Pressto Change-o

I’m shocked — shocked — to learn that the White House plants questions at press conferences, that the Washington Post flirts with openly selling “access” to lobbyists, and that the ABC television network shills for President Barack Obama’s health care scheme.

Now that I’ve got the fake shock out of the way, let’s get to the real shock: I’m shocked that anyone finds any of this (other than perhaps the fact that the most visible recent planted question was planted with an Internet-based publication, the Huffington Post) shocking.

There are reasons the “mainstream media” are called the “mainstream media,” and those reasons shouldn’t be difficult to figure out.

First of all, in the age of the superstate, access — access to state actors and to places under the control of those state actors — is a tightly controlled commodity.

How tightly controlled? Well, in 2003, the US Department of Defense openly threatened to murder journalists who sought access to the battlefields of Iraq through non-DoD-approved channels. That’s the marginal case, of course, but it’s only a particularly harsh example of a well-established rule.

Not every journalist gets White House press credentials. Not every reporter can score an interview with this week’s prominent politician. Whether or not you get a seat on the bus, on the plane or at the press conference may very well depend on how “mainstream” you are.

And let’s face it: “Mainstream” is defined very narrowly. Reporters who parrot the verbiage they’re given to parrot are “mainstream.” Reporters who don’t aren’t.

A reporter can take on a particular politician and possibly remain “mainstream” (unless he really, really pisses of the politician he’s trying to cover). A reporter who takes on politics itself is off the reservation and can expect to find himself covering the International Horse Radish Festival or the latest celebrity DUI rather than kicking it with the Prez on his next trip to stare down the Russians or browbeat those European Union fellows.

Secondly, the “mainstream media” are, at this point, a group of corporate organizations with a heavy investment of their own in maintenance of the status quo. They’ve got their established beats, they’ve got their own set of perks, they’ve even got politicians proposing to bail them out should they fail. From a business standpoint, the only worthwhile controversies are those which can be carefully managed to maximize circulation. Anything which threatens to really and truly rock the boat is “not newsworthy,” see?

Yes, the “alternative media” has always been there, and the Internet has given it a bullier pulpit over the last 15 years or so. It’s even given the “MSM” a few scares and produced a number of scoops which forced “mainstream” journalists to cover controversies they’d have otherwise happily ignored. There’s just an outside chance that the ‘zines and blogs and other Internet samizdat may become a genuinely revolutionary force both in and out of journalism. But they can’t expect any help on that from the political establishment or the “mainstream media.”

“[W]ere it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” What he could not foresee was the extent to which, even in a democracy, the interests of the two might become identical and to which the choice might actually come down to one or the other.

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