It is rare when a non-media columnist for The New York Times devotes precious ink to taking on the media. When economist Paul Krugman did just that recently, I was startled because it is so uncommon for issue-oriented commentators even to acknowledge that most people understand the world through what they see and read, or that the media might be missing key news. How stories are played, or ignored, is usually not a subject that opinion-makers think about even though it is their stock in trade.
Now we have a pundit admitting in print, first, that "most Americans get their news from TV," and then adding that the images on TV don't show the whole picture. "If you pay attention to the whole picture, you start to feel that you are living in a different reality than the one on TV," he writes. By focusing on political ideology, says Krugman, reporters are missing the economic stories that are hidden in plain sight.
How is it possible for journalists to miss what is in front of their faces? In his forthcoming book "Media Unlimited," media analyst Todd Gitlin tells the story of a customs official who keeps stopping the same suspicious driver about to cross the border. The official knows a conveyor of contraband when he sees one and so has the truck searched thoroughly, even torn apart. He finds nothing. This ritual is repeated every time the driver pulls a load through his post. Finally, years later, the customs officer confronts the driver and tells him he knows that he is a smuggler, but he can't figure out what he's been smuggling. It is driving him crazy.
The driver smiles, and confesses what he is illegally transporting: "Trucks," he says.
The trucks were right in front of the official's face, but he couldn't see them. The late Edward R. Murrow translated this insight into media-ese: "The obscure we see eventually," he said. "The completely apparent takes a little longer."
And so it is with TV news, an environment Marshall McLuhan called "pervasively invisible."
Whose Reality? Krugman makes this same point. "The alternate reality isn't deeply hidden. It's available to anyone with a modem, and some of it makes it into quality newspapers." There's a surprising admission in that sentence, an acknowledgment that his own newspaper only reports "some" of the news he considers important. He also has the guts to add that much news has already become a casualty of the current climate in which "selfishness comes tightly wrapped in a flag" and that "the normal instincts of a country at war � to rally round the flag and place trust in our leaders � are all too easily exploited."
So at least some truth is seeping out, a truth that is as old as the children's story about the emperor without clothes in a land where no one would admit he was naked. The truth is that most of our media are not even getting close to the truth � that is, if there even is such a thing as "the truth."
Krugman evidently believes that there is an alternate reality that is being forgotten. What if what's in many media outlets is the genuinely alternate reality, a well-sanitized and manufactured one? The REAL "alternate reality" is the surreality of people in power or those who want to be, who feel that their interests, prescribed by class and consciousness, are always the de facto national interest.
And the media just go along, or at least many of them do. If government is to be held accountable for its decisions and corporations for their practices, media companies need to be accountable for their many failings:
1. Where are the exposés of the giveaways to big corporations in the name of economic stimulus? True, the facts are reported but the full significance is not. It would help if people with alternate views outside the bipartisan consensus within the Washington, D.C. Beltway were given regular media exposure. Where are the voices of labor and the advocates of economic justice?
The government has just announced that there is a recession but for many Americans, it already feels like a depression, in part because the social safety net has been cut back. Don't media outlets have a responsibility to more than echo the official prognosis?
While Paul Krugman is right when he says that business reporters often offer the best reporting because they "are not expected to view the world though rose-colored glasses," they also often wear parochial ones that fail to put economic news in a global perspective. While we have endless reporting on the ups and downs of the stock market, there is little analysis of the larger forces in play in day-to-day developments. As Michael Mandel argues in Business Week Online, we need to recognize how globalization factors into what may at first appear to be just a domestic problem. "With U.S. news just a click away on the Internet and TV sets around the world endlessly tuned to CNN and CNBC, pessimism in one country can crop up elsewhere in a way that was never possible before. The New Economy is built on global trade, global capital markets and global communications. Unfortunately, the door swings both ways: Links which propelled growth in the boom may help spread the slump today."
2. We need journalists willing to question their bosses. Where are the investigations of the backroom maneuvering by media companies to get federal regulations they don't like lifted? Is there a covert deal in place, some quid pro quo, as in "you scratch our backs and we will continue to sanitize the news and give it a spin of good feelings and patriotic devotion"? Who will find out?
3. Krugman condemns the tilt towards blind patriotism, but what are the interests behind the beating of the war drums? More important, is there a more sensible way to fight terrorism than get into bed with the thugs of the Northern Alliance? Do we have other choices than to ally with other scumbuckets who have been armed to the teeth by the United States to fight a war against one oppressive regime only to seek to replace it with another? Does there have to be such a stunning lack of background on most TV news outlets about the bloody track records of many of the Afghan leaders engaged in ousting the Taliban?
It will take more than one column to list all the undercovered stories and ignored issues or to get media mavens to focus on the trucks as well as the drivers.
The fact that discussion on this has begun inside big media is encouraging. It is now up to the rest of us to jump into the debate and push it deeper. We need to find solutions not restate the obvious. But it was refreshing for the Times to recognize the importance of trucking with us media critics. I agree with you Mr. Krugman: "It's time to give the American people the whole picture."
Danny Schechter is executive editor of MediaChannel.org. His latest book is "News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics 1960-2000," from Akashic Books.