Friday night's edition of "Now" with David Brancaccio on PBS followed the old Bill Moyers formula of two leftists having an echo-chamber conversation. Brancaccio and Berkeley journalism dean Orville Schell agreed and agreed about how the press aren't liberal enough, the people don't want another Watergate/Vietnam era enough, and the free market can't be counted on to provide "independent" (read: thoroughly ultraliberal) journalism. "We're all [a] slave to the market," Brancaccio suggested.
Since Schell was a China scholar, Brancaccio even suggested the current administration might be inspired in their devotion to squelching the press by the Chinese communists. "I'm not sure I want to give government ideas on this particular point, but maybe our government could look to China, which has really raised this notion of, of censorship of their news media to almost a scientific level."
(MRC intern Chadd Clark transcribed the program Monday, and explained with animated exasperation that it's "the worst thing I've seen all summer. The whole thing is outrageous." Welcome to your taxpayer-funded television, Chadd.)
The interview was taped at the Aspen Ideas Festival a few weeks ago. Brancaccio quickly put the supposedly timid liberal media and the censorious Bush administration in the hero and villain roles: "Tell you what, you can make enormous political headway by bashing the press in America these days. The White House Spokesman, Tony Snow, after the New York Times published details of efforts to sift through bank accounts in the War on Terror, his construction was something like, 'the New York Times in this case has put the public's right to know above people's right to live.'"
Schell replied that it was somehow dangerous for anyone to criticize the press, and stacked the deck by complaining that liberals are for truth and authenticity, while conservatives favor plastic public-relations cliches:
"Well, I think that, you know, we've entered a very sort of dangerous and, and for me, troubling time when the press has come under great attack, and I think it grows out of an interesting set of different experiences and understandings of what the press and the media is all about. On the one hand, I think the Bush administration, and to a certain degree Republicans, come out of a tradition more of public relations in which communications tries to attain a goal. But in actuality, we as reporters and the press come out of an entirely different tradition, which is to follow things wherever they go and try to say things, explain things as we see them. And those are absolutely different traditions. So, I think sometimes when the current administration attacks the press, they're attacking it the way any corporation, any government, anybody with a good P.R. firm would attack anybody who is making them look other than they wish to look. But it's very important, I think, for Americans to remember that the tradition of the press as an independent watchdog, somewhat feisty, somewhat iconoclastic and always looking, looking, looking, prying, prying, prying. This was the notion that our founding fathers laid out, spelled out with utter clarity. And I think we've lost sight of it with this new tradition of public relations, which has gotten all lumped together with the press as just, you know, the media, mass communications. But, they're two very different rivers flowing into that stream of mass communications."
Brancaccio didn't sit down to challenge Schell's comfortable left-wing assumptions, merely to endorse them: "Well, you're not kidding, lost sight of it. I mean, you've seen the poll research from just this year that says when the American public is told that journalists do what we do in the public interest to make the country or the world a better place, they completely don't buy that. They say that we reporters, when we say that, are either being delusional or are just lying."
Remember a sentence like this when PBS boosters try to tell you it's not about "shout shows" and talk-radio hyperbole. Can anyone find a poll where the public calls reporters "delusional"? (It's not in the new Pew Center poll, for one.) This is where Schell goes socialist, suggesting that capitalism and "independent" journalism don't mix well:
Schell: "Well, you know, I think there's another sort of phenomenon that's wrapped up in this that insofar as the media – that's radio, television and newspapers – are commercial, there's a kind of underlying presumption that somehow there is another, there is a different purpose than just presenting the facts and getting to the truth."
Brancaccio: "Well, that's not a crazy presumption, the idea that maybe..."
Schell: "It isn't."
Brancaccio: "You know, some anchorman on some show, in addition to trying to report the truth, may also be trying to provide a space for people to sell stuff."
Schell: "Well, in fact, that's exactly what's going on. I mean, the media is supported by advertising, with the, with the exception of public broadcasting, and even public broadcasting is more and more reliant upon corporate sponsors. This everybody knows. You know, what, what's a business model that actually allows reports and editors and producers to do a good job and to be as independent as possible? And I think perhaps some trusts, some philanthropy, some other, other ways that would give our media a little bit of independence from the purely sort of commercial driven imperatives, which I think are, are more and more making us timid, cautious, incapable of standing up to criticisms against us, because we, we fear that our livelihood, our air hose will be cut off."
The dynamic left-wing duo then worried about how a "business model" is ruining the press's image by making it look like it's driven by private interests or bias:
Brancaccio: "So I hear you saying that this is not just an apparent conflict of interest– the fact that journalists may report to a corporate master who have business reasons for doing what they do – but you're saying it actually may be affecting the journalism, worrying about the business model."
Schell: "I think we're in a very grave crisis where the credibility of the press is at stake, where people perceive journalists as being somehow disingenuous or having some private interests or being biased. And I think it, it gets back to the fact that, you know, we, we do now in America live in the most market-driven society that human history has ever witnessed, and it's affected every aspect of our lives. And it makes notions of independent quite quaint and quite difficult to..."
Brancaccio: "Notions of independence in journalism?"
Schell: "Yes. Well, independence of any kind for that matter, independence in the arts."
Brancaccio: "We're all [a] slave to the market at some level."
Schell: "Well, we are. I mean, and, and whether you're a journalist or a dean at a university, such as I am, we, too, are out on the corner with our tin cup as mendicants. And we, too, are forced to be entrepreneurial, to fundraise, to beg for corporate sponsors. And, I mean, this is part of life that has crept up like a silently rising tide around all of us, and nowhere do I think the effects have been more profound than in the media."
It's not a surprise that this kind of conversation would take place on public television, where liberals feel that the quality of their "independent" thought is so high that it shouldn't have to beg for support. It ought to be granted by a benevolent philanthropist or government with zero strings attached. How that leads to an absence of "bias" is absolutely puzzling.
Then the conversation turned to Bush's dictatorial impulses toward the press, and how it was ironic that Bush claims to support building democracy abroad, while questioning the media at home (notice how they always equate Media = Democracy In Action)?
Brancaccio: "We expect the government to question our motives. It's sort of built into the tension. But when..."
Schell: "Well, yes and no. I mean, I, I think no government loves a prying media that's investigating malfeasance or wrongdoing."
Brancaccio: "Do you see ironies when, for instance, the present administration sets as a goal spreading American values overseas, ideas that include democracy? But, with democracy and theory, come a robust news media, yet, on the other hand, a government very uncomfortable with the role of the news media."
Schell: "Well, you know, in the area that I've studied most sort of vigorously in my life, China, Chairman Mao Zedong once said that, you know, 'pure theory is no better than horse****.' [PBS, watching for the FCC, did bleep this rather un-academic word out.] And I think when we are exporting the theory of democracy and a free press, but not the practice of it, we don't become very credible, and I think our credibility around the world right now has suffered, you know, quite substantially because people do perceive that to be for something in theory, but not to be able to implement it in practice, does, does put you in a somewhat hypocritical cast."
Brancaccio: "I'm not sure I want to give government ideas on this particular point, but maybe our government could look to China, which has really raised this notion of, of censorship of their news media to almost a scientific level."
Schell: "Well, it's interesting. Of course, China is the master at censoring not only the media, now the internet. The media is the megaphone of the party and the state. That's an absolutely different notion of the media; closer, I might add, to the idea of public relations as a form of communications than of free press. Our notion is very different. We are not the mouthpiece of anybody. We are trying to be independent. In theory, fine. In practice, when we actually come up with some revelation that the state doesn't like, we see the effect."
Brancaccio: "But you think this is just hyperbole, the idea of state censorship in America, but it's not that far a leap. I mean, when the New York Times went to press with that there was a, a suggestion from one congressman that maybe the paper had violated the Espionage Act, and what follows from that is maybe you throw an editor in jail, or a reporter in jail."
Schell: "I think the effects of what the Bush administration has been doing are infinitely more chilling to the spirit of a free press than even they can imagine. You know, again, in China I've had a lot of experience with this, and I know what happens when people become fearful, when, because normally any human being, not just a reporter, would like to be considered a constructive, positive, patriotic citizen. And they actually believe that their reporting is a manifestation of that. But when something as powerful as the state or a president says that they're actually seditious, insubordinate and aiding and abetting terrorism, unpatriotic – I mean – this has a tremendously undermining effect. And, of course, this also makes corporations get weak knees when it comes to supporting this critical sort of extragovernmental watchdog function that America is the, has been the champion in, pioneered it back at the founding of this country, and ironically, it's to this that so many nations look as a kind of a beacon of good practice."
Finally -- and there is more, but how much can be absorbed? -- Schell suggested that in the current political environment, the media merely shows political weakness when it evaluates its own biases or wonders if it's mangled the truth. That only softens you up to being run over by right-wingers:
Brancaccio: "But would you say the Bush administration has been successful? The news media is now cowed?"
Schell: "Yes. I think the Bush administration's been very successful. I read even Bill Keller, the editor of the New York Times remark, you know, remonstrations against the government, and in it, I mean, one sees all sorts of self-doubting, self-questioning ombudsman, self lacerations. I mean, it's the very healthy, actually liberal impulse to find whatever fault one can within oneself before blaming someone else. It's not a bad human instinct. In the world in which we presently live, that is a sign of weakness. And, you know, people like Bill O'Reilly or the administration, they'll just drive a truck right through there and mow you down."