The post-9/11 decline of media independence

The 10 years since 9/11 have been a momentous time in media history, with explosive Internet growth, the emergence of online search as the chief rudder of public attention, the boom in social networks, mobile devices, and tablets, and, now, the birth of specialized apps for every imaginable slice of information and entertainment.

The velocity and richness of media inventiveness come, however, amid a paradox: The sharp decline of the news media institutionally. By that I mean the media not as information utilities, where they are still indispensable, but as entities with the will, the material base, and the intellectual courage to stand up to the powerful winds of manipulation and to speak independently in what they believe is the public interest.

This past decade, which is about to be commemorated exhaustively, has been bookended by the two most egregious instances of media failure in the half-century since Vietnam. Both have had historic consequence. The first, soon after the Twin Towers fell, was the media’s enlistment into the Bush administration campaign for public support for its invasion and occupation of Iraq and, more broadly, into its War on Terror.

The media’s complicity in that post-9/11 panic had many elements. Their endorsement—with some notable exceptions—of the administration’s lies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was only the most flagrantly destructive.

More toxic, in the long run, was the continuing and largely unquestioning acceptance of a number of dubious and transformative propositions: That the country needs a permanent global network of forward bases and a colossal domestic apparatus devoted to protection of the “homeland” (itself a gauzy, post-9/11 linguistic innovation); that it can and should subject ordinary citizens to routine searches and surveillance, may imprison without arraignment and hold without trial, can torture with impunity, and, in short, must behave as if it is on a perpetual war footing and, day in and day out, is fighting for survival.

That these propositions still seem even arguable—in spite of evidence that the real threat this country, the world’s mightiest, actually faced was a small network of resourceful and murderous fanatics—testifies to the lasting influence of media that, by and large, told us what they were told to say.

The second media failure, the one that serves as the other bookend of this lamentable decade of co-optation, involves the deficit hysteria, which has crippled the government’s capacity to respond to the most serious economic challenge in 80 years.

True, public sector borrowing, which had soared thanks to the imprudent and unfunded spending of the previous administration, has since deepened and remains a matter of grave, long-term concern.

But the importance assigned to debt in today’s economic coverage is baffling. That rise to prominence came quickly, in early 2010, when the U.S. economy was still in a deep recession unleashed by Wall Street profligacy and had been pulled only a half-step back from the precipice by emergency measures under Bush and Obama.

Suddenly, the subject was changed. The news no longer even hinted at the possibility of further stimulus for a desperately weak economy. Despite miserly growth, housing markets in freefall, rocketing foreclosures, alarming jobless rates, the most authoritative media had seemingly been commandeered by voices chanting a single, plaintive note: the federal deficit.

Did the deficit actually have anything to do with this recession? Not really. The world’s debt markets have remained eager to lend to the U.S. government, judging from the rock-bottom interest rates they demand. (Besides, further debt wouldn’t even be necessary if this country’s leadership had the political will to tax the same bloated elite from which the government must instead borrow.)

As a matter demanding urgent response the deficit is a scam, the WMD of current policy discourse. The media’s zealous coverage of the primetime theatrics over the debt ceiling misled the public into believing a major curative was at stake, and meant weeks of ignoring the real economy, from the fate of foreclosed homeowners, to the miseries of job-seekers and the rise in poverty rates, to the lack of reprisals against the financial moguls whose deceit led to today’s misfortunes.

Most important, the demonization of debt is a stalking horse. The real goal is to paralyze the government for partisan advantage, under the banner of a resurgent reactionary politics consecrated to delegitimizing the public sector and vilifying anybody who might turn to it for help.

The decade since 9/11 has been long and eventful, and the media have given us dazzling new toys and stupendous new opportunities. But once they were also institutions that recognized they had a role to play, not just a market to serve, and that role obliged them sometimes to defy the received wisdom, not cave to it. And that recognition is in steep decline.

Edward Wasserman is the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. This column was originally published on Aug, 2011 on “Ed Wasserman’s Blog.”

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