Journalism and the powers that be: What’s scandalmongering got to do with it?

What’s scandalmongering got to do with journalism and the powers that be? Maybe far less than most of us who give a hoot about journalism care to admit. “Media Gets Targeted by Obama, Discovers No One Cares Except the Media,” wrote Bethania Palma Markus, a Los Angeles-area reporter, on the left-wing blog Counterpunch. She claimed the media “never cared about (the government’s) abuse of power until it hit them in the face,” as in the recent scandals involving the Associated Press and Fox News.

She’s not hit the bull’s eye, but she makes a good point. Who indeed should be concerned about what Obama officials did when they seized AP telephone records and spied on a Fox News correspondent? Whether or not the reporting of these events was accurate, thorough and fair, and whether or not they constitute scandals, should they matter to Americans and not only to fellow journalists?

Ana Marie Cox, founder of the Wonkette blog and a columnist for England’s Guardian, thinks not. In a May 24 column, “President Obama and the media: A game of flattery and deceit,” she suggested the revelations of actions “done under the cover of night” from the recent scandals don’t translate into “real crimes against democracy,” but that those from activities carried out daily in broad daylight do.

When those actions are reported, as in five New York Times articles featured in a story on Gateway Journalism Review (“The New York Times Holds Up a Mirror to America, But Who’s Looking?”) they received far less public attention than the “scandalous” exposures, even though they painted a devastating picture of a society that has made the rich richer and all others poorer since President Reagan announced that it was “morning” again in America. Now, at dusk, the front page of our paper of record chronicles the continuing assaults on middle-class and poor Americans: “States’ Policies On Health Care Exclude The Poorest” on May 25, for example. Nobody is screaming “scandal.”

She blames reporters and readers in equal part for their acquiescence: “The ambitions of journalists are shaped by a sensitivity to what the American people are interested in. Those interests consist mainly of pop stars, diets, and sensational murders.” She likely was thinking of the trial of Jodi Arias, whose skills with a knife ended her boyfriend’s life – and whose dramatics in the courtroom, as Elliott McLaughlin of CNN observed, “captured massive if not total interest among Americans.”

And yet, what if more in the media paid as much attention to why and how the plight of so many Americans came about and why it continues, as they do to celebrity shenanigans, financial scams and government impotence, would those people most affected pay attention? Why should they? What they know from their own lives has settled in their minds and in the marrow of their bones. They understand who did what to them and who failed to protect them, and that often the perpetrator and the cop were in cahoots.

For the serious students of what that means, requiring facts and numbers, here they are, as reported in Forbes: “A groundbreaking new study concludes that the rich became permanently richer and the poor permanently poorer from 1987 to 2009.” Please note the devastating “permanently” and that this “trend” became the new American way during a quarter of a century. So that 99 percent, or say more accurately that about 80 percent of Americans grasp that the rise in income inequality since 1987 “is life-long.” (“New Study Using IRS Tax Data Shows Rich Are Staying Richer, Poor Poorer,” by Janet Noyack, March 21)

With no hope for the “change” they were supposed to believe in, can you blame them for turning to comic or sensational relief, for stories that are exciting and entertaining, and not to having their faces rubbed in what they failed to rebel, demonstrate, protest against – and thus perhaps prevent?

The media just might examine how they treated this “permanent” humiliation and diminution of so many of their fellow citizens, if they discovered the story at all. It has a lot more to do with their role in society than scandal-mongering tidbits snapped up in the bistros of Georgetown.

Salamon taught German literature and culture at several East Coast colleges, served as staff reporter for the St. Louis Business Journal and as senior editor for Defense Systems Review. He has published three academic books and contributed articles to the Washington Post and the American Conservative.


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