U.S. DEMOCRACY & THE ROLE OF THE MEDIA
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
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.
Washington journalists’ reality is largely defined by government press
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.”
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
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.