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The media, Egypt and lost penumbras

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted February 7, 2011

Last week wasn't a good one for journalists in Egypt. Anderson Cooper of CNN claimed he was punched ten times in the head. Christiane Amanpour was surrounded by an angry mob. Fox News' Greg Palkot and his crew were attacked after fleeing from a Molotov cocktail tossed into their balcony. Brian Hartman of ABC News was carjacked and threatened with beheading. Lara Logan of CBS and her two-person crew were kidnapped. All of these incidents are being ascribed to pro-Mubarak forces, although that attribution may be coloured by anti-Mubarak sympathies amongst those same journalists. They went to Egypt hoping for another Velvet Revolution, and there was a tendency to cheer on the valiant oppressed. Even if the oppressed included the Muslim Brotherhood, who don't make a good role model for the liberal virtues.

The claim that pro-Mubarak irregulars were behind the attacks is plausible, perhaps because of their victims' pre-existing tilt against them. But, there's little need to infer motives when they themselves belt out what's annoying them. Almost to a man, those attackers were loudly and aggressively anti-American.

Had these been normal times, American patriots would have set aside their differences and rallied behind their fellow Americans; after all, those fellow Americans were attacked by explicitly anti-American thugs. Not in these times, though. Instead, those journalists were widely derided – largely for being reckless and foolish. If there were a bumper sticker which summed up that reaction, it would be: "Brave is one thing…STUPID is another." Some saw in the attacks a kind of comeuppance for dancing with anti-American wolves.

"I Am Not A Slanter"

O, cruel irony. Richard Nixon is now a widely-respected statesman, while the profession of David Frost has a reputation like Nixon's in his darkest hour. Theirs might be even worse. How is it that a profession so respected fell so far, so steadily and so definitively?

The answer goes back to a distant time – a time when gasoline was less than thirty-five cents a gallon, a good car could be had for less than three thousand dollars, an airline passenger could hand over a ticket and walk right to the plane, the government was widely trusted, people could smoke wherever they wanted, a harmless passenger or pilot could bring a revolver with him on a flight. A time when jobs for high-school graduates were aplenty. A time when collegians had the luxury of dropping out, with an almost guaranteed job waiting for them should they get tired of the hippie life. A time when college graduates often had the luxury of choosing from more than one job offer. A time when paperwork was a small fraction of what it is today, a consequence of authority figures being trusted enough to be given some discretion. A time when authority figures, in reciprocity, trusted the people too. A time when an anxious parent could get his boy into a decent college by calling the university president. A time when government researchers could take a look at the theorizings of a Rachel Carson and flatly declare that the evidence didn't support them, or her. A time when Detroit could still be called the city of the future. A time when "Our Cops Are Tops" ranked up there with motherhood and apple pie. A time when being drafted was widely seen as the opportunity to serve one's country. A time that seems to come from a fantasy writer.

Back in 1967, the media were widely trusted and did have the discretion that other authority figures had. They used it when John F. Kennedy was gambolling about. The journalistic profession was riding high, so high that anyone who pointed out their biases was easily pegged as a crank. It took an insider like Edith Efron to tackle the bias issue without being besmirched.

Around 1967, it became fashionable in media circles to aspire to intellectualism. No mere reporters, they! At the time, thanks to the earlier efforts of Bertrand Lord Russell, the fashionable philosophy was analytic philosophy. It could be uncharitably described as making a golden virtue of nit-picking. Under its sway, the would-be high intellects of journalism declared objectivity to be a false ideal. Journalists are people, so the argument went, and the only way to achieve true objectivity would be to hand the news over to a machine; people can't take off their personalities when on the job, so objectivity was impossible. The winds of fashion had swept away the virtue of objectivity – knowing and disregarding your own biases - as hopelessly out of date. What that argument implied about juries, no-one cared to notice.

In Cloud-Minder land, it was considered both clever and persuasive. Down in the parts banished to the darkness, a rougher – and more common-sensical – take took: it was dissimulation, or thinly-disguised confession.

As cases of media bias began to pile up, the new professionals of journalism began sawing the limb they were sitting on. They added anti-authoritarianism to their already-evident liberalism. What fostering anti-authoritarianism meant for people whose own prestige depended upon journalists' authority, occurred to hardly anyone in their ranks. Respect for authority was old-fashioned, so they sawed away. When the branch finally cracked from under them, they saw the same groups that they dismissed as "cranks" being widely hailed as debunkers. Rush Limbaugh, the folk hero!  Needless to say, the Internet accelerated that debunking.

There's a certain karmic justice in seeing "MSM" being used as a stamp of shoddiness. What other trade's luminaries claimed a reasonably pure product wasn't possible? And, putting aside its deplorability, there's some jagged-edged justice in seeing genuinely injured reports being derided for being foolish.

Given the mental straitjacket over the journalism field, it's likely that the anti-American attacks will be taken as a sign that its practitioners have been "too American." A person's path is never so fixed as when (s)he's falling. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is currently watching the gold market. He can be reached at danielmryan@primus.ca.

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