In October, when two public radio producers were sacked in separate incidents for participating in the Occupy Movement, I was dismayed, but not surprised. NPR is often accused of liberal bias. But I can testify, as a former NPR freelancer, that the network's real slant lies neither to the right nor to the left, but to the spineless center, that is to say toward championing the views of mostly middle-aged white guys with money, power and influence, who are disproportionately represented on its airwaves, according to a recent study by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting).
NPR -- and they are hardly alone, in this respect -- is like those embedded journalists covering a war. They never find out what life is like for those on the other side. Mainstream media outlets like NPR tell us that they are having trouble figuring out what the Occupy Movement is about. They claim the protesters have no clear goals or coherent agenda. But while the pundits profess to being confused by what the activists are trying to say, polls show that more than half of Americans support the movement's aims.
So why are these savvy and perceptive journalists so befuddled? Perhaps it is because they are hopelessly embedded in the very power structures that the protest is targeting. It may be hard for these inveterate insiders to hear what is going on beyond the political intrigues and legislative maneuvering which they are so adept at covering.
My own brief fling as a freelance reporter for NPR is instructive, I believe, mostly for the way in which it crashed and burned, so let's get right to that. Back in the mid nineteen-nineties I used to serve food at an open air soup kitchen near the Bowery in lower Manhattan and noticed how the lines were getting longer, and included more people who, judging by their dress, were neither the homeless, nor in many cases even the unemployed. Why were these "middle class" folks standing out in the cold for a free meal?
So I pitched a story to my editor in Washington on hunger in our nation's cities. The piece, which was broadcast on NPRs premier newsmagazine show Morning Edition on the day that Clinton's new welfare law went into effect, contained interviews with emergency food providers, people who were responsible for feeding the poor in the city's less affluent neighborhoods. The brunt of what I was being told was that there were millions of people in America who go to bed hungry, and that their numbers were poised to swell as welfare and food stamp regulations became more restrictive. Sadly, this prediction has proved all too accurate.
I was emboldened by the enthusiastic response to this underreported story, to pitch a piece on homelessness, even fantasized briefly about becoming NPR's poverty reporter-- you know, like they have a business reporter. For some reason my editor did not warm to this idea. He didn't even respond to my emailed pitch. So I gave him a call. "Haven't we spoken after your hunger story?" he asked. We had not. "Well you have been accused of liberal bias and we are not going to give you any more policy assignments," he summarily announced.
I was stunned -- accused of bias for reporting that people are hungry? "But Ken, you edited the piece yourself," I stammered, "Where exactly was the bias?" He had no answer, and I sensed from his halting tone that he was not happy, either. But the higher ups at the network had spoken, and I was now blackballed from reporting for the NPR newsmagazines, though I continued doing occasional pieces on the fringes of the public radio world for a while longer.
This experience was a wake-up call for me on the nature of the media. I had always looked up to reporters and been drawn to the journalistic profession from an early age. As a boy, I remember marveling at the logo on the masthead of the New York Times -- "All the News That's Fit to Print" -- not because I was skeptical of this audacious claim, but, on the contrary, because I believed it. Nobody could doubt back then that the Grey Lady was the newspaper of record, the veritable house organ of reality itself, at least in my family.
Like so many other Americans, we had unqualified faith in the luminaries of the press. If Cronkite or Huntley or Brinkley said it, then it had to be true. This naive faith was about to be shattered -- for me, at least -- by the Vietnam War, and the early complicity of the media in cheer-leading America's ill-conceived military adventure in Southeast Asia. Eventually, coverage of the conflict took on a more critical tone. LBJ famously commented, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America," after the beloved journalist called the war "unwinnable." Several weeks later, Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection as president.
It is useful to recall this bit of history as a yardstick for how much things have changed. A poll last year ranked the U.S. media as the least trusted major industry in America, tied with the insurance companies and just behind the banks. Surveys such as this elicit the obligatory bouts of hand-wringing by journalists, who wonder why their efforts have come to be so under-appreciated.
Others, like Salon commentator Farhad Manjoo, see the falling levels of trust as being largely justified by the splintering of the media into partisan camps, such as Fox News and the hyper-politicized blogosphere, which increasingly drive the coverage of even the mainstream outlets.
In his 2008 book, True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, Manjoo cites the Swift Boat controversy, where undocumented allegations by conservative partisans, picked up and repeated verbatim by the media, undermined John Kerry's run for the presidency in 2004. Manjoo argues that in the Internet age the line between fact and opinion is vanishing, leading to an upsurge in conspiracy theories, unscientific views (like the rejection of Climate Change by the right) and dangerous levels of political polarization.
The biggest casualty, in his view, is that many of us no longer believe what we hear. We have become skeptical of all claims to truthfulness in the increasingly unregulated and unruly bazaar of words, with the result, according to Manjoo, that the very glue of trust which binds a society is being eroded.
I take his point. Nevertheless, I don't see this as an unmitigated disaster. On the contrary, skepticism of the mainstream press is richly deserved, a healthy sign that we have begun thinking for ourselves, though not without risk. The risk, as Manjoo rightly points out, is that we will fall still further into a paralyzing cynicism in which it will become increasingly difficult to work together as a society toward shared goals -- witness the current gridlock in the House and Senate on virtually every major crisis which confronts America.
The upside, on the other hand, is that lies are getting exposed and alternate views are rapidly gaining currency in an atmosphere of unprecedented access to information.
The meteoric rise of the Occupy Movement testifies that millions of people have begun thinking outside of the box about the fundamental nature of our society and economic system. They are challenging the received wisdom that the tide of free market capitalism lifts all boats. They are also awakening to the intimate interconnections between the unrestrained greed that led to the banking and loan crises and housing bubbles and the greed which is destroying the ecosystem, undermining our economy and fueling the seemingly permanent U.S. wars in the Middle East.
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