This is a really good piece in Rolling Stone right now by Matt Taibbi outlining the hidden and overt pressures on journalists today.
He goes in to bat for Amy Goodman, champion of the underdog and poster-girl for journalism nerds like me everywhere, a woman so determined to create a media outlet free from government or corporate interference, that she went ahead and made it herself.
Amy famously got arrested recently for reporting on the #NoDAPL protests for her station Democracy Now!. Matt got drawn into the drama when the prosecutor of the case, Ladd Erikson, cited him as his favorite journalist and sole reason for knowing who Amy Goodman was.
He picked the wrong journalist if he thought Matt was going to stand around letting his name be used in any way to attack Amy Goodman. Rolling Stone has always been a maverick of journalism and is now one of the few mainstream media outlets in recent years to go against the corporate grain in terms of editorial. Two of their most famous journalists, Hunter S. Thompson and Michael Hastings, both died while on the job. Michael Hastings died in a mysterious car explosion after telling a friend he was “onto a big story” for Rolling Stone and he had to “go off the radar.”
Hunter S. Thompson was reportedly also excited about a piece he was writing for Rolling Stone when he committed suicide.
More on that later.
So Matt Taibbi comes from one of the great publications of our age, and he writes eloquently in defense of Ms. Goodman’s right to report. It’s well worth a read.
So he went to bat for her. Can I just go to bat for my fellow journos in general for a moment? I’d like to bring us into some understanding of the landscape for journalists right now.
But first, you should know, you are absolutely correct to be outraged and angry at the media for completely subverting the people’s will. That’s a crime against humanity. Using the power of the written word to manipulate people is actually, technically, old fashioned black magic.
It’s true! It’s even in the language we use. The word “grammar” comes from the word “grimoire,” which was a witch’s book of spells. Notice the word “spell” too; same etymology.
In the old days, a playwright was considered the most powerful of magicians, because a well-written play could decimate a man’s reputation for centuries.
Nowadays, it takes just one smear piece.
So the media right now is engaged in a very modern-day equivalent of spell-casting on an extraordinary scale.
When you manipulate someone’s emotions through words in order to get them to do something that is against their own interest, that’s a spell. The newscasters (caster is another word from magician’s etymology, from “to caste”) are casting spells.
And I don’t need to tell you, oh wide-awake one, that the spells journalists are casting right now are really yucky ones. Spells that get people to vote for more money for the rich rather than for themselves, vote for wars that they personally gain nothing from and often lose a lot in, and vote for destroying their planet when they gain nothing from the sale of the resources, and lose access to water and food and have to ensure against chaotic weather.
I mean, wow. Can you imagine the karmic load on that? In old witchy lore, if you cast a black magic spell, that is to say, you get someone to do something that serves your will and not theirs, you get it back threefold.
That’s just one person doing one thing. Now I’m no witch so I have no idea what threefold of turning the entire will of the people in on itself comes out to, but I reckon it can’t be good.
But you should also know, there are a lot of good journos stuck in there hating their job, going home feeling vaguely awful about it, in a permanent state of barely-repressed guilt and anxiety that messes with their digestion, dulls their health, and kills their personal relationships, but with no real choice. There are so many bars to that prison, not least of all financial. How do you bring home an honest wage in a system so bound to powerful moneyed interests?
Self-censorship is the real enemy of a free press. I mentioned Hastings and Thompson before not to stir up conspiracy theories but to just point out that even if they died of perfectly mundane causes, the spookiness can muffle your voice. It’s called a mind-virus, a nasty story that gets in your brain and makes you scared. In the end, the suspicion itself silences many more people than a gun would. The fear does the job for you. Shoot one bird, silence many.
Or shoot none at all but create an environment of uncertainty. This piece of genius went round the traps a few weeks ago. An alleged screenshot of a slack channel for Hillary’s Correct The Record, it was a marvelous piece of horror that had a chilling effect on ordinary people. I noticed one sweet old dear wrote in defiance underneath a posting of this screenshot “You will never silence me!” and it nearly broke my heart when I noticed only a few minutes later that she had deleted it. It was almost certainly a hoax but when no one comes out to reassure a skittish public that it definitely wasn’t real, the fear does as good a job as if it was. Without a shot being fired, thousands of meek but intelligent voices go mute.
And that’s the environment we write in. Those that choose to, anyway. There are legions of talented writers, good-hearted, clear-sighted, truth-telling people who’ve decided the risk, no matter how low, is not worth it and gone to find work in PR.
Because it’s not all just suspicious deaths and hoaxes underlying the fear. Look at Julian Assange, under house arrest for five years for doing nothing but publishing the truth. A the Huffington Post journo lost his job for reporting rumors of Hillary’s health, just days before she collapsed. As Glenn Greenwald, another journalist who has run the gauntlet over the years, pointed out in an article yesterday on the the Intercept called “In the Democratic Echo Chamber, Inconvenient Truths Are Recast as Putin Plots,” in these times of deliberately inflated red-baiting hysteria “anyone who questions or opposes those leaders is a stooge or agent of the Kremlin.”
If you can override that oppressive layer of uncertainty with some courage and rationalizing, there’s still plenty more to keep you stuffed in your box. The real daily suffocation is more low-key than that. It’s often just thought of as “the hassle.” The hassle of getting trouble from the boss, from readers, from the advertisers, or your peers has a tremendously suffocating impact on your ability to report freely.
Add to that the fact that most of the political journalists travel with these charismatic politicians for most of the year, reporting on them, dining with them, partying with them, sleeping with them sometimes, always in the down-power position as people who need their help to do their job, and you form a rag-tag tribe of sorts. They become more than just colleagues. They’re your friends with just a hint of Stockholm Syndrome. They tell you things in confidence. You keep their secrets to keep their trust. And over time, you just naturally “come to heel” with the group. Group thinking is very powerful. If anyone saw that video going around a few months back where a woman trained a whole room full of people to stand up to the sound of a beep, you’ll know what I mean.
There’s also the threat of access being revoked for political journalists. A lot of politicians are very happy to restrict access as soon as someone writes something they don’t like. It’s impossible to do your job as a political journo if no politician will give you anytime. You need to at least be on speaking terms.
There are some outlets like this one, Inquisitr, that hire trained journalists and then leave them alone to do their jobs. In this new internet world where you don’t serve the agenda of a few powerful advertisers, you just get paid for clicks, it is possible to have a sustainable media source that doesn’t editorialize for advertisers, either via self-censorship, or by blatant threats like we’ve seen through the DNC leaks with Debbie Wasserman Schultz going all attack-poodle on Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski. Of course, that means the reader needs to apply their critical reading skills, but to be honest, the reader should be doing that with the mainstream media, too. In just these past few days, we’ve seen our nation go to the brink of war with Russia, but switch on the TV and all you’ll hear about is how Trump is a sleazy creep. Like that’s news?
Right now, Twitter is trending #RIPJournalism. As a fourth generation journalist, that makes me sad. Sad, but not surprised. My father wrote for a Murdoch paper for years, a full-page daily column which was immediately reduced to a slender single column when he spoke out against the Kuwait war. He never got his full page back, and he left newspapers altogether not long after. That was back in the early nineties. Speaking truth to power has never been easy.
But we must always try.
[Featured Image by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]