Read Me, Not Them: The Rage Against the Elite and Mainstream Media

Media | Familiarity
I took a brief trip to the mid-nineties last weekend, going to my tenth high school reunion, leafing through some old Wired magazines, and picking up Thomas Frank's 2000 book One Market Under God. A common theme: how did I view the "elites" then and now? Frank hypothesis, which he expanded in one of this year's most informative political books, What's the Matter With Kansas?, has been that American political discourse continues to be defined by a demonization of the elites. This is not very much different from high school, as it turns out. Who the elites are, who gains by painting them as such, and whether they're the same as the "mainstream" are questions we should consider– whenever we encounter someone raging against the media. Here's a little exercise, weighing in at four thousand words.



In One Market Under God Frank chose for his preface the occasion of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, "a typical economic artifact of the Age of Clinton." Offsetting its deregulation of the media business was a rider bill which added regulation of Internet content– all that obscene stuff– via "Communications Decency Act." Following its passage, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other activist groups spearheaded a "blue ribbon campaign". Join the Blue Ribbon Online Free Speech Campaign (The act was ultimately declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court the next year, in Reno vs. ACLU) EFF co-founder John Perry Barlow launched the first bromide across the 'net: "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," which began, "Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel… On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone." Frank finds delicious hypocrisy in the fact that Barlow, once lyricist for the Grateful Dead, delivered this manifesto from Davos, Switzerland,

the shrine of globalization where finance ministers and coorporate executives gathers annually with the seers of "cyberspace" and the supplicant representatives the Third World to reassure one another about the magic of markets and pep themselves up for another year of privatization, deregualtion, phat stock returns and austerity plans for the poor… Barlow may have sounded like an alienated counterculturalist as he railed against the Telecom Act, but he essentially agreed with the suit-and-tie media execs on the big issue–that markets enjoyed some mystic organic connection to the people while governments were fundamentally illegitimate.

Such irony was lost on me at the time. Before the Internet came to me via squawky dialup modems and terminal screens, it came to me monthly in a compendium of gadgets and ads and trends and words and fancy layout and cool people: Wired. (ok, I had the pre-Internet CompuServe a few years before) It showcased the giddy technologist George Gilder, the "futurist" Peter Schwartz, editor Kevin Kelly, and of course John Perry Barlow, writing about ideas like chaos, emergence, hackerdom, crypto, virtual reality… I even figured out how to figure out Marshall MacLuhan, now patron saint of all things Wired. Near the end of college I realized that it was not teaching enough about the world, so I slowly changed my reading habits. Maybe what was so empty to me was what Thomas Frank identified as the rampant "techno-libertarianism," the faith that markets would solve all problems.


Frank cites Wired's the "Digital Citizen" study in its December 1997 issue as a hallmark of its shadow political philosophy. This study was commissioned with Merrill Lynch and conducted by Republican pollster Frank Luntz; the magazine's media critic Jon Katz wrote the accompanying article.

The data was broken up into four unequal levels of "connectedness"; out of 1,444 randomly sampled Americans some 30 were deemed to be "Superconnected" while another 100 were just plain "Connected" (Under their categorization system of connectedness being a function of owning gadgets, I would have scored as "semiconnected" until the year 2000). The connected groups were more likely to be white collar workers (90% using a computer at work versus 50% of the overall population), and, not surprisingly, their answers trended towards the liberal-culture and small-government libertarian-leaning views that one finds in the professional class.

The very first set of graphics were headlined with the phrase that the connected "worship free markets"– which Frank quotes to drive home his point. The phrase is a little over-reaching, considering that religious attendance was steady across all levels of connectedness. Frank did not fully illusrate how this was a faulty presentation of the data, so I will, seven years after the fact. (To Wired's credit, the survey data is still online but alas the discussion threads are not). Whereas 57% of the Connected express confidence in democracy, 90% express confidence in "The Free-Market System" — the highest number for the connected among all the graphs. Well, they twisted the statistics a bit. The legend shows that the first number indicated only people with "a lot" of confidence, while the second statistic added those with "some" confidence. So if you summed the people with at least "some" confidence in Democracy, you've got 83%. And then, when the sampled population considered the free market along with Capitalism– which most anybody with a high-school education ought to realize as the same thing, the confidence numbers drops to… 83%. Maybe people don't like "-ism's". It's fair to say that the free makrets weren't the only thing the sampled population worshipped.

Reading between the lines, Frank found too much market-boosterism. Katz's analysis hedged this perspective with some good ol' technoboosterism "Ultimately, being connected is not about hipness, gadgetry, or cultural domination. It's much more about giving people a taste of democracy, helping them create new kinds of communities, and reconnecting with the institutions that shape their daily lives." Not that the data was showing that yet; only 30% of the connected groups were willing to give their credit card over the Internet, and the same percentage had become friends with people they met over email. The future would have to wait, and perhaps sit on the sidelines as e-commerce exploded. In the Presidential election two years later, the seemingly more tech-savvy of candidates, Vice President Al Gore, was barely able to summon an online grassroots movement. He was tainted by association with the fundraising scandals, and oft-lampooned for the later-qualfied claimed that in Congress he "took the initiative in creating the Internet." George W. Bush squeaked by in Florida, and thus the nation, in part to such cherished geek specialties of information design and data mining. There was a growing sense that nobody wanted to sit out the next election (and, as it happened, Florida turned out to be the battleground that wasn't. But the Internet was.)


With 9/11 the dream of a "borderless world" was put on hold, if not shattered; President Bush vigorously re-asserted U.S. sovereignty in global affairs, expanding the size of the government, curtailed civil liberties, yet at the same dismantling the structures of goverment regulation. Rage against the idea of goverments settled on rage against a particular government. "Cyber gurus like Mr Barlow have also lost heart, and now issue equally exaggerated warnings about the internet's strangulation by government and corporate interests," observed the Economist magazine in their January 2003 Internet survey. But the new "digital citizens", as a consequence of world events and a divisive admininstration, had expanded into concerns wider than the regulation of the Internet.

Wired was longer the nexus; the "new kinds of communities" had finally emerged, "out of control" of any corporate entity: the godawful simple technology of the weblogs. As Matt Stoller relates the history, most of the blogs had been right-libertarian at the time Jerome Armstrong started MyDD (for "My Due Diligence") and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga began DailyKos. These two blogs fed off the Democrats disenchantment with the Iraq war resolution and the results 2002 midterm Congressional elections. Veteran campaign advisor Joe Trippi started posting to these blogs, and in early 2003 started on the long path to building a grassroots network across the nation, for the least known of the Democratic Primary Candidates– retiring Vermont Governor Howard Dean. Combined with his outsider status to Washington, his passionate stance against the Iraq war, Dean appeared to be a genuine populist (enough to fuel his campaign, though "Dean's biggest mistake was to run as a fake populist instead of as himself." — Timothy Noah wrote in Slate after Dean's primary campaign ended in February 2004)


Rage against the government was only one tack, and only works for half the people half the time. On the other hand, everybody loves to beat the press. Back to the Wired of yesteryear, Jon Katz was rounding out his populist mission hurling changes of elitism and arrogance at the media. Thomas Frank reflected: "The term 'elitism,' as he used it, designated not the owning class but a certain attitude towards the people and towards popular intelligence." Here's a more complete quote from Katz in his online Netizen column, ranting about a New Yorker profile of Michael Kinsley, who was then joining Slate as its first editor:

Wired's idiosyncratic pieces and radical graphics are a kick in the stomach to elite media ideas about the presentation of information. They not only hope Wired will fail, they urgently need it to, if they are ever to resume their rightful places along the cutting edge. … They [Eastern editors] hate it because the magazine's ascension, and that of the new culture around it, has challenged the media elite's treasured sense of hip and jolted their sense of themselves as the cultural arbiters.
"Lost on the Web", Hotwired, May 10, 1996. (emphasis added).

To Frank, the use of "media elite" is right out of the "backlash playbook." The playbook is proudly waived by the host of the most watched cable news show, Bill O'Reilly ("And that is the foundation of the elite media: It knows — you don't.") Paving the way for O'Reilly as elite media critic has been the host of the most popular radio show in America, Rush Limbaugh ("why can't we trust the elite media in this country?"). And laying the groundwork for both of them has been Brent Bozell's Media Research Center, which has been documenting the apparent liberal bias, since 1987. This group takes as its fountainhead the 1981 study by Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman, The Media Elite.

But it's not just the identifiably conservative media that hammers at the elite. Al Neuharth's Gannett News bought up local newspapers in the 1980's and 90's, forming the largest newspaper chain in the country, and then launched "America's Newspaper," USA Today. Upon his retirement, the paper described him as a "nemesis of the newspaper elite." He also happened to be a nemesis of newspaper unions and of two-newspaper cities. But he was a man of the people.

The backlash of the elites is fully underway. In What's the Matter with Kansas? Frank advanced the analysis further, trying to figure out the flip-flip of populist anger. Whereas once the middle class's main nemesis had been the elite that held the wealth– "my base" as President Bush joked to them– it had now been transferred to a different elite: the supposedly liberal media which is supposedly telling ordinary Americans how to live their lives. Indeed more reporters are liberals. But the media organizations which employ them are increasingly large corporations, and likely to be conservative.


Perhaps no American has clamored about this louder or longer than Noam Chomsky. As the inventor of modern linguistics, one might expect him to be discerning with his selection of words. In a 1997 essay entitled "What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream" he refers to the "elite media" several times but not the mainstream. There's one key difference. While elite media is the sole bane of the conservatives, both sides love to bash the mainstream media. (Christian Crumlish suggests that the edge is still held by conservatives, who've adopted the "MSM" acronym).

NYU's Jay Rosen, in his PressThink blog, found 21 distinct examples, asserting– and many celebrating– that the mainstream media was the "real loser" in the Presidential election of 2004. The most quoted was perhaps by the Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, who gloated:

I do think the biggest loser was the mainstream media, the famous MSM, the initials that became popular in this election cycle. Every time the big networks and big broadsheet national newspapers tried to pull off a bit of pro-liberal mischief [CBS and the New York Times] … the yeomen of the blogosphere and AM radio and the Internet took them down.

Whereas conservatives sneer at the media for assuming that the public is dumb, liberals blame the media for not informing the public enough. "The mainstream media has, in my opinion, been so grossly negligent, so disturbingly devoid of authentic debate, and actual dissemination of information," griped comedian-turned-activist Janeane Garofalo. There is an answer to both perspectives, from the two-thousand year old Ethics of the Fathers, a section of the Babylonian Talmud. Ben Zoma advised: "Who is wise? He who learns from every man…. Who is a hero? He who controls his passions."


Well, the crop of media stars is still short of heroes in that department. What Limbaugh is to radio and O'Reilly is to TV, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, better known as Kos, has become to blogging in the two years since he helped incubate Dean's grassroots campaign. "Like many blogs, Daily Kos devotes a lot of space to bashing the mainstream media," a San Francisco Chronicle profile observed. In a February debate with Zachary Roth of the Columbia Journalism Review, he signed off with these words: "Slavish surrender to the mainstream media has facilitated just about every problem we currently face. An informed and skeptical citizenry would do wonders to reverse the damage wrought by a media that pays the barest attention to so-called journalistic 'ethics'."

Kos gets even courser, in a post to a discussion on Blogging of the President News: "As for the mainstream media, fuck them. Who cares what some joker journalism professor wrote?" (I have made a mirror of the page as the original page has become soiled with spam– a consquence of typical blog software allowing anybody to post without registering.)

I quote Kos verbatim for the precise fact that it is not quoted unexpurgerated anywhere else on the web– odd considering that the blogosphere is a hotbed of secondary and tertiary quoting. (Three months before, Kos had said "Screw them" in regard to American military contractors in Iraq; this was widely quoted and generated firestorm of controversery, with many Democratic candidates pulling ads from his site. Nobody feels that strongly to defend the media. Kos later explained the context of his reaction.) Jay Rosen cleaned up the quote in his sum-up post, where he offered a half-hearted rationalization of the "joker journalism professor" in question: "I guess it depends on whether you begin from a position of respect for Alex Jones, for the Los Angeles Times, for the editor of its opinion pages, Michael Kinsley, for Harvard's Kennedy School where Jones is installed, and for the journalism establishment." The other, more specific context leading up to Kos's quote: previously on the thread, Zephyr Teachout had challenged Kos and other bloggers to disclaim whether they were being paid by the people they were covering. The Kos quote was also cleaned up in Matt Klam's New York Times Magazine article on political bloggers. But Matt did report on ovehearing Kos at the Democratic National Convention: "Zephyr can go to hell."

It's not for ideological reasons that bloggers do battle with with the mainstream media. It's mostly a skepticism "media process" whereby stories are vetted and presented, as well as of journalism ethics. "I'm not about to censor myself on any issue. If I care about something, I write about it. It's the essence of blogging."

There also may be a bit of self-service involved. Two years ago Scott Rosenberg observed in Salon: "Typically, the debate about blogs today is framed as a duel to the death between old and new journalism." He continued: "The rise of blogs does not equal the death of professional journalism. The media world is not a zero-sum game. Increasingly, in fact, the Internet is turning it into a symbiotic ecosystem — in which the different parts feed off one another and the whole thing grows."

This is a bit like the friendly symbiosis between humans and dinasaurs: the extinct reptiles get memorialized in museums, and humans get cheap energy from fossil fuels. The essence of fossil fuels being hydrocarbons– and as "the whole thing grows"– we get more greenhouse gases, and we'll meet the same fate as the dinosaurs. What worries establishmentarians like Alex Jones, who acknowledge the symbiosis ("Journalists increasingly read blogs to pick up tips."), is that the blog's scattershot approach clogs the public discussions and cuts the attention time given to hard reporting (and for this Kos calls him a "joker journalism professor"). Jones might have said the same thing about Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly– and I don't believe the reaction would have been much different.

In an October interview in Salon, Salon's Eric Boehlert asked the reporter Run Suskind whether there was a "a coordinated attempt to knock journalists down so that what they have to say is taken less seriously?" Suskind's answer:

There is a varied, national, forceful, coordinated campaign to do that, to try to create doubt about the long-held and long-respected work of the mainstream media. Absolutely. So that Americans believe that what we do and say, what the mainstream media offer, is not of value, is not honest, is not factually accurate. And [that we are] not in any way connected to strong traditions of American public dialogue, that we've been co-opted, that we're not objective, and that essentially we are carrying forward an agenda.

I do not believe that Kos is part of that campaign; his credentials as a Democratic torchbearer are beyond question. But where he points his torch gives pause to many in the Democratic establisment (see Brian Reich's profile of Kos).


The blaming of media has even penetrated the common, interpersonal discussions of politics. Many of my Democratic peers that I conversed with this political season vented to me "how come the (mainstream) media doesn't cover this?" in exasperation of certain aspects of public ignorance. A typical example was the statistic that 38% percent of Americans believed as "fact" that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq after the war(see in an April 2004 survey) despite the lack of any evidence. Among those troubled is the the eminent scientist Richard Dawkins, discussing evolution with Bill Moyers last night on NOW. From what I remember (the transcript is not yet online), Dawkins did not point any fingers, he just expressed a wish that ordinary people would have open and skeptical minds. The rejections of the teaching of evolution across the country seem to undermine that.

The first problem is the need for perspective. I enjoy media criticism when it comes in the form of analysis, especially from the Boston Phoenix's Dan Kennedy and Salon's Eric Boehlert. David Brock's Media Matters for America, monitors the media for unchallenged conservative viewpoints, and is becoming a database of record. Perhaps it may yet adopt some of the computational presentation of the Lying In Ponds website, which tracks partisan content of national syndicated political columnists.

The second problem is the phrasing. Just who is the "mainstream media"? The conservatives know exactly what they are doing when they finger the "elite media", but mainstream media is effectively a bipartisan bogeyman. Here's another tip that liberals would be wise to adopt a phrase which they can use all to their own: Corporate Media. That stings. Kennedy and Boehlert are exceptional in their exposing of corporate corruption by media (though even they do not reference the term in their online writing as much as "mainstream media.") This is all the more fitting as it's the primary reason why people feel that the media doesn't serve them. Consider that it many cases there was never a contract to begin with– at least not with subscribers, but instead with advertisers. With news coming free from television (in the absensce of a la carte pricing), and a substantial portion of print media available free over the Internet, at least for a limited time, it is not surprising that people are expecting news for free. In that seven-years old Wired survey, they asked people whether they'd use the Internet to read news, as well as to buy products. They hadn't thought to combine the two. The questions still remain– what should people get by paying for online news? and if we are not the shareholders of our news, who will be?

And finally, the main problem is the repetitiveness of this trope. Complaining about what the media has or hasn't covered risks the author telegraphing what they have or haven't read. There's a sly amount of posturing involved against the other media– "Read me; Not them." And, as Suskind and Frank have argued, it plays into the hands of the peddlers of myth.

Perhaps what these populist pundits worry most is that if they stop raging against the elites and the mainstream, they'll suddenly be associated with them. Though I suspect it will work the other way. If there is one helpful aspect of the revolution in participitory media, it's that more of us will actually be part of the media.


Update, December 6th: In the rush to finally this article finished (it took me almost a week, I realized that my portrayal of Kos was bit one-sided. So I added a reference to his defense of his comment about the military contractors, added the balanced profile from Personal Democracy, and asked for his reaction to Suskind's comment.
Also, I'll have to do a better job of watching the media from now on to guage how many times these code words are referenced. Frank Rich has focused of late on the populist posturing of the news, the "Nascarization" of it, if you will. In Sunday's Times he quotes the new NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams: "The New York-Washington axis can be a journalist's worst enemy." Also, in this December Washington Monthly of takedown of Bob Novak, Amy Sullivan avoids tarring the MSM by using a more class term: "The establishment media, including Novak's buddies, somehow did not notice that their friend had abetted an act of near-treason in broad daylight."


Update, January 7th 2006: Columbia Journalism Review's CJR Daily brought to my attention yesterday that Franklin Foer had written a thousand-word piece in 12/26 issue of The New Republic making this argument: By trashing the media, liberal bloggers are only hurting themselves. So I posted a response pointing to this piece.

Also, I had originally written in this essay that the Media Research Council "has been documenting the liberal bias." Truly I meant "apparent liberal bias," and I changed the text to that.

Update the very next day: A commenter to CJR Daily ask, when am I going to finally edit this? I read through this morning. I made a dozen corrections, including spelling errors. I made a few word changes as well. I also cleared up my definition of Media Matters and Lying In Ponds– it was not fully accurate before.