There was never a golden age of American journalism.
Never a time when the Press reported everything without fear or favor, when it was journalists' collective mission to speak truth to power, when the news wasn't a mix of gossip and scandal mongering interrupted by "heartwarming" human interest stories and blood-curdling tales from the police blotters, when the media told us what we needed to know with all the facts and truths necessary to understanding issues and problems the country had to deal with and solve.
From the beginning the Press has conspired in perpetuating what the sadly departed and sorely missed George Carlin called the American Okee-doke, the pretty lies and comforting half-truths that our corporate overseers use to keep us in line by getting us to accept the illusion that all is well in this great Republic of ours, feeding us, as Carlin says in his last concert for HBO , "just enough bullshit to hold things together." Those lies and half-truths include the following:
Land of the Free, home of the brave; all men are created equal; Justice is blind; the Press is free; your vote counts; business is honest; the police are on your side; God is watching you; your standard of living will never decline; and everything is going to be just fine.
"It's all bullshit, folks," says Carlin, almost as his goodbye, "And it's bad for you."
The main exhibit at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum right now focuses on FDR's first hundred days. When Steve Kuusisto and I were there the other day, I overheard another visitor talking to one of the docents about all that Roosevelt had managed to accomplish in just a little over three months in office.
"Of course," said the visitor, "He had a sympathetic media, didn't he?"
Roosevelt did have the support and good wishes of a lot of the national press corps. But he was also hated and reviled in newspapers and magazines around the country. What he benefited more from was three years of Herbert Hoover, the last principled conservative President this country had and is likely to ever have, and incidentally but not coincidentally the last President born before the invention of the electric light bulb and the telephone, letting the country sink further and further into turmoil and despair while he assured us that the Market would soon fix itself and return us all to happiness and prosperity.
The people were utterly fed up with a ruling elite willing to let the nation starve or tear itself apart to protect themselves from the truth that their greed and complacency and aristocratic high-handedness had wrecked the United States.
Traitor to his class was another way of calling Franklin Roosevelt a patriot.
But FDR did benefit from some things about the Media of his day, the first of those being that there was no real centralized Media elite controlling the public discourse. Not that there weren't plenty of Washington insiders who were trying. But there was no television, Henry Luce was just beginning to develop TIME into a magazine of national political importance, and radio and newspapers were mainly local concerns.
The Press back then was almost entirely made up of newspapermen and a few newspaperwomen, and they worked for city papers. Those newspapers weren't all great, in fact, most of them were probably rags. They weren't all devoted to truth, justice, and the American way. What they did have going for them that few papers today have is local competition. Most cities had more than one newspaper. Many cities had several, and a few had dozens. And all of them were in competition with their local rivals for readers. Local readers. People read their newspapers in those days. I think people would read them these days too if the papers would give them more worth reading but that's another post for another day. Back then you read your newspaper---or newspapers---to find out what was going on in your hometown. Newspapers had to be responsive to what their readers wanted, which meant they had to be focused on, and tied into, what was going on in their hometowns. That meant lots of local news and, because the audience, the readers, were right there to see it with their own eyes if they had a mind to, that news had to look like what people were seeing or could see if they looked out their windows or took a walk around the block or showed up at a meeting of the city council.
There were attempts to prettify it. Prejudices got flattered. Pre-conceptions were reinforced. Editorial pages were devoted to the American Okee-doke. But the job of the local papers was to deliver to their readers the news from home, and if that "news" didn't bear a relation to what the readers could see and hear for themselves those readers stopped reading.
Newspapers had to deliver the news from home, and in 1933 the news from home, from everywhere, was bad.
There was no getting around it. There was no way for an entrenched DC Media elite to prevent this news from being delivered. Unbridled capitalism had done what it had always done, devoured itself. Hooverism had shown itself to be a pathetic attempt to deny the obvious and put off the inevitable.
When Roosevelt began his first one hundred days in office, there was a nationwide consensus that bold action needed to be taken and that the people had elected FDR to take it, and the news reflected the reality behind that consensus. Much as the business elites and their minions and lackeys and apologists wanted it to be different, the news was what it was and it got through to Congressmen, Senators, bureaucrats, and pundits.
Things are different now. There is a nationwide consensus that bold action needs to be taken and that the people elected Barack Obama to take it. The local news still reflects the reality behind that consensus---for example, it's the local papers that have done more to over the last six years to bring home the fact that the war in Iraq has been a disaster, just by reporting the deaths of the local Marines and soliders killed in Ken Adelman's cakewalk. But now we have a centralized corporately controlled Media that can and often does report on a different "reality," the one in their own heads, the one that happens to justify their own complacencies, vanities, egos, prejudices, salaries, social status and privileges. That's the reality in which the war doesn't matter anymore, George W. Bush kept us safe, and the nation's economic woes didn't begin until their stock portfolios took a hit, back in September, and those woes will be cured just as soon as their own 401k's fatten up again.
Barack Obama has enjoyed relatively positive press, for a Democrat. Media types like him, or like the idea of him, and wish him well. But the Media Elite have made it clear that their continuing to like him and wish him well depends on his willingness to accept their reality. He is supposed to forget he's a Democrat, pretend he didn't mean any of that talk about "change," govern from a "center-right" position, and above all not do anything that will upset their place in the Washington social pecking order.
In short, their support for him will last as long as he is content to merely repeat the American okee-doke. If he really tries to turn those lies and half-truths into anything more than talk, he's done.
It's all bullshit, folks, and it's bad for you.