Squatters in the Fourth Estate
Squatters in the Fourth Estate
© Austin Cline

Every time I assume that my opinion of American “journalism” has bottomed out, some putz does something so outrageous or stupid that I’m forced to revise my opinion downward by several notches — notches so low that I didn’t even know they could exist. No matter what American journalists do, it seems that they never manage to run out of room to keep spiraling downwards…then they wonder why Americans aren’t watching or reading them as much anymore. Really? Is it that hard to figure out?

You might be assuming that I’m talking here about the incident where White House journalists thought it was a good idea to socialize personally with administration officials at a “super-soaker” picnic hosted by Vice-President Joe Biden. Well, I am, but not in the way you are probably assuming. Here, the super-soaker party is actually the old low that I assumed American journalists couldn’t possibly exceed; the new low was spectacularly achieved by David Gregory — a perennial favorite in the “just how bad can American journalists get” contests.


The Example of David Gregory

When I first read Glenn Greenwald’s post about David Gregory, I had to go back and reread it several times before it could sink in — I simply couldn’t believe what I was reading. I still have trouble accepting it. How could this man ever achieve his position in the media? A trained chimpanzee could do just as well and cost less. If you aren’t already familiar with the interview in question, you should go to Greenwald’s post and read it. A couple of times, perhaps.

The short version: David Gregory simply could not understand why government officials would want to maintain some distance between themselves and BP executives while working to verify that they do all the things they promise they will do. He literally does not comprehend how a person in one institution can best monitor and verify the actions of people in another institution. It’s no wonder that he has no idea how to do his own job: he doesn’t grasp how and why a journalist should maintain distance from the government officials being watched, checked, and evaluated.

Wider Problems in Journalism

This certainly isn’t the only example of journalists failing to do their job these days. The BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is great opportunity for real journalists to do real journalism. It’s a chance for American journalists to demonstrate that they understand how to do their jobs and that they really do serve the interests of the American public. In reality, they’ve used this opportunity to demonstrate that all our worst assumptions about them are true.

Why aren’t all the anchors reporting from the Gulf every evening? Why isn’t every media outlet pushing the story about how BP is partnering with government officials to suppress information and keep the media from reporting the truth? Why isn't the American media doing more investigations into the lack of regulation of the oil industry, the spills they have created around the world, and so on?

Moving outside the Gulf of Mexico, why has John Stewart been the only “journalist” to do a critical report on the contrast between candidate Barack Obama’s promises to restore the rule of law and President Barack Obama’s expansion of unchecked executive power into realms even Bush and Cheney didn’t dare tread? Why aren't more "journalists" trying to help the public understand what their government is really doing in their name?

Corporate Journamalism

What can explain all of this? One clue is behavior which doesn’t merely fail to serve the public, but which fails to serve what should be the fundamental goals of journalists themselves. No matter how clueless and incompetent a journalist is, you’d expect them to make noise when a corporation denies them access to information. We see a similar problem when journalists grant “anonymous source” status to a government official even when they are lied to. You’d expect them to have a policy of revealing sources when those sources lie or even just mislead as part of an ideological agenda. But they don’t – journalists act the same even when they’re lied to, misled, blocked, etc.

Even if they can't figure out how to act in our interests, shouldn't they be able to figure out how to act in their own interests?

What explains these sorts of incidents also explains the above problems: corporate control of journalism. Even poor journalists can figure out that it's a problem when a private corporation blocks them from obtaining facts for a story, but a corporation doesn't see this as a problem. On the contrary, they might approve of covering for another corporation run by some of the same people as the ones running the media. Even a poor journalist can figure out that it's a problem if sources use them to spread misinformation without consequences, but corporations that only care about ratings won't think twice about this because by the time the truth is learned, they've moved on to the next story.

And if David Gregory were merely a poor journalist, he'd be able to figure out that some personal and emotional distances makes it easier to exercise good oversight. Even a poor journalist can figure out that the closer you are to someone, the harder it is to be objective about them and the harder it is to air their dirty laundry by criticizing them. But David Gregory and so many others can't figure this out, which means that they aren't even poor journalists. It's difficult to consider them any sort of journalists anymore. They are, instead, just corporate shills who are hired to look good on camera and help sell advertising slots.

America's Fourth Estate is no longer being occupied by its proper inhabitants. It has instead been taken over by squatters — corporations using the premises to throw wild parities without regard for the damage they are doing. The walls have been covered with corporate graffiti (they call it "sponsorship"). The toilets have been stopped up with garbage and are overflowing. Windows everywhere have been broken and there's vomit all over the floors (they call it "synergy").

At this point, even if we could kick out the squatters, I'm not sure the structure can still be salvaged. Can it really be cleaned? Would we ever get the smell out? Maybe the Fourth Estate simply has to be razed so we can start over. Next time, though, we need to make sure a better security system is installed. And don't anybody give David Gregory a key to the place.

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