The Ideology Problem: Thomas Patterson’s Failed Technocratic Dream For Journalism

Publishede on ZNet, by Robert Jensen, January 15, 2014.

Thomas Patterson’s new book on the current crises in journalism is organized around six specific problems, starting with “The Information Problem” and moving through Source, Knowledge, Education, Audience, and Democracy problems. 

All problems, indeed. But, unfortunately, there is no chapter on the most crippling affliction of mainstream journalism in the United States: “The Ideology Problem.” That missing chapter would help explain the routine failure of mainstream journalism at what should be its central task in a democratic society—to analyze and critique systems of power to help ordinary people take greater control over our lives. The fact that this subject is missing helps explain the limited value of Patterson’s analysis … //

… It’s all about knowledge? … //

… Ideology and obedience:

This problem of manipulation-by-source is fairly new, according to Patterson, who writes that “for a long period, this arrangement worked to journalists’ advantage” (p. 33). In this apparent “golden age,” journalists could trust these official sources to help them explain the world accurately. But there was trouble brewing in paradise: “Somewhere in the evolving relationship between journalists and politicians, fidelity to truth has slipped away” (p. 58).

This period of “fidelity to truth” apparently includes the Red Scare of the late 1940s and ‘50s. Instead of reflecting on mainstream media’s role in the anti-democratic repression of that period, he mentions only the way in which the demagogic Sen. Joe McCarthy took journalists for a ride with his absurdly false claims, suggesting the McCarthy episode was an aberration in an otherwise healthy relationship between journalists and the people who ran the world back then. Patterson acknowledges that the potential for McCarthy-style destructive behavior always was there, “but it was kept largely in check by informal understandings. Journalists expected politicians to be reasonably honest and high-minded, and politicians expected journalists to act with a reasonable degree of trust and restraint” (58).

That description will sound strange to the many Americans in the 20th century who, while organizing for social and economic justice, ran into resistance not just from McCarthy but from most of the politicians in the Democratic and Republican parties, law enforcement officials from the local to the federal level, corporate America, and most mainstream journalists. Elites’ use of anti-communist hysteria to target any challenges to U.S. domestic and foreign policy was opposed by people on the margins, the ones official sources were denigrating with the help of mainstream journalists. The “trust and restraint” did not extend to anyone offering a deep critique of social and economic systems.

The profoundly anti-democratic nature of the post-WWII Red Scare (and its World War I-era predecessor) had little to do with knowledge and everything to do with ideology. Journalists’ support for, or failure to challenge, elites’ criminalizing of critical voices wasn’t due to a lack of knowledge but to an allegiance to the ideology of the powerful. There was plenty of knowledge that reporters could have drawn on from critical movements, but those sources were ignored as journalists fell into line. It was not the absence of knowledge but the presence of ideology that explains the failed coverage.

So, the crucial “source problem” is not that journalists routinely draw on the greater expertise of others, which is inevitable in the practice of daily journalism, but that sources who reflect the views of concentrated wealth and power are, on average, given far more credibility and visibility. That produces a fidelity to ideology, not truth.

Another example that Patterson offers—mainstream journalism’s failure to scrutinize the false claims made by U.S. officials to justify an illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003—leads to the same conclusion. That coverage certainly was a low point in the news media’s performance of recent decades, as he points out, but once again the problem is not that journalists were outgunned by sources, but that journalists’ unquestioned acceptance of an imperial ideology blinded them to other interpretations and to the sources who could have provided evidence for those views. There was a robust anti-war movement, nationally and internationally, which included a wide range of people with extensive expertise on issues of weapons, diplomacy, and Middle East history. The problem was that most journalists reflexively allowed sources with power to define the issue and create the “facts.”

“The Ideology Problem” afflicting mainstream news media is readily evident, that journalists consistently accept two key components of the worldview of the powerful:

–On economics, the naturalness of corporate capitalism is unchallenged. Issues such as wealth inequality, hunger, and child poverty must be framed as unfortunate problems to be solved by elites’ adjustment of the system, not as an evitable outcome of a pathological system that leaves economic decisions in the hands of a relatively few people.

–On foreign policy, the naturalness of U.S. domination of the world system is unchallenged. Direct U.S. violence and support for the violence of client regimes must be framed as actions that are necessary to maintain order in a chaotic world, not as imperialism designed to expand U.S. power and enrich elites.

Knowledge, politics, and values: … //

… (full text and links to Robert Jensen’s books, work and contacts).


Larry Summers joins the reality-based economics community, on Real-World Economics Review Blog, by Dean Baker, Jan 16, 2014;

UK govt using immigration as a scapegoat to cover up austerity failures, on Russia Today RT, Jan 15, 2014;

Operation Bangkok Shutdown, on Russia Today RT, Jan 14, 2014;

Download the whole issue no. 66 / Jan 13, 2014 of the real-world economics review.

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