When a small publication such as The American Conservative publishes a sharp attack against the mainstream media as I recently did in American Pravda, the ultimate result largely depends upon whether that selfsame media will take any notice. Many tens or even low hundreds of thousands may read a highly popular article online, but such totals are negligible in a nation of over three hundred million, and those readers might anyway question the credibility of the charges. After all, one of my central arguments had been that our media decides what is real and what is nonsense.
With the media serving as gatekeeper to its own criticism, the impact of my efforts remained in substantial doubt over the last month, but early Monday morning the ground shifted as the venerable Atlantic—one of America’s oldest publications and still among the most influential—published a very thoughtful 2,000 word discussion of my piece, under the noteworthy heading “Why Does the American Media Get Big Stories Wrong?”. Agreeing with me on some particulars and disagreeing on others, author Conor Friedersdorf helpfully summarized my critique while also providing several suggested answers to his own title-question, something that I had not treated in detail.
The article certainly seemed to strike a nerve, reaching #2 on the The Atlantic’s most read list, and the piece has now been tweeted out well over 500 times, with perhaps a hundred of those tweeters ranked as “influential” and often themselves being members of the journalistic community. Based on the a quick sampling of particular tweets, I’d estimate that over one million individuals and possibly as many as two or three million have now been alerted to the topic. Most Americans—especially most American journalists—realize perfectly well that our media ecosystem is broken, and are very concerned about the depth of the problem. The crucial question is whether others will now continue moving the story forward by taking advantage of the opening so helpfully produced by this important Atlantic article.
Many will certainly ignore the issue, or else try to force the discussion into the meaningless convention of ideologically partisan Left/Right debates. For example, Peter Sterne of The New York Observer noted the Atlantic piece in his Tuesday column, but summarized my original article as arguing that “liberal bias” was the root of our media problems. Just consider that one of my central examples had been the case of New York Times Pulitzer Prize winner Sydney Schanberg, whose shocking charges against the Nixon Administration have for decades been totally ignored by the American media. Does Sterne really believe that Schanberg is a rightwing talking-head on FoxNews and Richard Nixon a great hero of the liberal-left? Far more likely is that he had never bothered to actually read my article before ridiculing my analysis. In either case, I would suggest that he fully exemplifies the media problems I describe.
By contrast, consider the response of a small leftist website called Metafilter, one of whose pseudonymous participants initiated the discussion of my article, which he summarized thusly:
A provocative essay on the flaws of the American media by the editor and publisher of the American Conservative, Ron Unz, containing: allusions to conspiracy theories, condemnation of Soviet spies (and a kind word for Joe McCarthy), criticism of the FBI, approving quotations of Paul Krugman, fresh questions about the moral character of John McCain and his fitness for office, disapproving descriptions of the Obama administration as “Bush’s third term,” and a broadside against the selling of the Iraq war calling it the “greatest strategic disaster in United States history.”
While I might not agree with every particular nuance, the general description correctly provided the general flavor of my piece, and the debate that followed was spirited and interesting, though perhaps overly focused on the question of Joseph McCarthy and Alger Hiss.
So we have the case of a paid journalist at The New York Observer who sharply criticizes an article he obviously has not read, while anonymous leftist bloggers discuss and analyze that article, despite collecting no paychecks. Isn’t this a major part of the exact point I was making? Tens of thousands of unpaid and anonymous Internet participants are increasingly doing the job that our established media will not.
What does it mean to no longer trust our media? Well, here’s a personal example.
Yesterday marked the 24th anniversary of the Chinese crackdown in Tiananmen Square, when tens of thousands of peaceful student protesters, demanding an end to government corruption and oppression, were brutally attacked by the Chinese military, with many hundreds killed. I still remember telling all my friends at the time that we might have witnessed the greatest world tragedy of our lifetimes. The top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party itself had been sharply divided over what action to take, and the so-called “June 4th Incident” is still subject to enormous domestic censorship within China, as was described in the Tuesday’s front page New York Times story recounting the historical event and its continuing reverberations in that country.
For a quarter-century, the official Chinese media has always claimed that the student protests had ended peacefully without any deaths and for a quarter century informed Americans have always ridiculed such ridiculous claims as proof that Chinese Communist propaganda remained as dishonest as ever. Certainly that was always my own opinion.
But what if the official Chinese media has been telling the truth for decades and it is the American media that has always been deceptive?
When my original American Pravda article ran, one of the longer early comments came from an individual who made these exact allegations, and included a link back to an essay on his own website, which fleshed out that analysis together with various sources. He claimed that the violent clash between troops and rioting mobs actually occurred miles away in a different part of Beijing, with the rioters themselves having attacked the troops and provoked the bloodshed. In his account, these street battles were entirely distinct from the peaceful occupation of Tiananmen Square, whose protesters were indeed removed non-violently from their occupation of that central plaza. The writer argued that the American media got the story wrong at the time, and has never been willing to correct the mistake, and he provided some seemingly credible evidence to back up these surprising accusations.
With such doubts having been recently raised in my mind, I read yesterday’s major New York Times article with a careful eye and noticed that the reporter was being quite cagey in saying whether deadly military force was used to clear Tiananmen Square of the protesters. He states that the peaceful demonstrators were removed and also describes the violent clashes with the military that occurred in the streets of Beijing around the same time, but never directly combines these two important details, which leaves me quite suspicious. I don’t possess the time or expertise to personally investigate the facts of that distant historical event, but I have a sneaking suspicion that decades of reading our major American newspapers may have led me into serious error on this matter.
It’s a sad situation when you begin to weigh the words of an anonymous Internet commenter almost as highly as you do the published accounts of the top journalists of the august New York Times.