Monday, January 13, 2014

E.J. Dionne on Media's Ability to "Turn on a Dime": Critical Reflections about Media's Claim to Mediate Social Reality to Rest of Us

This is the kind of thing I'd have written in my journal, before I began blogging--and as I read the day's news and news commentary. Now that this blog has become my journal . . . .

To say that "[t]he media can turn on a dime" sounds like a big admission to me. It's an especially big admission for a journalist to make, particularly one of E.J. Dionne's stature and reputation for moral perspicuity. 

Dionne's flat statement is all the more interesting when one notices that it's preceded by the sentence, "Wall Street is fickle and pragmatic." I think it would not be inappropriate to read into these two sentences a cause-and-effect relationship: 

Wall Street is fickle and pragmatic. 
Therefore, when it decides to turn on a dime for pragmatic reasons, the media follow suit. 

The media exist, that is to say, to follow the lead of Wall Street. To serve the interests of Wall Street . . . . 

In assessing the role of the media in our lives, we all too often fail to remember that the word comes from the Latin word for "middle." Journalists--the media--purport to occupy a middle space between us and reality, between us and the powerful institutions that tug and pull our lives in many different directions.

The media mediate. They interpret reality for us. They interpret, in particular, the social reality in which we live and move and have our being as social creatures.

The media wield enormous power in our lives because they play this screening role, as if the bright, shining reality of the powerful institutions that pull us hither and yon in our social lives is too much for us lesser beings--the pulled and never the pullers--to bear in any direct way. The courageous, objective, sober middlemen do us a wonderful service, we're asked to believe, in bearing that harsh glare of reality for the rest of us, refracting some of it, in a bearable, muted way to us lesser beings.

The power of the media rests on its pretensions to see social reality more clearly than the rest of us do, to possess privileged information the rest of us lack, because we do not hobnob with the movers and shakers in the bright world on the other side of the screen the media represent to us. The power of the media rests on its pretension to be more objective and balanced than the rest of us are.

Just because. Because they tell us this is so.

But if the media do turn on a dime when Wall Street turns on a dime--if there is, indeed, a cause-and-effect relationship between Wall Street's turning and the turning of media gurus--what to do with these claims to objectivity and balance and superior vantage points and perspectives? And if the media are drawn largely from a sub-group of the human community--say, perhaps, that journalists have historically tended to be men rather than women, and heterosexual men at that, and white men at that--what to say, then, about the claims to represent reality to the rest of us?

What to say about the media's claims to occupy a privileged middle position--the elusive, shining center so beloved of U.S. journalism with its cozy connections to Wall Street--as reality is parceled out and interpreted for the rest of us who are too inept to puzzle out its meaning all on our own, distant as we find ourselves from the institutions of power in our society? These are the kinds of questions I can never stop myself from asking as I read the news, and as I read, in particular, the work of the powerful centrist Catholic journalists who have for so long borne the burden of parsing Catholic reality for all the rest of us, but who have so seldom seemed to me to represent very adequately at all anything I understand by the term "catholic."

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