In the same way that the Occupy Wall Street movement completely shifted the national discussion towards income inequality – and in the same way that Ron Paul made it possible for mainstream media outlets to host discussions on previously taboo topics such as ending the war on drugs and the war on terrorism – we journalism teachers ought to be consistently agitating against what passes for journalism these days, especially at the national level.
As shown by Michael Hastings, Julian Assange, Matt Taibbi, Amy Goodman, Bill Moyers, and many others, our institutions of journalism have largely failed in their duties as watchdogs when it comes to national politicians, their allies, their backers, their actions and their motivations.
At best, we get a partisan sideshow where journalists pat themselves on the back if their so-called reporting “makes both sides mad” and gives equal voice to two equally flawed perspectives; at worst, we get collusion in the corridors of power, where media and political operatives work (in parallel, if not in cooperation) to make sure that other perspectives are unheard through a variety of techniques – social & professional pressure, Orwellian abuse of language, even blatant exclusion.
Any time a candidate steps outside the Washington consensus endorsed by both parties – Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, Jerry Brown, etc. – they’re marginalized as lunatics whose every position must automatically be dismissed without serious discussion. That’s not just the talking points presented by their political opponents; that’s the position taken up by major media figures who specialize in telling us – not in so many words, of course – that any major change to the status quo is not only impossible, but irresponsible, insane, and morally unthinkable.
For the intro to mass media class that I teach to 9th graders, I developed an entire six-week unit about the relationship between the news media and the government. At the start of the unit, we play a game (based on an article in Rethinking Schools) where each student gets to pick cards from a standard playing card deck – they can pick three, two, one, or none. Then we start trading cards based on a few simple rules. The catch is that only players with a certain number of points, or who are lucky enough to possess certain cards, have any real say in what the rules are. Every time we play this game the lesson becomes clear: people with power will not only do whatever it takes to hold on to their power, but they will also go a long way to keep the powerless from empowering themselves and thereby threatening the status quo.
Our supposedly adversarial “watchdog” news media and our supposedly “of the people, by the people, for the people” government are more than happy to participate in the charades of partisan bickering and horse race odds-making, but when it comes to actual challenges to the status quo, both institutions immediately close ranks. Many people have suggested that the Occupy Wall Street movement ought to consider “occupying Washington DC” by fielding candidates for office, or at least getting involved in political campaigns. I’m not so sure of the wisdom of that, but I do think that #OWS (and the nation) could stand to gain considerably from occupying the other powerful, decrepit American institution devoted mostly to self-preservation: mainstream journalism.