I’m of two minds about taking up this theme, since stating what ought to be obvious but is nevertheless unpleasant and inconvenient is apt to get one branded as lunatic fringe.
Access journalism has created what is in many respects a controlled press. And that matters because people are far more suggestible than most of us wants to admit to ourselves.
Let us start with the cheerleading in the media over Wall Street, and in particular, Goldman earnings. Matt Taibbi, in “Good News on Wall Street Means… What Exactly?,” tells us why this is so distorted:
It’s literally amazing to me that our press corps hasn’t yet managed to draw a distinction between good news on Wall Street for companies like Goldman, and good news in reality.
I watched carefully the reporting of the Dow breaking 10,000 the other day and not anywhere did I see a major news organization include a paragraph of the “On the other hand, so fucking what?” sort, one that might point out that unemployment is still at a staggering high, foreclosures are racing along at a terrifying clip, and real people are struggling more than ever. In fact the dichotomy between the economic health of ordinary people and the traditional “market indicators” is not merely a non-story, it is a sort of taboo — unmentionable in major news coverage.
The press has been on a downslope for at least a decade, as a result of strained budgets and vastly more effective government and business spin control (and it was already pretty good at that, see the BBC series, The Century of the Self, via Google video, for a real eye-opener). I met a reporter who had been overseas for six years, opening an important foreign office for the Wall Street Journal. He was stunned when he came back in 1999 to see how much reporting had changed in his absence. He said it was impossible to get to the bottom of most stories in a normal news cycle because companies had become very sophisticated in controlling their message and access.
I couldn’t tell immediately, but one of my friends remarked in 2000 that the reporting was increasingly reminiscent of what she had grown up with in communist Poland. The state of the US media became evident to me when I lived in Australia during the run-up and the first two years of the Gulf War. I would regularly e-mail people in the States about stories I thought were important and I suspected might not be getting much play in the US. My correspondents were media junkies. 85% of the time, a story that had gotten widespread coverage in Australia appeared not to have been released in the US. And the other 15%, it didn’t get much attention (for instance, buried in the middle of the first section of the New York Times). And remember, Australia was an ally and sent troops to the Iraq.
Why does this matter? Because influence via the adept packaging of information and images is very effective. The creator of the public relations industry, Edward Bernays, was the nephew of Freud and set about to use the subconscious to shape public opinion. His books included This Business of Propaganda and Manipulating Public Opinion. But it doesn’t fit our self image of being masters of our own view to recognize that we might be swayed.
In his classic, Influence: The Art of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini describes how salesmen can adeptly use social conditioning and norms to elicit favorable responses. Cialdini, a social psychologist, notes that even though he is aware of these techniques, he is unable to resist them.
One experiment from cognitive bias research assembles a number of people in a room together, but all save one are actors. Everyone in the room is shown a series of lines and asked to say out loud which is the shortest (the background design makes it a bit difficult to discern without concentrating a bit). For the first five or six rounds, the actors (and the lone experiment subject) pick the shortest one. Then, the actors start calling the LONGEST line the shortest one. After a few round s of this (and inevitably, the one not in on the game looks puzzled) about one-third of the experiment subjects start agreeing with the crowd, even though that answer is clearly incorrect. And there is boatloads of other evidence of suggestibility. For instance, numerous studies have found that if a number of people tell an individual he looks tired or sick, he will start feeling tired or sick, as the case may be.
Back to the main theme: the media dares not say anything too negative about financial services firms or their government operatives lest they lose access. The private sector has learned the lesson of the Bush Administration, that the threat of freezing a reporter out is a powerful weapon. I have had some well connected readers tell of story ideas that they served up in some detail that the media would not touch out of fear of alienating their sources. This is the sort of thing that one associates with banana republics, but we have been operating on that level for quite some time.
Not surprisingly, the government and large corporations were firmly in charge of the message during the crisis (remember the gap between the MSM reporting and the anger in the populace over the TARP, which was finally noted ONLY when Congress responded to a barrage of calls and e-mails and voted down TARP v. 1.0?) and perhaps more important, in pushing the, “move past that car wreck, things are really better” message. From the Pew Research Center:
Three storylines have dominated: efforts to help revive the banking sector, the battle over the stimulus package and the struggles of the U.S. auto industry. Together they accounted for nearly 40% of the economic coverage from February 1 through August 31. Other topics related to the crisis have been covered much less. As an example, all the reporting of retail sales, food prices, the impact of the crisis on Social Security and Medicare, its effect on education and the implications for health care combined accounted for just over 2% of all the economic coverage.
Actions by government officials and business leaders drove much of the coverage. The White House and federal agencies alone initiated nearly a third (32%) of economic stories studied through July 3. Business triggered another 21%. About a quarter of the stories (23%) was initiated by the press itself and did not rely on an external news trigger. Ordinary citizens and union workers combined to act as the catalyst for only 2% of the stories about the economy.
Fully 76% of the datelines on economic stories studied during the first five months of the Obama presidency were New York (44%) or metro Washington D.C. (32%). Only about one-fifth (21%) of the stories originated in any other city in the U.S., and about a quarter of those emanated from two other major media centers: Atlanta and Los Angeles…
Once the economic situation showed some signs of improvement—and the political fights over legislative action subsided—media coverage began to diminish. After accounting for 46% of the overall news coverage in February and March, for instance, coverage of the economic crisis dropped by more than half (to 21% of the newshole studied) from April through June. And in July and August, it fell even further (to 16%). The clearest example came in cable news. Once the political battles subsided, coverage fell by about two-thirds from March to April.
Notice even Pew has fallen for the party line a bit. The stock market rally started in March. That is not a sign of economic improvement (Krugman has said something along the lines of “The stock market has predicted 20 of the past 9 recoveries.”).
So what do we have? A media that predominantly bases its stories on what it is fed because it has to. Ever-leaner staffing, compressed news cycles, and access journalism all conspire to drive reporters to focus on the “must cover” news, which is to a large degree influenced by the parties that initiate the story. And that means they are increasingly in an echo chamber, spending so much time with the influential sources they feel they must cover that they start to be swayed by them. It is less intense, but not dissimilar to the effect achieved when reporters are embedded in military units. The journalists often wind up adopting the views of the people they associate with frequently (I am sure readers will add more nefarious theories in comments, but the point here is a simple: an up the center description of what has happened to the media shows it has fallen under the sway of powerful interests).
Now how do we get to the propaganda part? Not only, per Taibbi, are we getting the view of the economy from the vantage of the bankers, as opposed to a broad swathe of the population, but we now we have the media (well, this example is that odd hybrid, an MSM blog) telling us there is no outrage. From the Los Angeles Times (hat tip JohnD):
Except for Michael Moore, whose new movie posits that capitalism is one big Ponzi scheme, the news Wednesday that banks are thriving and that Wall Street analysts are in line for big bonuses this year seemed to land with all the political weight of a dull thud.
Oh sure, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said he’ll soon hold hearings on executive pay at firms that got taxpayer bailout money, like AIG and Bank of America….
But with the Dow Jones hitting 10,000 and the economy stepping back from the precipice of last fall’s collapse, there was little of that tea-party outrage that might have been expected.
Have we moved on? Arguing that the country is now more concerned with Afghanistan and healthcare, the Wall Street Journal said of bonus outrage: “That’s so last March.”
Maybe taxpayers have simply given up on Washington’s efforts to corral Wall Street.
Now why is this sort of thing (and the media was full of more subtle versions, of happy talk re Dow 10,000 and Goldman earnings) more pernicious than it might appear?
The message, quite overly, is: if you are pissed, you are in a minority. The country has moved on. Things are getting better, get with the program. Now I saw the polar opposite today. There is a group of varying sizes, depending on the topic, that e-mails among itself, mainly professional investors, analysts, economists (I’m usually on the periphery but sometimes chime in). I never saw such an angry, active, and large thread about the Goldman BS fest today. Now if people who have not suffered much, and are presumably benefitting from the market recovery are furious, it isn’t hard to imagine that what looks like complacency in the heartlands may simply be contained rage looking for an outlet.
But per the social psychology research, this “you are in a minority, you are wrong” message DOES dissuade a lot of people. It is remarkably poisonous. And it discourages people from taking concrete action. I was surprised that some people bothered to comment on a post I put up yesterday, calling on people in the Chicago area to attend some peaceful demonstrations against the banking industry during the American Bankers Association national meeting, October 25 through 27. A few weighed in, saying (basically) “don’t bother”.
I suppose it makes a difference whether one is old enough to remember the 1960s. Because people in large numbers got out and protested, two sets of changes that seemed impossible came about: civil rights for blacks and an end to the US involvement in Vietnam (if you read the histories, the military and intelligence experts were on the whole persuaded it was an unwinnable war, but it was seen as too costly to US prestige for America to withdraw).
And even if the effort you make narrowly is not successful (does any one person’s effort have much impact?) it breeds apathy and cynicism to suggest that doing nothing is the best course of action. If nothing else, it is better for one’s psyche to do what one can, however small, to make a difference.
Now America does not have a tradition of taking to the streets; demonstrations and rallies historically are working class affairs. But the middle class is on a path of downward mobility while the elites continue to take the cream. The widening gap might waken some impulses that have been dormant in the American psyche.