One of Benedict Anderson’s most famous insights into modern nationalism is the role he assigns to national newspapers in creating the sense of “simultaneity” that gave people across the national territory a sense that they were experiencing events together at the same moment as their fellow citizens.
There’s a different kind of simultaneity visible today in the relationship between the US press and the US government. I mention Anderson’s analysis rather than something like Chomsky’s accusation of a deliberate, instrumental collusion between the owners of the press and other capitalist elites because I don’t think the simultaneity of the New York Times editorial staff and the top ranks of the federal government is self-aware or even necessarily self-interested. But when you see it happening, you do get a sense of how tightly bound together the social worlds of the two groups are, how much they look and and speak about the world in the same terms, how tightly the discourse of one institutional world inflects the other.
The best example is to watch the speed and breadth with which the circumlocutions of governmental speech disseminate through the old-guard mainstream media, and how using that speech becomes a self-fetishized sign of reliable “objectivity”. In the Bush Administration, for example, “enhanced interrogation” quickly was adopted in the common language of press reporting. “Torture”, the simpler and clearer word that would be preferred by both E.B. White and George Orwell, became instead the sign of partisan and polemical writing (within the culture of mainstream editorial).
This is not new: I recall day after day of bleak rage reading Christopher S. Wren’s reporting on South Africa in the late 1980s, which took the distinctive discursive language of official reports by the apartheid government as ‘fact’ and information from anyone else as rumor or opinion until witnessed by “reliable sources”. But Wren and other reporters for the dominant US papers in the 1970s and 1980s were often commissioned to fall into line with the Cold War proclivities and loyalties of the old-guard publishers in a manner that now seems almost charmingly quaint in its crude directness. Today it’s become a more automatic, unconscious and sociological kind of simultaneity, a synchronicity.
Case in point: it’s taken only a few days for the Grey Lady to almost autonomically adopt passive-voice constructions like “the military intervention that deposed Mr. Morsi” rather than “coup” (thanks to Robert Wright for spotting this).
I recall while living in Zimbabwe in the 1980s and 1990s that the Zimbabwe Herald, published by the government, was worth reading less for an account of news-worthy events in Zimbabwe and the world and more as a window into what the dominant factions within the government wanted people to believe was happening. While that’s always been true to some extent about the major press in any modern society, it is more and more true lately in the United States in a more and more specific sociological way than it has been for some time.
This is not ideology we are seeing: it is consciousness, a shared imaginary that is both the literal product of overlapping social worlds and evidence of an increasing isolation of the American political class from wider social and cultural networks (both national and otherwise). In that narrower world of the political class, it is more important to operate within elaborated pseudo-statutory discursive frameworks whose etiquette makes a Tokugawa-era tea ceremony look like grabbing a quick bite at the mall food court than it is to make any kind of common-sense connection with either constituents or global publics. Within that sensibility, it is less important for reportage to clearly narrate and describe what is happening than it is to communicate sympathy between press bureaucrats and government bureaucrats. It’s like witnessing two fireflies signalling to each other across the darkness so that they can come together to mate.