Jay Rosen on our Media Malaise: Who Will Tell the People?


Jay Rosen – NYU journalism professor, social-media rock star and most thoughtful of press watchers – thinks the critical news stories of our time have grown “Too Big to Tell.”

We’re pulling on a thread — “what are we going through?” essentially — that began with the late Tony Judt‘s last book of sermons Ill Fares the Land and continued with Timothy Snyder and Thinking the Twentieth Century. It’s a wide-open inquiry that needs your nudges. Listen and comment, please!

Here’s Jay Rosen on the media piece:

It’s impossible to register in our public conversation an America in decline, a loss of confidence. We also haven’t dealt with the huge crisis of accountability. Nobody’s accountable for anything in this country. Who’s accountable for a phony case for war, put forward in 2002 and 2003? Nobody! Who’s accountable for a financial crash and corrupt financial practices that went on for years and made lots of people rich? Nobody! Who’s responsible for failing to detect a phony case for war — in the press? Nobody. Just to take an example: David Gregory [of NBC] to this day maintains that he and his colleagues reporting on the White House and the Bush Administration did a great job in the run-up to the war. He says this today. His reward for that is not to be laughed out of the profession but to get Tim Russert’s chair on Meet the Press. He’s bigger than ever! To me just that little story tells the tale of accountability in the United States. And it’s that group of people that still has a hold on the political conversation, even though fewer people believe them or pay attention or rely on them. And so the alternative to a reality-based politics, which we do not have, is just a huge increase in cynicism.

That idea of stories too big to tell, lies too big to take back, an audience hooked on placebos it doesn’t believe — it all makes sense about a malaise that the late Tony Judt was trying to pierce. Jay Rosen is putting his finger on one of the biggest mysteries in this troubled American moment. On one hand: what we call “media” has been transformed by the digital revolution. The tools of publishing and broadcasting have all been distributed, which is to say: democratized. Critically independent websites like Politico, TPM, Daily Kos and TruthDig have taken root, and vast horizontal networks like Facebook thrive. Yet, on the other hand, in some strange way “the conversation” has not moved. If anything, Jay Rosen says, the grip of reality has been weakened. As Joan Didion remarked in 1988 about the specialized and professionalized “process” around a presidential campaign: “What strikes one most vividly about such a campaign is precisely its remoteness from the actual life of the country.” I am asking Jay Rosen: are we looking at the end of something, or the beginning of something else?

I would say ‘the end’ in this sense: the only real program for change we have now is: Collapse! Because we have these institutions that don’t work. They are in many ways constructed on illusions or lies. They go… go… go… go… go… until the day that they don’t. Like the whole mortgage-fueled financial system, right? It worked… it worked… it worked… it worked… and then one day it collapsed, with a lot of destruction and almost a kind of violence. We’re now in a period where we can’t reform, so we’re waiting for various forms of collapse. Now in the aftermath, yeah, sometimes that can be the start of something. But I don’t see right now any alternative. The institutions that are supposed to be able to take account of reality — name it, frame it, allow for a contest of ideas, permit a choice of large directions to be made and therefore allow us to find some sort of imperfect remedy — just don’t work. And so the alternative is: Collapse. But in the collapse there are new tools, there are new ideas, there’s another generation. Certainly it’s not going to be you and me! And so there’s where the case for optimism is. We still need people like Tony Judt. We need writers just trying to make sense of their own experience, who can name and frame what they see. But the tools for ignoring those people roar. They are powerful, too.

Jay Rosen with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 5, 2012

This all calls to mind our last conversation with the late Anthony Shadid, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his people-first coverage of the war in Iraq. What the most honored of reporters on the Middle East wanted to get off his chest with me two years ago was that “I find it almost painful to come home to the States…” He was in grave distress wondering if anyone had read his stories in the Washington Post and the New York Times, about the war at the level of Iraqi villages and families. “I think it’s just spectacular that we don’t appreciate the devastation that has been wrought in Iraq over the past 7 or 8 years. It’s just spectacular. There was an incredible amount of arrogance that went into this entire experience on the part of journalists, on the part of policy makers and the military. There wasn’t even a desire to learn. It does give you pause.”

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  • I think the problem with the media, and public discourse generally, is the concentration of ownership. Clear Channel has wiped out radio as a democratic medium. Conglomerates own broadcast TV, and large investors press furiously on cable networks to meet profit targets. Murdoch is a journalistic pestilence, and Sam Zell, who ruined the LA Times and/or Chicago Tribune, is likewise, in his different way. Publishing is a wasteland of corporate rationalization, hopelessly profit-driven and plagued by marketing departments horning in on editorial decisions.

    The problem is fundamental and systemic, not contingent. As long as information and access to audiences are treated as commodities rather than as public utilities, there will be a race to the bottom, with the inevitable degradation of quality/individuality and then wholesale abandonment, exactly as happens with other industries. The only way to halt and then reverse the hollowing out of the culture or the economy, the public or the private sphere, is robust democracy: the determined and persistent self-assertion of the populace against the many-tentacled corporate hydra, which now wholly owns government. But of course this is the worst possible time to look for such self-assertion: no unions, one in six working-age people un- or underemployed, the rest mainly dependent on employers for health-care and retirement security. Of course the populace is insecure and overstressed – not the frame of mind in which to create a vast grassroots movement, even if we weren’t continually bombarded by right-wing propaganda.

    Although I think the only lasting solutions are radical ones, that doesn’t mean that I think one must begin by seizing the state, or even running a candidate for president. I think efforts like Nader’s public service groups – ongoing, low-cost, outside the electoral racket – are useful. The Z media network here in Boston is useful. There are lots of little magazines, small publishers, independent documentaries, seat-of-the-pants websites, and of course conscientious academics like Jay. It’s not really a problem of ideas – the people and outfits I’ve just mentioned have lots of great ideas. It’s a problem of resources. In this society, as in any capitalist society, the people with the resources are likely to have little concern for the public good, and the people with the most concern for the public good are likely to have the fewest resources. But that’s life in a plutocracy.

    Other resources for fellow listeners: Chomsky and Herman’s great Manufacturing Consent; Glenn Greenwald’s invaluable column in Salon; the independent community TV channel in Cambridge, which shows many superb documentaries that you’ll never see elsewhere; Ralph Nader’s underappreciated book Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us.;

  • nother

    Please don’t take this wrong (cuz it’s conversations like this that make me think) but I think you gentlemen are off track. All the journalists you call out are culprits for sure, but those people amount to a group of scared stewards on the Titanic. Tom Friedman is like that humane police officer that joins the force for all the right reasons yet when he catches wind that his police chief is taking bribes, he (with a mortgage and impending college tuition on his mind) decides not to make waves. Hey the trains ran on time in Germany, right? We don’t want to get off track.

    So I’m weary of anything resembling media naval gazing. Mr. Rosen and Mr. Lydon want to know who is accountable. What I say is it’s not Mr. Friedman, or Mr. Keller, or Mr. Cheney, or Mr. Hussein. It is “the people.” This mess is of the people, by the people, and for the people. We the people have never sacrificed (accept in repressed guilt) for our actions. Look no further then the fact that the price of gas goes up 50 cents and people are beside themselves in indignation.

    Follow the money – just as the Catholic Church won’t change until their coffers stop getting filled, The People won’t change until we are told that our credit cards are maxed out and Social Security checks are frozen. Only then will people forgo the comfortable distraction of chewable “journalism” and start asking the extra question.

  • nother

    Mr. Friedman and his ilk can commiserate with Raskolnikov from “Crime and Punishment.” All the cumbersome negatives associated with eliminating one unscrupulous person will be counterbalanced by a net gain for humanity, right?

    Oh and by the way, just as Raskolnikov would use the dead pawnbrokers money for good deeds, Iraq’s oil reserves will be put to good use.

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  • Alice Copeland Brown

    It is so heartwarming, after being so lonely for some informed media coverage of our poor degenerating nation, to hear you and your guests who have a brain AND a heart. I so miss you and shout at the radio when WGBH interviewers fail to (or are too ignorant to) followup on an inane non-answer from some of the politicans they half-way engage.

    The half truths (which are whole lies) that we are fed by both NPR and the MSM makes me keep the TV and Radio silent for most of the time. I do listen to the Charley Rose interviews and those by that smart African-American whose name I can’t remember who comes on late at night.
    But none have your touch. Come back, if those reactionaries running/ruining NPR will let you.

    Alice Copeland Brown

  • sifta

    There does seem to be a relationship between the crises related to the reality gap in international politics, the financial bubble, and now the domestic political reality gap.

    One might make the claim that ‘the surge worked’ in Iraq. Which is a sort of take on the strategy of applying ethnic cleansing in exchange for stability and security, without much accounting for the score on principles.

    One might make the claim that the TARP funds from 2008, etc., *did* keep the financial bubble from violently collapsing, and spread out the impact over some number of years. And now the economic realities and implications of this are just becoming apparent.

    The domestic political scene is where there are actual feedback loops and where people can observe how administrative decisions affect them directly without too much theory. We are, however, mired in a discourse based on a false ‘ethos’ when such a bubble situations only respond to ‘logos.’

  • Carl

    I think Chris touched on the core of the problem when he mentioned our society’s inequality, and remarked that the the media’s purpose now seems to be to sell the elite’s inflexible agenda rather than inform the citizens.

    The rest of this discussion was either too vague or focused on the wrong people (i.e reporters and editors). What’s interesting is the owners. Yes there is a lack of accountability, but why? Why did David Bradley send ponies to Jeffrey Goldberg to get him sign on at the Atlantic? Why is Michael Gordon still working at the New York Times? Do the owners really want these know-nothings working at their publications, or are they operating under political, social, or market pressures that force their newspapers and magazines to spout the same nonsense for decades on end?

    Maybe these questions are unanswerable for those of us outside the machine, but I think even asking them helps clarify the problem. It might be useful if you could get some former journalists on the show with Jay Rosen. They could help ground the discussion.

  • David Shayer

    I was ecstatic to hear Jay Rosen on Radio Open Source. He said everything I have been thinking for the last several years. But of course he said it more eloquently than I could.

    It’s been totally obvious for some years that part of the Republican party has broken free of reality. I’m never sure how much of this is simple opportunism, and how much is the true believers howling at the moon.

    But I’m frustrated and disgusted by the media’s willful refusal to notice this. They insist on treating all stories as if they have two, equally valid sides. Even when one side is backed up by facts, and the other side is complete bullshit. Look how long it took the media to point out that president Obama was, in fact, born in Hawaii, and that Hawaii is, in fact, a state. And even then they continued to accord birther statements undue respect, instead of treating them like the rantings of the flat earth society.

    Chris, I love Radio Open Source, keep up the good work. It’s one of the few adult conversations that’s not afraid to take on complex issues, in depth. Have Jay Rosen on again. And have Mark Blyth on again too, he’s wonderful!

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  • Sean McElroy

    Timothy Snyder poses the observation to Tony Judt in Thinking the Twentieth Century regarding Hannah Arendt as she refers to totalitarianism claiming that another characteristic of modern society is the paradox of distributed responsibility: bureaucracy dilutes and obscures individual moral responsibility, rendering it invisible.

    Tony later responds: Arendt is writing in terms that reflect a Weberian grasp of the modern world: a universe of states governed by administrative bureaucracies themselves subdivided into very small units where decisions and choices are exercised by, so to speak, individual non-initiative. Inaction, in such an institutional environment becomes action; the absence of active choice substitutes for choice itself…

    It seems to me that the prosecution of the Iraq War was conducted in just such an environment absent of active choice. Chris is spot on to suggest the non-actions of John Kerry as a particularly poignant submission. But Kerry was by no means singular in his lack of moral commitment. One has to look far and wide to find the solitary voices in the wilderness, Ted Kennedy was one, but it was Russ Feingold, Dem. Senator from Wisconsin, who was the only one to stand up against the USA Patriot Act of 2001 and for his call to censure Bush in 2006.

    We are still living in the world of moral illusion: we no longer hold a moral conviction to reduce poverty, its having been supplanted by the condescending “dignity of work.” When we fail to call a truism out onto the mat, we are choosing the path of inactivity. “Too big to fail” conflates with “open market capitalism” lining us up individually on an axis whose moral directionality has no intrinsic meaning. That is of course the point of cynical obfuscation.

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  • Potter

    I think this is terrific! And about time!

    Obama Slow Jams the News with Jimmy Fallon

  • LB

    I know we are waking up, our current paradigm has failed us, and as a species we are experiencing a shift in that paradigm. As this shift occurs we will enter a period of uncertainty. I think this is important because through that we will developed a new paradigm, essentially occupying a new world altogether. This has always happened throughout human history. The paradigm shift that occurred that allowed us to realize the Earth wasn’t flat is the same shift we are experiencing today. I’m optimistic no matter what, and will keep my faith that we will continue to strive. The cards will fall, and we will have to be ready to pick them up.

  • WF

    Corporate media is a wasteland and I have to agree that accountability is totally non-existent. I once held high hopes for social media, blogging, and the like but I have come to realize that people don’t like to be informed, challenged, or otherwise made to believe that they are small minded. As a result, the Internet and all of its freedom granting potential has served primarily to aggregate like minded people who are seeking mutual admiration and mutual derision of those with whom they disagree. It has become an orgy for confirmation bias. How many people go searching the web to see if maybe they are off-base on a particular idea, rather than seeking to confirm their bias? Finally, the ease with which ignorance and wrong headed ideas are spread is truly disheartening.

    It concerns me gravely that these United States are becoming a balkanised federation of special interests, forgetting the principals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. Lost too in the white noise of political banality is the fact that most Americans can agree on a broad set of issues, but have been made to believe that we are miles apart. One can’t help but believe that this is the intent of the political and business elite. Keep the electorate occupied with ad hominem arguments specifically designed to organize voting blocks and to maintain a two party political power sharing arrangement. We simply must stop looking for the things that divide us, we must ignore the flood of logical fallacies that flow so freely in political speech, and engage with one another as fellow citizens with valuable and diverse viewpoints.