New York, NY – The big media news of recent weeks was not the obviously insincere attempts by British politicians to distance themselves from Rupert Murdoch.
It was not Madonna exposing a breast in Turkey or her backside in Rome, in what seems like a competitive race to the bottom against Lady Gaga.
It was when Dylan Ratigan, angry man of US cable news station MSNBC, decided to end his daily talk show – on which he had come closer than any other TV host in denouncing the pernicious control that big money has over US politics.
He said he first left “a 15-year career in financial journalism amid the crisis of 2008. I did this to join the traditional cable news ranks with a clear goal of revealing the ruthless truth about our biggest problems and telling the inspiring stories of those who are resolving them despite all odds”.
And that he did, until he couldn’t stomach doing it anymore and began to devote more time to the issue he is most passionate about – getting money out of politics. He did not, however, denounce the media he was part of, as did his former MSNBC colleague Keith Olbermann when he quit.
Ratigan was positive to a fault, writing: “My time as part of the MSNBC family has been marked by a profound sense of support, professionalism and respect. I would be remiss if I did not thank the network for an outstanding three years as a full-time host on its airwaves.”
“Once you’ve said your piece, you can either keep saying it… or you can decide what you’re going to do about it.”
– Dylan Ratigan
Following the etiquette in times like this, Ratigan’s boss, NBC Vice-President Phil Griffith, praised him to the skies. It was a kissy-face moment. MSNBC boosts Democrats almost as blindly as FOX flacks for Republicans.
The New York Times called Ratigan a “crusader of sorts”, and reported that a man known for his many rants could also be reflective, quoting him as saying: “Once you’ve said your piece, you can either keep saying it – and then it’s a job, a good job, pays well, everybody knows your name, it’s great – or you can decide what you’re going to do about it. And the answer is, I don’t know. But I do know, in order to figure it out, I have to dismount.
“Think of it like ending a Broadway play,” Ratigan said, referring to a “three-year run”. It’s hard not to admire Ratigan, who is walking away while he’s on top, but what he isn’t doing is revealing how the media system of which he has been a part is joined at the hip to the money system he decries.
Clearly, his MSNBC “family” has been as dysfunctional as many real families. The Broadway comparison he makes shows he understands that he is more in show biz than news biz. Perhaps, like his namesake, this Dylan will one day also win a Presidential Medal of Freedom. But for more insights about the news world he’s leaving, you have to turn to someone with less celebrity and more knowledge of its real function.
Someone such as Daniel Simpson, perhaps, who quit the New York Times and wrote a book about it called A Rough Guide To The Dark Side. “I was alluding to the warped world beyond, through Lewis Carroll’s looking glass, while also trying to capture how I felt,” he told Australia’s Green Left Weekly. “It only seemed possible to rise higher at the Times if I bought their illusions, and having seen through them, this would have been consciously corrupt. Until that point, I’d been unconscious of co-option as a journalist – like most of my peers. But as my eyes lost their scales, I saw my own flaws more clearly, and freaked out.”
And then there’s Patrick Chalmers, an ex-staffer of Thomson Reuters, who runs a blog and Facebook page named “Fraudcast News“. His work is described this way:
“An ex-Reuters reporter, he relates how getting into and out of conventional journalism opened his eyes to the realities of his chosen career. On the way he found how mainstream media, including his former employer, were far from being the public watchdogs of power they like to pretend. Quite the opposite – the bulk of their work blinds people to their powerlessness in the face of modern politics, at every layer of government.”
Now, listen to this critique of his former employer:
“The agency deserves its reputation as providing a service that helps rich people get richer – that’s exactly what it does. Whatever its editorial cheerleaders might say about speed, accuracy and freedom from bias, they can’t escape the reality that the vast bulk of their clients, by value, work in finance.
“The rarely spoken truth about journalism is that the news you get from any media outlet turns on a handful of factors.
“They include income sources (banks/finance for Reuters), ownership (Reuters is controlled by a few very rich individuals), reporters’ choice of news sources (overwhelmingly traders, banks, economists, governments and other institutions), editorial ideology (profoundly one of deregulated banks, markets, trade, status-quo institutions and free-market capitalism) and, finally, the organisation’s response to real or feared ‘flak’ or hostile elite criticism of its output (generally supine).
“Despite serial financial crises around the world, various environmental ones looming, growing inequality across many countries and plummeting faith in conventional politics and politicians – we get what from Reuters in response? Nothing sustained, nothing coherent and nothing journalistically credible – despite its mammoth editorial operation.”
Patrick, Meet Dylan. Unfortunately, Mr Ratigan has given up his show and can’t have Patrick on.
As for Mr Chalmers, he, too, is now a journalist left blogging – and, like me, drawing on his personal experiences in “big media” to explain how it, too, has become so corrupted.
“So what did I find? The good news is that there are alternatives, the bad that they take time to build. They include doing journalism focused on governance and accountability to citizens as its core role, illustrating the global and national from local perspectives. It means training others to do the same and to share the content for free to help improve our political and media literacy.
“In essence, it’s the sort of thing I dreamed Reuters could do before I got tired of banging my head against the wall trying to persuade my editors that that was what ‘freedom from bias’ really meant.”
A lot of us are banging our heads against walls, but sometime that also leads to banging some sense into our heads – to challenge the illusions we brought into our work for so many years.