You may only read this site if you've purchased Our Kampf from Amazon or Powell's or me
• • •
"Mike and Jon, Jon and Mike—I've known them both for years, and, clearly, one of them is very funny. As for the other: truly one of the great hangers-on of our time."—Steve Bodow, head writer, The Daily Show

"Who can really judge what's funny? If humor is a subjective medium, then can there be something that is really and truly hilarious? Me. This book."—Daniel Handler, author, Adverbs, and personal representative of Lemony Snicket

"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

October 19, 2005

There Is No Santa Claus

I have only two ideas total. In fact, even that may be stretching it. So I tend to repeat myself.

One thing I repeat is that the mainstream media does a FANTASTIC job. Day in and day out, they turn in an extraordinary performance—at what they exist to do. And that is to make as much money as possible.

Of course, in terms of helping people learn about the world, they are an eternal catastrophe. But why would we ever expect any different? The mainstream media is made up of gigantic corporations. Like all corporations, they manufacture a product, which is their audience. They sell this product to their customers, which are other huge corporations.

Informing people about the world is not just irrelevant to the purpose of making money, but in many ways actually HURTS a corporation's profitability. No business goes out of its way to piss off its owners and customers.

Now, obviously it's true you hear constantly about the media's Unending Fight For Truth. But you also hear constantly that a fat man wearing a red suit breaks into America's homes at the end of each year to distribute new X-boxes. Neither of these things is real.

I was thinking this when I read this statement by the perspicacious Digby:

This [the Judith Miller hoo-ha] is at its essence about a toxic political culture. The press has abdicated its responsibility to hold the powerful accountable.

I almost always think Digby is right, on every topic. But here's the thing: the press doesn't HAVE this responsibility. Gigantic corporations, by law, have one and only one responsibility, to make as much money as they possibly can.

Sure, they pretend they carry the awesome burden of holding the powerful accountable, just like Wal-Mart pretends it's deeply concerned with the well-being of its employees. And in fact, some New York Times managers may even believe they are engaged in the Unending Fight For Etc., Etc. But that doesn't change the fact that if the need for huge profits ever conflicts with holding the powerful responsible—and it will, constantly—you really shouldn't wait up.

Later, Digby wrote this about the talented Ms. Miller:

How on earth does someone this vapid become an "expert" on national security issues for the New York Times?

Again, a huge corporation like the New York Times pretends—even to itself—it wants someone smart, hard-hitting, etc. to cover national security issues. But in reality, it selects for vapidity. Judith Miller rose to the top of the New York Times not IN SPITE OF being unbearably vapid, but BECAUSE she's unbearably vapid.

Christopher Dickey of Newsweek is, I think, completely right about this:

Few newspapers, magazines or networks are willing to pay for high-priced low-volume journalism. It's so much easier--so much more cost effective--to take mass-produced information off the shelf and embellish it with a few opinions, or just to receive wisdom from the folks in power. Many critics are complaining about all the money that Judy's case has cost the Times. But maybe they're missing the point. Think of all the money she saved the Times by getting headlines day after day from top-level sources instead of working on a project year after year just to shoot those sources down.

So, progressives need to let go of the hope that the mainstream media is ever going to be much different from what it is today. We can't change much about reality if we keep hoping Santa Claus will bring us presents, because there is no Santa Claus.

Posted at October 19, 2005 09:35 AM | TrackBack

Dear Jon, this is a fantastic comment, absolutely dead-on. It is a perfect, succinct description of our media reality, one of the best I've ever seen. Many thanks for this. Chris

Posted by: Nimrod the Mighty Hunter at October 19, 2005 10:38 AM

According to Wikipedia, the redoubtable Ms. Miller started off writing for The Progressive and National Public Radio (back when the latter was journalistically somewhat respectable). She has ended up as not only vapid, as you say, but as a dedicated agent of the U. S. imperialist government, serving as an important cog in the sausage-making machinery which produced the Iraq War. I hope someone tells the story of this transformation sometime, as it may be an outstanding illustration of what has happened to this country in the last 30-40 years. I don't expect her to tell it honestly in her memoirs, which will soon appear at your local bookstore.

Posted by: jonj at October 19, 2005 10:46 AM

"Again, a huge corporation like the New York Times pretends—even to itself—it wants someone smart, hard-hitting, etc. to cover national security issues. But in reality, it selects for vapidity."

I think I need to wade in on this, although I don't know how understood I can make myself.

To be vapid is to lack interest; the correct selection process is for someone who lacks BELIEF. I have discovered in my time of working among the jounalistic profession a distinct lack of passion, rather than of interest. What is true is what can be confirmed; what is not confirmed cannot be true. Theoretically, this is true--but it does not take into account the limits of practicality.

The fact that a particular event or position cannot be confirmed within a given time frame does not prove, vis a vis, that it cannot be true. Moreover, the confirmation of same does not prove that it is true. However, this absolute definition of truth which the press holds dear to its heart must never be questioned--EVEN when the subject matter does not involve the printing of a story.

Being a journalist does something to a person. The truth method used for print is afterwards used in every other facet of life: in friendship, in marriage, in business, in leisure and so on. A long time practitioner of the truth-determining method becomes woefully incapable of choosing a belief--which APPEARS to be vapidity, but is in fact mere faithlessness.

Journalists like to think of themselves in the same way as police officers who have "seen too much of the street," thus accounting for their cold nature and apparent indifference. That is as romantic as it gets.

As a journalist increases in age and experience, the distance between themselves and the confirmation which might exist, could it be found, grows wider and wider. Until at last there is no one left to confirm information except the high and mighty and easily available. So the truth becomes the truth told between the high and mighty--who are naturally inclined to confirm the same truths--and thus the silliness we've witnessed grows and expands and swallows up everything else.

The other thing I'd like to take a shot at:

The "product" you describe, Jon, is the audience the business office sells to the advertiser. The "product" that the editorial department produces is fear and comfort. The press is not unlike a dominatrix who whips her client and then offers creams and kisses to soothe the pain she has caused. First show the damage that Katrina causes, then show the proof that its all going to be made better.

The audience will only stand for so much brutality before demanding TLC. The audience will only ride the wave of hope and goodwill for so long before it loses interest. To appease the audience's need for excitement, it must be cock-teased, and the teasing must go on, and on, and on.

I don't need to tell you or any of your readers how jaded the audience has become.

Journalists, by their nature, are completely inadequate to provide the sort of tip-and-tail games that are required. The truth-telling method is too dull, too repetitious, too fundamentally flawed to move as quickly as its audience--so the journalists of days gone by have been replaced by pundits, who don't need confirmation and aren't interested in those who demand it.

And the pundits are doing much better at selling their product to the audience...which means the business managers of the pundits are doing much better at selling their product to the advertiser.

The journalist has been outclassed. Pure and simple.

Is Ms. Miller an elitist journalist with faulty connections or a pundit in journalistic clothing who is seeing the writing on the wall? At this point, I confess, I don't care.

The reason I read you, Jon, and not the main stream press, is because, "there be wit." Were Oscar Wilde alive today, he would blog.

Posted by: Alexis S at October 19, 2005 11:50 AM

There's an analogy here that I think is worth pursuing, but it may take some time for me to pursue it, so be patient with me. I have no doubt that Jon could write about this 10 times better than I could. Yeah, Mr. 800 SAT Verbal, I'm talking to YOU. (This is actually true. Jon is depressingly intelligent.)

I have a 3-year old who likes some of the morning shows on the Disney channel (I know, I'm a bad parent). This means that sometimes in the evening if I turn the TV on it happens to be on that channel, and I catch some of what's on. In between their shows and during commercial breaks, they have an appalling thing called "Disney 411" which involves having a young, attractive, completely unknown "News" personality interview various actors from one or more of their shows. Now, I don't know what the actual motivation is beind these "News" interviewers agreeing to take this job, but I assume that being young, poor, and desperate to make it in L.A. has something to do with it. Because they want to be discovered so they can get regular TV or movie work, they do what they know is likely to get them to that goal. That means pretending they are asking the kinds of questions that the viewers want asked, but at the same time showing us how incredibly cool it is to hang out with bona fide Disney Channel Stars.

I have to believe that this is what's going on with the rank and file journalists today. I mean, think about it: you're fresh out of journalism school, you're not making much money, but you get to talk with People With Power. And People Who Work in Those Awesome Buildings They Told You Were Temples in High School Civics Class. If you play your cards right and don't piss anyone off, you could parlay good relationships with these Powerful People into promotions, better jobs, or a gig like Hannity has shilling for them for huge amounts of money.

Now I'm sure there are still some people who believe themselves to be Serious Journalists Who Won't Compromise Their Principles. But really, what kind of hard-hitting journalism can you do concerning people you see every day and who need to be returning your phone calls in order for you to do your job? Anyone who's worked in an office knows that there are assholes you have to suck up to because they've got what you need. And asshole politicians make it even harder because in order for them to get their jobs they have to be likeable on some level to somebody.

Posted by: Ted at October 19, 2005 12:28 PM

Let me qualify that statement, Ted. To be a politician with a job they have to be likeable on some level to everybody.

Posted by: alexis S at October 19, 2005 02:05 PM

Not so, Alexis. I'm in the awkward position of never having actually voted for someone I liked. It's been Democrats all the way.

Posted by: Sully at October 19, 2005 05:22 PM

Wow. Between Jon's original post and Alexis S's comments, this is some of the best media criticism (in a 1000 words or so) I've ever seen. I'd like to add something, even a witticism, but I'm reduced to being a leftwing dittohead because I can' t think of anything to add. (And witticisms aren't my strong point.)

Posted by: Donald Johnson at October 19, 2005 07:09 PM


Agreed. What do you propose or are you just blowin hot air to make us feel good?

Posted by: patience at October 20, 2005 12:32 AM

The above is all brilliant, and a good reminder of what is often obscured even to all few dozen people who already knew and already care...notwithstanding the few dozen thousand who care because they make their fortunes off of these tools and the other few dozen thousand who get to manipulate it for the fortunes of their few dozen clients and for themselves. Happy multiple BMWs to them all.

Meanwhile, is there some weird twist of fate that Judy was a CIA operative who ended up outing another just as real CIA operative?

Posted by: SiegeState at October 20, 2005 11:48 AM

I used to be one of those fresh faced journalists straight out of school, thrilled at the prospect of interviewing the Powerful and Writing Important Stories. Then I spent 3 days naively prepping for an interview with Sam Nunn on the invasion of Panama (Iraq with an uglier swarthy thug and a canal instead of oil reserves). After being lied and condescended to for 10 minutes, I was an innocent no more. Soon after I was out of the journalism business.

I think the people who stick with it either like the lying, because it feels like a game and absolves them of having to actually do anything, or the few really good ones hate the lying so much they can't let go. I just couldn't stomach it.

Posted by: slim at October 20, 2005 05:26 PM

Democracy Now, Pacifica and their ilk are a shining exception to this.
Judy Miller was a member of the New York social elite-she had more power than anyone at the NYT office. She also had her head in Chimpy's lap.

Posted by: Eric Allen at October 20, 2005 11:40 PM

to be vapid is to not see the forest for the trees, because big powerful rich trees are the bestest.

Posted by: mdhåtter at October 24, 2005 03:56 PM

"I think the people who stick with it either like the lying, because it feels like a game and absolves them of having to actually do anything, or the few really good ones hate the lying so much they can't let go."

Yes but then those of us who abhor lying (and the ignorance, vapidness and cowardice of our co-workers) tend to lose our jobs a lot for "personality conflicts."

Roughly 15 percent of the industry right now is looking for new jobs. Which ones do you think were let go?

Excellent article, btw. Brilliant.

Posted by: Melissa Widner at October 25, 2005 07:34 PM

this is a nice post. let us not forget that it is not a new discovery, though. Chomsky and Solomon's "Manufacturing Consent" explained this in excruciating detail over 15 years ago.

Posted by: dk at October 25, 2005 10:58 PM

alexis s... stupendous.

Posted by: unirealist at October 26, 2005 08:01 AM

i thout santa was real now you brung my hopes down

Posted by: kaylie at December 10, 2005 07:53 PM

Johnathan, I come back to this post every time you link it, and it's just as sad and infuriating and accurate every time. Thank you. Bastard.

Posted by: krinn at August 10, 2007 11:20 PM

same as it ever was.

if you look at journalism in the U.S. through history, the namebrand papers, magazines, etc. are never politically avant least not since the progressive movement early last century when you had Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, Ida B. Wells or Lincoln Steffens. That time in history was an aberration for America and the backlash was why so many writers and artists moved to Paris in the 1920s.

Bernstein was also an aberration, tho he came up in journalism in the way the best did in the past...without the Ivy League credentials (and alliance to power structures.) George Seldes is a perfect example of this same sort of journalist. He called fascists as he saw them...and ended up having to publish his own paper.

In the recent past, we have the examples of Robert Parry with Iran-Contra and Gary Webb with Contra/cocaine -- both journalists who took on power -- now one is online and often fundrasing to keep this work going while the other is dead by his own hand.

My guess is that Judith Miller was recruited and works for the govt...the "agencies" have many journalists who write propaganda for them, and even have PR firms creating "virtual news reports" that show on regular news outlets as though they weren't propaganda. This practice is illegal, as if that matters in the "everything is different after 9-11 the constitution and laws only apply to you saps" Bush world.

Posted by: fauxreal at August 11, 2007 02:09 PM

I would never turn the TV on to be informed. The weekly mags are little better. The daily newspapers can be right the way a stopped watch is still right twice a day.
NPR is my biggest disappointment. In the mid 80's it was what other news people listened to when they wanted to listen to the news. Now, with an accuracy rating of less than 75%, I have to ask WTF happened?

Posted by: AdmNaismith at August 11, 2007 06:24 PM

I have a present for you from Santa claus, there are a bunch of women waiting to receive a settlement from Paxil class action lawsuit settlement from Social Security and from the proceeds of that fund all women all over the United States are going to plan robbery with all the scrappers and copper theives and the issue is want to organize a crime wave which you go to commit identity thefts. So if she vote Hillary Clinton for president that was the original plan of all the Democrats now lets see if you can sell that for a stocking stuffer!

Posted by: Gieco caveman at August 14, 2007 02:24 PM

"One thing I repeat is that the mainstream media does a FANTASTIC job. Day in and day out, they turn in an extraordinary performance—at what they exist to do. And that is to make as much money as possible... The mainstream media is made up of gigantic corporations. Like all corporations, they manufacture a product, which is their audience."

If they're so "fantastic" at this job, then why has their product -- the audience -- been shrinking for decades? Why are their revenues per viewer down? Why are their gross revenues down?

Honestly... I know this is the Econ 101 version of why corporations exist, and how "fantastic" they are at making money.

The problem is, the rest of the curriculum after Econ 102 (and the entire history of The Market writ large) shows how terrible corporations are at making money.

Yes, one can paraphrase Churchill and admit their incompetence, except when compared to all the alternatives... But that doesn't negate the fact that the prime metaphor for Amurrican business is that money falls from the sky, and sometimes these idjits remember it might be a good idea to hold out buckets.

If this is the best argument you have, it's thin gruel indeed.

Posted by: Hal O'Brien at August 14, 2007 08:47 PM