeing present journalism as a step back into an older era of ‘partisan political journalism.’ She laments its fall from the time when ‘the center held’ and facts from wire services actually made a difference.  This period is nebulous in the book. It is perhaps after the penny press in the 1830s, or after World War II or in the 1960s or until the advent of Fox News and/or 9/11.  The endpoint is clear - the election of Trump put the final nail in the coffin.  This timeline is dubious, as if propaganda didn’t exist until Rupert Murdoch invented it or ‘the global war on terror’ started, leading to Trump’s ‘post-factual’ authoritarian world and the Democrat's Russia-gate conspiracy.  I only have to recall the good old days of the ‘Red Scare’ or the Tonkin Gulf incident to know that proposition is false. Though both Murdoch and 9/11 certainly made things worse…

According to Kitty, the national journalistic collapse in social understanding and the subsequent devolution into outright propaganda by liberals (MSNBC & CNN) joining conservatives (FOX) was Trump’s election.  That, preceded by Brexit and the election of Rob Ford in Toronto, is seen as the final turning point.  What she does not see is that these battles reflect an open faction fight within the ruling classes in various countries, and between countries.  So facts be damned! Increased class conflict with the working class in the U.S. is another source, as the massive open sores of U.S. society won’t heal and that is now more obvious.  Since the 2007 economic crash, the fall in belief in institutions, ‘experts’ and authority figures is across the board. The desperate capitalist logic of depoliticization has led to journalism by scandal and journalism by celebrity or filler.  Kitty is trying to drag the ‘profession’ back to the ostensible days of street-wise, grounded journalism, instead of understanding why it won’t go there.

Kitty knows that many top journalists have become ‘stenographers,’ a point Glenn Greenwald made much more effectively. Or are psychologically unprepared to deal with lies, deception, propaganda, news releases, media massages, public relations, ‘experts,’ important people and what passes for sources or witnesses nowadays.  This laziness in journalism Kitty dubs ‘pseudo-journalism.’  She seems to lament the passing of investigative journalism from most major outlets.  She has disdain for the ‘amateurs’ that crowd the internet, though her hostility is suspect.  As if every site is a replica of The Drudge Report or Breitbart News.  As if ‘partisans’ cannot find facts.  She says the onset of ‘social media’ helped kill journalism.  She specifically looks at the druggie Rob Ford election in Toronto, and how the Toronto Star supported Ford’s establishment opponent on hypocritical grounds, as both admitted to using drugs.   She is even perceptive enough to see how public relations shaped the violent Western regime change narrative that intentionally destroyed Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.  In this war public relations firms spoon-fed journalists the ‘news.’

Kitty’s obsession with ‘objectivity’ is standard practice.  In the past, every beginning journalism student is hammered with the idea of ‘objectivity.’  Yet as experience and later philosophy tells you, ‘objectivity’ as a god-like, all-seeing perspective is a chimera.  Every story makes choices.  The headline, the sub-head, the quotes, the pictures, the narrative of the story, the facts chosen, down to the words or phrases used – all slant it in one way or another.  Hiding behind many stories is a political perspective, even in the ‘golden age’ of journalism. Almost any story but the most bland can be taken apart to find its political slant. At best, journalists might try to be ‘more’ objective.  Total objectivity is impossible.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Kitty seems unaware of internet sites beyond mainstream ones like Buzzfeed or Huffington Post or Gawker.  She does respect Glenn Greenwald, Wikileaks and “hacktivists’ for their contributions to actual fact-based journalism.  Yet the book reads like 22 similar windy lectures to large university classes.  Journalism freshman or journalism nerds might want to read this book, but I doubt any would actually finish it properly.   I could not.

Other reviews on journalistic issues:  “The Post,” “Southern Cultural Nationalism,” “Empire of Illusion,” “Manufacturing Consent,” “Ken Burns … Whitewash of the American War,” “Turning off NPR,” “Kill the Messenger,” “NPR Completes Editorial Assassination,” “Doublespeak,” and Bernay’s classic “Propaganda.”  Use blog search box, upper left.

P.S. - Truthdig/Paul Street, with today's more coherent piece on our propaganda state:

And unfortunately I bought it at May Day Books!

Red Frog

August 24, 2018

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