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Think Again: How to ‘Ignore’ and Obsess About a Story Simultaneously

SOURCE: AP/Evan Vucci

On Monday, August 6, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for $250 million.

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With the sale of The Washington Post to Jeff Bezos—which followed 80 years of stewardship by four generations of the Graham family—it is a good moment to examine why newspapers in particular, and the mainstream media in general, matter so much to so many people.

In the case of the Post, it is certainly not because of weekday and Sunday circulation, which is in freefall and has always been insignificant next to television and other media. Neither is it due to the Post’s profit-making potential—which appears to be nonexistent at the present—nor the value of its assets, which barely constitute of 1 percent of Jeff Bezos’s personal net worth.

The Post is important because of its influence on those who read it—lawmakers, regulators, businesspeople, special-interest groups, lobbyists, and other movers and shakers. This explains the new, nearly obsessive interest in Bezos’s political views and the degree to which he is empowered to shape the paper’s news coverage accordingly.

Yet many political partisans fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the Post’s—and the mainstream media’s—influence. On the one hand, the media are the gatekeepers to the value of any given incident as “news,” which is still the case, even though it has been diminished by the growth of other forms of mass communication. On the other hand, the media provide a spectrum of respectable views on those events. But this function has also diminished. The growth of conservative media across every format has pushed the political spectrum further to the right of where it previously was in America and of where it currently is in other western democracies. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the Drudge Report, and their ilk do not exist in Western Europe, alas.

Ideologues who criticize the media ignore these functions. These critics believe that their particular ideological hobbyhorse would win the day if only the media paid greater attention to it. In fact, the problem is not the level of attention the media gives to a particular issue, but the fact that even a relentless media focus on the issue in question simply does not bear out their assumptions.

This complaint often takes form in the question: “Why is the mainstream media ignoring … ?” The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf is perhaps the savviest member of a coterie of libertarian conservative journalists who criticize both parties in equal measure. This week, Friedersdorf, using the tragedy of Benghazi, debunks the misguided right-wing contentionthat if only the mainstream media had done more, everything would be different.

Friedersdorf initially concurred with right-wing conventional wisdom about Benghazi, authoring an October 2012 piece called “The Attack in Benghazi: Worth Investigating After All.” Friedersdorf’s view coincided with that of Jonah Goldberg of the National Review, whose column for the Los Angeles Times began with the statement that “If you want to understand why conservatives have lost faith in the so-called mainstream media, you need to ponder the question: Where is the Benghazi feeding frenzy?”

Goldberg went on to say, “This is not to say that Fox News is alone in covering the story. But it is alone in treating it like it’s a big deal.”

This assessment—now an article of faith in the conservative echo chamber—is factually incorrect. Let’s focus, with Friedersdorf, on The New York Times, that favorite target of right-wing media critics as ground zero of the liberal media conspiracy to deprive Americans of conservative truths. In his piece from this week, Friedersdorf examines the Times’ intense coverage of the event in its immediate aftermath and quotes the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who observed in her October 21, 2012, column:

 

[It] is utterly wrong to say that The Times has ignored or buried the Libya story. As of Friday, editors had placed it on the front page on 18 days out of 38, sometimes with news, sometimes with analysis. The coverage has been extensive, aggressive and sweeping. And I see no evidence that The Times is pushing the Obama agenda, overtly or otherwise.

Many readers believe that it is, so I read with particular care on this subject.

That same week, two other stories addressed the incident and at least 27 pages’ worth of stories followed.

And that’s just The New York Times. Countless stories have appeared everywhere in the mainstream media; Friedersdorf’s story has links to some of the best and the worst.

So when former CNN commentator Erick Erickson—who recently referred to Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis (D) as “Abortion Barbie”—complains that “the general media has an ideological bias against conservatives, which makes it harder for the media to take our views seriously,” he fails to acknowledge the possibility that such views do not deserve to be taken seriously. After all, any complaint about inadequate coverage of Benghazi is hard to credit as consistent with reality.

It’s worth noting that some leftists make the same complaint about the mainstream media. This article from The Guardian argues that “Americans are shielded from the ugly consequences of US military power by our journalists’ self-censorship.” I have some sympathy for this view and have written critically about the media coverage of every incident discussed in the Guardian article, as well as about U.S. complicity with the genocide in Guatemala and covert U.S. interventionism in South America. This, however, speaks to an entirely different problem than the conservative complaint about “conspiracy” and has more to do with market forces, personal friendships, and deference to those in power.

But back to Benghazi: How do we explain conservatives’ inability to see that Benghazi was one of the most heavily covered stories of recent decades? One obvious answer is that they are blinded by their own ideology. A second possibility is that they—or, at least, the more intelligent members among them—do not believe this nonsense. They understand that as long as they continue to “work the refs”—that is, to complain, and complain, and then complain some more—they will be rewarded with more sympathetic coverage, no matter how ridiculous their arguments are when juxtaposed with reality. However foolish it makes Jonah Goldberg and his friends sound, it’s hard to argue with the success of this strategy.

As for The Washington Post, how else, save for a willingness to suck up to the far right, can one explain the willingness to indulge the various journalistic crimes of right-wing blogger Jennifer Rubin or the hiring debacles that preceded her? And how many times has the redoubtable Ms. Rubin returned to the issue of Benghazi in her frequently fact-challenged Washington Post blog? More than I can count, but apparently, not enough to turn it into a “big deal.” Maybe Jeff Bezos can fix that too.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, recently released in paperback.

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This is part of a regular column: Think Again

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