Structural indecency is a phenomenon that can be described as carrying out the function of a media filter, which correctly sounds like a scary concept. A major component of this is basic institutional pressure that comes from a variety of power centers, both private and public, which force the media to reflect their organizational interests and concerns. How do they manage to accomplish such a task without a “conspiracy?”
The endgame of this theory further illustrates what institutional pressure looks like. Take, for example, the case of former New York Times editor Bill Keller and his relationship with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange. Shortly after the Times’ publication and analysis of Collateral Murder, which depicted the killing of two Reuters journalists and numerous civilians by American Special Forces in Baghdad, Keller editorialized an 18 page article attacking Assange both personally and politically.
After dealing with Assange for several months in a partnership, which has been documented by Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding, Keller had a change of heart after publishing a portion of WikiLeaks’ Iraq War Logs. No longer did he “regard Assange as a partner,” explaining that the problem with his organization is that it’s “suffused with such glib antipathy toward the United States,” presumably for releasing evidence of U.S.-committed atrocities (war crimes, according to journalist Glenn Greenwald) in Iraq. A substantial amount of the lengthy piece consisted of direct ad-hominem attacks on Assange himself, demonstrating a level of superficiality that could easily be described as gossip.
Assange now argues that “the Times ran in the face of fire… It abandoned us once the heat started from the U.S. administration.” But why would the editor of the world’s most powerful and independent press operation care about what the U.S. government thinks? After all, the Times is about fearless journalism and challenging power.
The answer is clear, and accurately described by Phil Donahue in 1992: “you have to go along, to get along.” Keller had his hands full with Collateral Murder—which the Pentagon was not interested in seeing published—and also with his relationship with Julian Assange, whom Joe Biden described as a “cyber-terrorist.” Perhaps the next time the Times wanted to report inside the State Department, its friendly contacts would no longer be there. NYT reporters would lose their standing in the eyes of a badly embarrassed government, which can defend itself by marginalizing the Times’ leverage.
Just because the aforementioned (and very limited) list of elite classes happens to have written most social studies textbooks doesn’t necessarily mean that this view of American society is correct.
Redefining Democratic Elections
Going back to our original question, what would Matt Drudge or another major political tabloid editor say if we were to ask, “why gossip and focus on trivial matters within the context of political journalism?” Alongside the institutional factors in place which require the additional revenue, the second major point rests in the notion that the public wants, and most importantly, needs to know such information regarding family values, religious background, and even physical stature of candidates and elected officials, regardless of the superficiality of content.
Contextualizing this argument from the mass media’s point of view isn’t difficult: from its origins, the U.S. has been religiously fundamentalist, perceiving itself to be “puritan,” “exemplary” in its commitment to freedom, and “exceptional” internationally without needing to provide evidence. Of course the people of such a nation are concerned with the values, fitness, and haircut of the man it picks to represent them in front of the U.N. A closer look at this point reveals an interesting result, however: there’s little evidence to support it.
In fact, the bulk of evidence from both the historical and documentary records suggests that it’s been the U.S. elite, or more aptly put, the political class, politicians, white male property owners, business managers, and what James Madison would have called “the wealth of the nation” who have been responsible for constructing this misconception of who comprises the American public.
Just because the aforementioned (and very limited) list of elite classes happens to have written most social studies textbooks doesn’t necessarily mean that this view of American society is correct. Rather, this view is what totalitarians and propagandists have always had to construct, by associating their miserable records of injustice and hypocrisy with the mass majority of their fellow citizens, and then nonchalantly apologizing for it on the country’s behalf.
The media therefore presents gossip not in spite of American democracy, but to enhance and preserve a certain conception of it: one that involves spectators, not participants; public ratification, not public decision making. It is antithetical to a participatory economy and the idea of self-governance, and displays a striking commitment to reactionary ideology, despite illusions of an independent press. The issue at hand is and will always be whether or not the media is free, but will remain unresolved as long as the media is responsible for the gossip that debases meaningful democracy.
William E. Shaub is a violin performance major at the Juilliard School of Music in Manhattan and the editor of TheFBM.com.
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