On Media Criticism

Traditional media, TV, newspaper, radio, non-profit and online still control much of the narrative landscape in business and politics. Slowly creeping in are advocacy and political groups, especially on the far right, that are able to dominate social media, have huge amounts of funding from right-wing oligarchs and are utterly shameless in their application of PR and marketing for diabolical ends.

The journalism job has always had its challenges but has gotten exponentially harder and more tenuous as advertisers have given all their money to Google and Facebook. This has led to it being one of the fastest shrinking industries in the country. This is bad for keeping the population informed. The non-profit pivot has not really improved things as they range from chronically underfunded start ups to wholly purchased subsidiaries of whatever some wealthy benefactor thinks.

This said, we should and do frequently critique the mainstream media. Not in the lame fake news sense (though some "news" certainly meets a broad definition of that), but in the framing and messaging sense that every media outlet since time eternal has been engaged in. As we come up on what looks to be a horrific legislative session for 2SLGBTQA+, various racial minorities, workers, children, the elderly, the environment and other groups targeted by evangelicals and corporate titans, we need to discuss the role the media plays, how they often fail to live up their charge as a free press and what needs to change if Oklahoma doesn't want to continue its march toward a theocratic, white ethnostate. 

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We'll start by saying that good journalism is hard. Bad actors don't make it easy to find facts, sources are unreliable and the timelines are relentless. It has probably always been this way but it's why it draws a certain type to the work. Knowing many journalists, they are mostly decent folks. You have to have some basic skills in writing, storytelling and connecting dots to make it in the business.

Where things go off the rails is in how many media institutions are set up, the absolutely wild turnover rate in journalism (which destroys relationships and institutional knowledge). Editors and publishers remain overwhelmingly white and male or tied directly to elite interests. This leads, even at the local level, to news that is constantly framed with those interests at their core and a near total inability to do anything about it.

Add to this that many journalists manage to have thinner skin than even your most egotistical politicians and fail to be able to take mild criticism for what it is. The funniest part of this phenomenon is how it shows up in the "both sides" debate. Your average right-wing troll will issue obvious threats, make racist or sexist references and be completely divorced from reality when they decide to log on and download on that piece the local news did suggesting that maybe homelessness is symptomatic of other things in society. The "left" or progressive orgs like ours will offer detailed bullet points or snarky rejoinders and be immediately accused of being enemies of the free press.

The coverage of Kevin Stitt, Ryan Walters and other political issues in Oklahoma highlights the problems in journalism. Ryan Walters is the perfect troll, with Stitt's comms goblin, Carly, a close second. Walters frequently takes the most radical far right talking point that is divorced completely from reality or any actual constituency, makes a viral car video, gets media coverage where he accuses his opponents of doing the thing he's doing and repeats. The media falls for this every time and boosts his name ID and overall message into the stratosphere. All coverage of Ryan Walters should start with the fact there are few, if any, complaints in schools or anywhere for what he claims and that he is using demagoguery and loaded language to incite people about things that aren't really happening.

Stitt is less effective at it but he frequently hides the ball, especially on corruption and business dealings and did it a bunch with COVID as we became one of the states with the highest death rate. Stitt is a master at the fake press conference where he essentially does propaganda. He'll claim to address some real or perceived problem, conduct little follow through or fail miserably (the state health lab) and the media runs with it, announces it to the world and later when said thing doesn't happen or goes disastrously, the media only occasionally tries to pick up the pieces and 1/10 as many people watch it. 

This is an incredibly common deal on social media but it happens all the time with traditional media when you are more interested in breaking the story or grabbing clicks than holding someone with incredible power accountable. This kind of sycophantic coverage is also more likely when you are preoccupied with access over accountability. These guys don't need a light ribbing, they need relentless pursuit. Our government, for all the talk of making it smaller, is incredibly powerful and does a lot in our name that can be very good but is often very bad. 

As we approach another legislative session the stakes rise dramatically. My overall take on the legislature is that it is a pit for the status quo with significant regressions for marginalized groups. Virtually nothing of substance takes place except for very narrow special interests and big problems get kicked down the road for generations until the state gets sued by the feds (DHS's Pinnacle Plan), some disaster (get that FEMA bag) or a major labor action forces them to address things (the Teacher Walkout and pay raise). 

The media should be covering it accordingly. Acting like there is any constituency outside of bigots that cares at all about drag shows is ridiculous. RuPaul's drag race is in its 15th season. Support for gay marriage is at all time highs and passed 50% like a decade ago. The culture war is over and these freaks are its dry, disgusting, death rattle. They shouldn't be reported as people having a real concern about kids or morals but a fringe of people who've been twisted up by a right-wing propaganda machine to believe things about gay folks that aren't true or any of their business in a free country.

This goes for abortion bans, environmental deregulation, tax policy that protects the rich and on and on. We did random street interviews in Edmond, Oklahoma shortly after the abortion ban and only found a single, fairly high, mentally questionable person who quoted right-wing talking points on abortion. Everyone else opposed it. Even an older white man thought criminalization was probably a bad idea. 

We did a huge expose about our utility bill crisis shortly before the election. We got a ton of media to show up to our press conference but coverage was fairly modest. Many of the state's largest print orgs including several young hotshot journalists failed to write a single story about it and gave excuses ranging from not being able to review all the records themselves (which they subsequently never asked for) to this was "the best" our politicians could do given the political climate (it wasn't and isn't). Most of them likely feared reprisal from the administration, the same administration refusing to honor legal records requests and that clearly made the wrong call on the issue of securitization.

Or we could look at the local level, where stakes are lower, but the corruption is closer to the people. Last Thursday night, we cosponsored an event with various Democratic party entities about the OK County Clerk special election. A press release was sent around and do you know how many media chose to inform their folks about it? One, NonDoc. And it failed to mention the most pointed critique and central issue in the race, that every single candidate made about their future opponent at the forum!

On the Republican side, you have one of the most nakedly corrupt candidates imaginable running for office, Maressa Treat. She is the wife of the sitting President Pro Tem of the Senate and very likely to lock up the Republican nomination and move into the general election with an incredible war chest. Her donor list is a who's who of Capitol swamp denizens and political elites all while her husband is starting up session with the incredible power to decide which one gets to change the laws of our land. Word is he's happily telling anyone who will listen at the Capitol about her run for office!


She's has worked hand in hand with her husband, working at their political consulting firm (a weird conflict of interests in its own right) and for business entities like the State Chamber, to elect candidates and pass laws privatizing education, banning abortion, criminalizing the teaching of topics relating to race and gender, giving guns to everyone and launching attacks on trans youth session after session. This is a political family through and through, maxed out on terrible ideas and self-dealing. MAYBE, the media should look into that more!? 

We could go on about this but it's a problem. As the very lives and rights of women, 2SLGBTQ+, Black, brown and indigenous Oklahomans come further under direct attack, it would be helpful if the media would report who really backs these efforts. Nobody suffers from an abortion ban like women do, specifically lower income women who cannot flee out of state. The bills attacking trans people, who already suffer from discrimination and astronomical suicide rates, will only make their lives more difficult. The bans on "CRT" or whatever lesson that asks white people to analyze their past is overt racism. They are exactly who Martin Luther King warned about. There is absolutely no equivalent on the left to this sort of legislative agenda anywhere in America and implementing thought control via the state (HB 1775) is some 1984 shit. Surprised they haven't banned that book too.

Beyond this, the material issues facing Oklahomans from low wages to lack of housing to skyrocketing college costs to inadequate and expensive healthcare are frequently framed as intractable problems, instead of specific issues with winners and losers. The media has a job to frame these properly. Not as some sort of weird cultural norm that can't be changed but as issues that are mostly manufactured by those with power. This was the whole promise of journalism, hold the powerful to account and be free to say it loud and proud. Modern journalism more frequently borders on PR and serves instead as a living history, reporting dutifully the ills in our society but offering little introspection about how we get there, how we solve them or what political players and dynasties are responsible for keeping them that way. 

As fascism approaches and late stage capitalism enters its end game, we need a brave and accurate press. We cannot continue to allow our political imaginations to be set by the most comfortable in our society. We cannot allow a loud minority twisted with bigotry to write our laws or set the discourse. The media has a responsibility to choose a different path. If you want to both sides stuff, start talking to directly impacted people. Start talking to groups that offer clear and concise alternatives to prevailing narrative. The best way to overcome criticism is to join the real conversation, not run from it.

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  • Oklahoma Progress Now
    published this page in Blog 2023-01-31 19:30:22 -0600