How the U.S. Media Helps Subvert U.S. Democracy

The Globalist


by James Bovard         August 10, 2006 

U.S. policies have received a lot of criticism in recent years — not just at home, but also around the world. According to Jim Bovard, author of “Attention Deficit Democracy,” one of the key reasons is that the Washington press corps has too cozy a relationship with government. The focus of the U.S. media on the “Big Picture” effectively — and conveniently — shields the government against criticism.

Why is it that in the United States, the vast majority of government abuses and failures either never show up on the  intellectual radar screen, or are merely one or two blips — and then forever gone?  

One reason is that many intellectuals have long disdained the specific details of government policies. The more coercive government becomes, the more tactless it is to admit that government coerces. Looking at the actual details of government policy is left to the auditors and accountants, the congressional staffers — or perhaps the interns.The big picture The politically correct attitude looks beyond the government’s past failings and current botches — and focuses instead on the idea of government. The incarnation of this attitude is the Big Picture. The Big Picture is a type of abstraction — or pseudo-abstraction — that might be more appropriate in theology than in politics.

A vicious cycle

The Big Picture helps Washington

There is almost never any liability for a journalist who peddles false information from the government — but they risk their careers if their criticisms of government turn out to be unsubstantiated.

intellectuals define issues in ways that buffer the federal government from any damage it inflicts.

Much of the Washington establishment is devoted to maintaining the prestige of government as the single most important fount of their own personal prestige.

The intelligentsia is perhaps the ultimate partner in power — given all the government consulting contracts, all the tenured gigs at government-subsidized universities (including private universities that depend on federal research grants and subsidized loans to students).

A lack of curiosity

In Washington media circles, too, there is a surprising lack of curiosity about government. There is passionate interest about the latest budget proposals for government agencies, passing new laws — or creating new programs.

But the actual operation of government, the details of what specific government programs achieve or inflict, is considered mundane. By the same token, the less a journalist understands an agency’s policies, the more gullible he is for its propaganda.

Pack journalism

Washington journalists’ reality is largely defined by government press

“We end up the day usually having some version of what the White House… has suggested as a story.”

releases. That is probably why the Washington press corps has long been derided as “stenographers with amnesia.”

Actually, this epithet is going out of fashion, in part because fewer people know the meaning of stenographer.

The media rarely looks beyond the government’s proclaimed purpose for a program or policy. “Pack journalism” predominates — and the pack rarely strays from the government reservation.


Never any liability

When they do stray, it is often in a group — after something has occurred or some pronouncement has been made signaling that it is okay to temporarily deviate from the official line.

There is almost never any liability for a Washington journalist who peddles false information received from the government, but they risk their careers if their criticisms of government turn out to be unsubstantiated.

Stamping the seal of approval

Sam Donaldson, the legendary ABC White House correspondent, observed of the Washington media: “As a rule, we are, if not handmaidens of the establishment, at least blood brothers to the establishment. We end up the day usually having some version of what the White House… has suggested as a story.”

The Washington press corps has long been derided as “stenographers with amnesia.”

By the same standard, most of the news media would be guilty of conspiring with the federal government to deceive the American people. The media effectively stamps its seal of approval on the vast majority of government assertions and presidential proclamations it delivers to the American people.

The fact that prominent media personalities profit massively from their coziness with government doesn’t annul their responsibility. As long as government power expands — as long as government and political leaders are glorified — it really doesn’t matter whether government programs succeed or fail.

Deceiving the public

Or, more accurately, the programs are a success because their advocates and defenders and champions are well-compensated and often treated regally. Those who invoke the Big Picture often have a vested interest in discouraging people from looking at grisly details.

The Big Picture becomes the enabler of the Big Lie. The studied avoidance of the details of government policy makes it far easier for politicians to manipulate and deceive the public.

Attention Deficit Democracy

The Big Picture allows governments to do as they please, confident that few people will

The fact that prominent media personalities profit massively from their coziness with government doesn’t annul their responsibility.

pay attention to the details.

The Big Picture ensures that people learn little or nothing from the past — and ignore the problems of the present. Ultimately, worshipping the Big Picture is the higher truth — and everything else is mere ephemera.

As a result, Attention Deficit Democracy creates a vacuous atmosphere in which Big Picture advocates can dominate political discussions regardless of the illogic or imbecility of their doctrines.

Adapted from the book “Attention Deficit Democracy” by James Bovard, copyright © 2006. Published by arrangement with Palgrave Macmillan.




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12 Responses to How the U.S. Media Helps Subvert U.S. Democracy

  1. whig September 11, 2006 at 12:27 pm #

    Jim, isn’t this analysis itself a kind of Big Picture?

    I’m not saying it’s wrong, in fact I think you have a really good point. But it’s more a consequence, I think, of people having far too many details to keep track of in modern society. Before we had radio and television, most news was local, with the occasional national story. National stories were big stories because they had to be to merit mention in the local papers.

    Now in this era of 24 hour national news without local interruption, there is still no sense in covering the finer details because, when there isn’t a big story there are an uncountable number of smaller ones.

    There isn’t a solution if you look at it as a problem of journalistic behavior. The nature of the medium determines the quality of its message. Didn’t McLuhan observe something similar?

    What we can do, and both you and I are doing it, is present alternative narratives on a different medium. Keep on blogging, it may not be as respectable as writing books, but you reach a potentially greater audience with a timely message that everyone participates in critiquing and modifying. This is a democratic medium.

  2. W Baker September 11, 2006 at 1:58 pm #

    Seems to me that the thesis of a glut of details, as Whig points out, does obscure the ‘big picture’. Take our foreign policy as an example. Inside the US media bubble, we get hundreds of daily small stories about this “success” or this “failure” whether in Iraq, Lebanon, or South America. They don’t have to be true or bear any relationship to reality: they just have to have a Manichean slant, good or bad. The only people who “tally up” these small events are the talking heads on radio and tv, the establishment editorial writers, or the political elite. As anyone might imagine, any overarching story can be told by cobbling together enough small details. So it’s not surprising that dimwits from the midwest or northeast – whether that be Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, or the ‘Decider’, himself – to name just a few – have made untold millions and gained unbelievable power by hacking together political and historical myths from small factoid news flashes.

    That’s why Jim’s work is disliked by both sides of the political divide. Jim corrals the smallest of footnoted details of government incompetence and malfeasance and puts them in the context of historical perspective. That’s a death wish for any mainstream reporter, entertainer, or mainstream politician. It’s just not the ‘American Way’!

  3. Jim September 11, 2006 at 10:57 pm #

    whig – this is an excerpt from the “Big Picture Myopia” chapter of Attention Deficit Democracy. It is a bit sketchy. The full chapter is probably more persuasive.

    People have been exposed to a rising numbers of factoids for centuries. Thoreau groused mightily about newspapers.

    But I am struck that it is intellectuals who often seem to have among the greatest difficulties in keeping perspective.

  4. Jim September 11, 2006 at 11:03 pm #

    Wes – thanks for your kind words on my writing.

    The Manichean slant is the key. I have been fascinated to see how easily invoking ‘good vs. evil’ can turn listeners’ minds into mush.

    I am amazed to see how rarely the media examines the basic terms – such as the US official definition of terrorism.

    And that is a subject which most op-ed editors welcome articles upon about as much as they would welcome articles on [[IT’S LATE AT NIGHT – INSERT THE PERFECT ANALOGY HERE]]

  5. whig September 12, 2006 at 12:32 am #

    Jim, I think I’ll be careful not to critique your posts when they are book excerpts until I’ve read your book. I do think there is a way to turn Manicheanism on its head though, and reach more people than you are likely to by arguing against their natural tendencies.

  6. ggh September 12, 2006 at 6:06 am #

    The media – and professors,etc – help the government the most by the questions they don’t ask. Like who owns the Iraq oil wells TODAY ( or/and who owned them YESTERDAY ). This is like picking the questions for yourself on the SAT.

  7. Jim September 12, 2006 at 9:29 am #

    whig – I object. Having to read the book before criticizing a post is way too high of a hurdle to clear before offering a different perspective. 

    You made good points – the Manichean issue is something which I have mused on and wrestled with for many years. 

    I absolutely, positively have no objection to anyone reading my books – but it’s fine to offer different perspectives without plowing through either the text or the bucket of endnotes.

  8. whig September 12, 2006 at 1:17 pm #

    Well the way I frame the Manichean values of good and evil are tied to methods and not goals. That it is wrong to use bad means to achieve your goals, because whatever means you use determine what kind of person you are.

    I’m on the side of peace and against war. Note how the warmongers hate the peace activists more than they even hate their officially proclaimed enemies. They hate us because they know that we are the real opposition to their power.

    I don’t hate them in return, but I will mock sometimes because it is important to wake people up and it’s a good way to get people who are on the fence to realize how wrong it is.

  9. Jim September 13, 2006 at 10:52 am #

    It is good to mock the warmongers.

    H.L. Mencken said, “One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.” Once people get in the habit of laughing at their rulers and the rulers’ media bootlickers, then the tide can be turned.

    On the Manichean standard for means – this prejudice against using evil to multiply good could prevent you from ever working on Capitol Hill or the White House.

  10. whig September 13, 2006 at 11:59 am #

    You’re absolutely right about abstaining from direct involvement in the political system. I don’t, although I am always willing to speak about things and help others to do public service.

    I don’t really believe there is a political solution to our mess, it’s a social problem. People have to learn to live peacefully with one another before we can expect the government to stop making war.

    My approach however non-conventional it may seem is to focus on the ending of cannabis prohibition, which has a profound social effect in my own observations. Alcohol has certain effects on people which seem to be associated with a level of increased violence in some cases, as when drunken men beat their wives, however much of a stereotype may seen. I’ve never been drawn to violence from drink, and neither perhaps have most people, but on the whole the social impact seems to be a coursening. Alcohol cannot and should not be prohibited but cannabis should be an alternative for adults.

    I could write a lot more about the medical and spiritual aspects of what I advocate but I don’t want to hijack your blog. That’s why I have my own.

  11. Jim September 13, 2006 at 12:40 pm #

    And it is an excellent blog –

    I will try not to take your asperions on drunks personally.

    I emphatically agree on cannabis prohibition. The fact that 700,000+ people a year are arrested for marijuana violations is one of the biggest farces in contemporary America.

    I don’t abstain from direct involvement in the political system – I sometimes vote, though I rarely expect it to do any good. A Washington Post columnist bloviated today:

    “When you get past the silliness of candidates’ TV ads and the corruption of how we pay for campaigns, voting is one of the most powerful and emotional acts in our lives.”

    What a heap of crap.

  12. Ryan September 14, 2006 at 12:17 pm #

    “…or the bucket of endnotes.”


    I’ve discovered over the years that sometimes the endnotes can be more enlightening than the text of a book.