Pseudo-journalism and The Daily Caller’s Exposé of the Partisan Rhetoric of Journolist’s Journalists

–Richard E. Vatz

Sociologist and insightful-but-naive observer Herbert Gans wrote in his 2004 update of Deciding What’s News that “…journalists get more of the blame for the state of the news than they used to, but they continue to be primarily messengers who mainly simplify and dramatize what their sources say and do.”

The fact is that the press is more and more involved in what I call the “rhetoric of news,” which is the determining of what news qualifies for the national agenda and what it means, both according to journalists’ predilections. The relatively new conservative journal The Daily Caller yesterday published a bombshell that should not have been so surprising: the lack of journalistic attention to the threat to then-Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential aspirations, his long association and ideational kinship to the wild and crazy, America-hating Rev. Jeremiah Wright (“God Damn America”), was due to news management (some of which, as described by my colleague, Mark Newgent, involved employees of The Baltimore Sun).

As with all rhetorical endeavors, the Fourth Estate to a large extent determines what matters get coverage, how they are covered, and how long they are covered. When the possible world-threatening events in Iran are ignored for weeks or months at a time, it is a choice by journalists (and some political persuaders) to ignore it. When relevant or irrelevant gubernatorial matters become the focus of news coverage in a state, it is the choice of the news media to mention or not mention and investigate or not investigate them. Many in Maryland recall the 2002 Baltimore Sun election coverage which ignored racist remarks made by the Democrats, remarks which were not even mentioned until a major political player would reference them weeks after their being made.

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The Daily Caller reveals that in 2008, members of Journolist, a listserv composed of media writers and other liberal activists, were upset that at an ABC News debate George Stephanopolous and Charlie Gibson were asking questions about the Obama-Wright relationship. As a result, The Daily Caller reports that “employees of news organizations including Time, Politico, the Huffington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Guardian, Salon and the New Republic participated in outpourings of anger over how Obama had been treated in the media, and in some cases plotted to fix the damage.” Some Journolists put together a letter decrying the salience accorded to the Senator’s Wright connection, calling it a “revolting descent into tabloid journalism” and one which distracted from “the great issues of our time…”

One suggestion by Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent to change to a more relevant topic was to label, say, that well-known racist executive editor of The Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes, as such. Are these Journolists in any sense of the word what used to be called “journalists?” Fred Barnes a “racist?” Appalling.

Fortunately, there was dissent to such journalistic-rhetorical misdirection and slander, but Ackerman certainly redeemed his compromised soul with this rejoinder (as quoted by The Daily Caller) to those who disagreed: “I’m not saying OBAMA should do this. I’m saying WE should do this.”

The lasting lesson from this little drama should be that what the press covers and the interpretations therein are not “Deciding What’s News” (in Gans’ phrase), but the results of the values that news purveyors bring to bear on the inexhaustible number of matters and issues coverable.

The major ideological influence in mainstream news is liberal, with a minority of journalistic influence being conservative, and that will continue to create the fodder for legitimate criticism.

The Journolistic management of the Obama-Wright connection, abetted by the inexplicable lack of effort by the McCain campaign to oppose it, will remain another stain on the claims of journalistic disinterest by the mainstream media.

Professor Vatz teaches Media Criticism at Towson University

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