Half Past the Month: The Pence Admonition

October 18, 2016

“I have to turn on my television with a stick (for fear of getting bit)” — Mike Pence

A HERO OF MINE is the unnamed police officer that a CNN camera showed walking the streets of San Francisco after the 1989 earthquake. He was yelling up to shaken residents in their high-rise apartments that nobody was coming to help them. It was a disaster, he felt the need to explain; they would have to get water and medical assistance on their own.

That action no doubt saved hundreds of lives. Another action involving a different kind of heroism also may save hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives, perhaps an entire nation. Mike Pence, in the closing weeks of a tight presidential campaign, looks big-shot reporters in the eyes to say that Americans should “ignore what’s in the news.” It is a disaster, he is saying, nobody is coming to help.

Pence’s admonition is aimed narrowly at the presidential campaign. It can be applied generally, though. You can be certain that anything you read in the national corporate media (and what you hear on the networks that abjectly follow along) is calculated hooey — and has been for the last decade or so.

How can anyone make such an outrageous, overarching characterization of established, honored, institutions? Well, it depends on what news is the news, corporate media having its own definition. What is outrageous is that Americans are expected to acquiesce to a shifting, self-serving definition fashioned for political and marketing convenience.

But the definition in fact has been the same since Martin Luther, on pain of death, put the new printing press to work warning his German flock what the arrogant and powerful were up to. Dr. Marvin Olasky, a journalism professor at Texas University, defined its historical context in his “Central Ideas in the Development of American Journalism.” He relates how news evolved from the medieval “official” story to the modern “corruption” story”:

“The press was dominated by the official story until growing numbers of journalists, heavily influenced by the ideas of the Protestant Reformation, began to emphasize the corruption story. This macrostory, rather than serving as public relations for the state, emphasized the universality of human failings and the tendency for individuals in positions of power to abuse their authority and then attempt to cover up wrongdoing. Journalists from the l7th through l9th centuries who embraced this invented much of what we associate with modern journalism at its best: A sense of purpose, a willingness to oppose arrogant rulers, and a stress on accuracy and specific detail.”

If the national media outlets are not interested in this definition, in what are they interested? Newt Gingrich, another historian, believes what is happening is a coup d’etat by a small group of powerful television and newspaper executives trying to override an electorate. He recommends we quit being merely offended by their hubris and begin to respond strategically and forcefully.

Along that line, think of Pence’s call to “ignore what’s in the news” as the public’s response to Howard Beale’s “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” The fictional anchorman, you might recall, shouted that to the streets below in the film “Network.” Business executives, unlike ensconced politicians, have to worry about what people on the street think. Ask around at Target or the National Football League.

What, then, if for one election cycle we quit throwing money and candidates into this maul? Just for the sake of discussion, what if we instead funded and organized boycotts of, say, the Indianapolis Star or the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette — the full monty, picket lines, social media, riot gear?

An economist could tell you what turmoil might be caused by even a small drop in profits in either of those shaky operations — they might go up for sale, management might be changed or at least adjusted to meet consumer demand, the publisher might see the wisdom in being accountable to readers rather than last weekend’s dinner party chatter.

It has got to be more effective than launching another expensive and futile campaign for the next political champion of the moment. For nobody, really, is coming to help us.

— Craig Ladwig


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