The most renowned media critics are usually superficial and craven. That’s because — as one of the greatest in the 20th century, George Seldes, put it — “the most sacred cow of the press is the press itself.”
No institutions are more image-conscious than big media outlets. The people running them know the crucial importance of spin, and they’ll be damned if they’re going to promote media criticism that undermines their own pretenses.
To reach the broad public, critics of the media establishment need amplification from . . . the media establishment. And that rarely happens unless the critique is shallow.
The exceptions can be valuable. The New York Times publishes articles by a “public editor” — an independent contractor whose “opinions and conclusions are her own” — and the person now in that role, Margaret Sullivan, provides some cogent scrutiny of the newspaper’s coverage.
But on the whole, the media critics boosted by big media — inward-facing ombudspersons and outward-facing journalists on a media beat — have been conformists who don’t step outside the shadows cast by the institutions paying their salaries. And they’re not inclined to question the corporate prerogatives of other media firms; people in glass skyscrapers don’t throw weighty stones.
A year ago, the Washington Post, then still under the ownership of the Graham family, abolished the ombudsperson job at the newspaper after four decades of filling the position with a rotating succession of seasoned — and conformist — journalists. The change was a new twist in a downward spiral, but it wasn’t much of a loss for readers.
The Post’s first ombudsman, who took the job in 1970, went on to many years of management roles for the Washington Post Company and then returned to being the ombudsman in the late 1980s. During his second act, he wrote columns denouncing the Newspaper Guild union that was in conflict with the company — while he praised the firm’s management.
In sharp contrast, the best media critics are truly independent. And so, they’re rarely seen or heard via large media outlets.
The death of Doug Ireland six months ago brought back vivid memories. Ireland was a first-rate media critic as well as a deft reporter, astute progressive strategist, path-breaking gay activist and incisive political analyst. Last fall, after he died, one moving tribute after another emerged.
Ireland’s work as a critic of U.S. news media shined fierce light on realities of propaganda systems in our midst. He was part of a precious continuum of media criticism from the political left over the last century. It’s a de facto tradition worth pondering, to grasp its historic vitality — and relevance in 2014.
A hundred years ago, Upton Sinclair made a pioneering jump that many others were to emulate in later decades. He was a writer who became an activist — including a media activist — as he realized that words on pages and volumes of books would not be enough to overcome the brutal greed of the era’s robber barons.
As a witness to atrocities against working people and their families, Sinclair launched a nonstop battle against the press lords and their most powerful wire service, the Associated Press. Sinclair’s 1919 book The Brass Check – self-published and widely read — was a manifesto against the entire capitalist media system of the day. If the prisoners of starvation and exploitation were to arise, they needed to overcome the weaponry of lies, distortions and omissions.
Into the footsteps of Upton Sinclair walked someone who came to media activism not as a novelist but as a journalist. The young reporter George Seldes had covered World War I for the Chicago Tribune and later became the paper’s Berlin bureau chief. Beginning in 1921, Seldes covered the nascent Soviet Union for two years before his stories about suppression of non-Bolshevik revolutionaries got him kicked out of the country.