James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist

  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Archive for May 13th, 2008

Sidney Blumenthal

Posted by James McPherson on May 13, 2008

Harper’s has a brief interview with Sidney Blumenthal, referred to as “one of America’s foremost political commentators.” Blumenthal has written several books (including one just out) and for several noteworthy publications in this country and abroad. He also served as a senior advisor for President Bill Clinton and now does so for Hillary Clinton, and has recently been criticized for supposedly spreading right-wing lies about Barack Obama–a charge, like many other that whirl around during campaign season, that seems to be exaggerated, at best.

While I sometimes disagree with Blumenthal, I have to admit that I appreciated it when he took on Internet provocateur Matt Drudge.  I especially admire Blumenthal’s writing and–despite his eagerness to attack issues directly–his ablility to intellectually separate complexities of people or issues. It is a gift that both Clintons share, incidentally, and one that helps immensely with establishing policy, though not one that necessarily serves candidates particularly well in a soundbite-driven political environment. A example from the Harper’s interview, with Blumenthal discussing Karl Rove:

I look forward to Karl Rove’s commentaries on Fox News and tune into Fox specifically to hear what he has to say. Unlike most pundits on TV, he understands his subject. … Of course, in the Plame affair–’Wilson’s wife is fair game’–Rove’s actions were traitorous, even if he escaped indictment for perjury. His manipulation of the U.S. attorneys for partisan purposes, part of his overarching scheme to forge a one-party state, was at best abusive. In the meantime, amidst the vast wasteland of blustery talking heads, he’s one of the few bright spots.

Of course lately the thing I appreciate most about Blumenthal is his willingness–despite the fact that he writes or has written for the Guardian, the New Republic, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Salon.com–to pen the foreword for my latest book. I’m gratified that the pages I wrote will be preceded with phrases like these:

The sensibility of conservative media is not that it is media like other media but merely more conservative. Rather, it combines the nostalgic partisanship of the vicious Republican press of the past with a Leninist relativism about fact assimilated from neoconservatism, which retains the mindset of its Communist origins. [Among other things, the book discusses those origins further.]

Conservative media does not see itself as a reverse mirror image of the mainstream media but as its dedicated foe. Its core mission is to destroy the professionalism that has defined journalism since the mid-twentieth century. Undermining the mainstream media is a deliberate and relentless effort, and conservative media is a battering ram against traditional journalistic standards.

Every issue must be reported as if it has two sides and only two sides: the hard-right Republicans and the liberals (a category including all nonidealogically conservative journalists). This polarizing technique systematically destroys journalistic objectivity, the responsibility to determine fact, and substitutes a distorted pseudoreality in which the extremist fringe has an exaggerated purchase on the truth.

Again, I don’t always agree with Blumenthal, maybe because my own journalistic and academic training inhibit my willingness to make sweeping claims. Nor do I think the conservative media are solely responsible for the sad reputation of American journalism. But Blumenthal writes very well, with thoughtful consideration of historical and political context. Too bad television’s talking heads, from the right and the left, don’t do more of the same.


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