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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

State of the Nation

Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel. Photo by Conor Napier.
Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel. Photo by Conor Napier.

Anna Nicole died. TomKat got married. And the war rages on throughout Iraq.

These trifles and tragedies mark a handful of the surface issues discussed by a panel of editors from the liberal weekly The Nation magazine on Feb. 15. Faced with a full-house of UMass Boston students, faculty, and staff; editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel, Peace and Disarmament correspondent Jonathan Schell, and associate publisher Peter Rothberg focused the discussion on the future role media will play in the big government and highly corporate world of today.

“There is an importance for the media to be a watchdog,” said vanden Heuvel, whose plea for media to reclaim its role as watchdog is not wholly foreign to the UMass Boston campus. Coordinating the event for the campus were Professors Sherry Conrad and Ellen Hume, who together have helped bolster the Center on Media and Society. One development in the Center on Media and Society is an Ethnic Media Project that recently produced a class called “Local and Ethnic Journalism.”

To vanden Heuvel, who has served as editor for 11 of the magazine’s 144 years in print, the project at UMass Boston abides by everything The Nation promotes as praiseworthy journalism.

“The values of The Nation and what the Center on Media and Society are doing are so consistent,” vanden Heuvel said. “There is a sense of a need for the media in this moment in history to hold those in power accountable, to hold corporate power accountable; accountable to the people, and to put on the national agenda those issues which are so important for an informed citizenry, which means a democracy, and also this sense of connection with civil society.”

But not everybody in the audience agreed so whole-heartedly with her media diagnosis, pointing out that throughout its history The Nation has earned a reputation as being an immodestly opinionated journal for the left.

When vanden Heuvel criticized The Weekly Standard, a conservative publication, as being “despicable,” local firefighter and recent UMass Boston grad Mike, questioned whether The Nation was anything other than a liberal version of The Weekly Standard.

“How does The Nation distinguish itself from the mere ideological arguments that are made, and how are you different from them, than, say William Kristol (of the neo-conservative) Weekly Standard, who does take below-the-belt shots just as you did?” Mike asked.

Vanden Heuvel rebuked the comment by illustrating the Scooter Libby trial as being the sort of disreputable journalism that takes place at The Weekly Standard. According to vanden Heuvel, one act of unethical journalism in association with the Scooter Libby trial occurred when Vice President Dick Cheney’s office leaked an intelligence estimate to Bill Kristol and The Weekly Standard. The thinking to this is that, if legal pressures directed toward Cheney’s office for having the information, they could rid themselves of the onus because media sources, like The Weekly Standard, likewise had the same information.

It is these journalistic practices, in particular, that Vanden Heuvel finds “despicable.”

“The Nation does not accept leaks from government offices,” she said. “Bill Kristol has had a long career as a Republican operative, and I think you see that in their pages; it is often their talking points. It also is now the neo-conservative movement’s organ, so it would be critical of the White House for not following the neo-conservative path.”

Looking past the partisanship of publishing, The Nation feels that the populace learning of world events from their networks’ nightly news programs is a more trying issue. What that same general public fails to realize is that those programs informing them are similarly operated by multinational corporations with an agenda. Jonathan Schell, who touts a distinguished journalism career with the New Yorker as well as The Nation, refutes the legitimacy of such media outlets, and thus prides himself on the fact that his magazine operates in utter opposition to that type of corporate or government ownership.

“A publication like The Nation, which is not beholden to corporations or to government, is very rare and is a very, very radical difference from what you find elsewhere,” Schell said.

One problem is that corporate ownership within the media caused a divergence between what is talked about on the news and what people care about within their households. Vanden Heuvel sites how on the day of Anna Nicole Smith’s death, NBC’s “Nightly News” covered the incident with a two-and-a-half minute package, while spending only 30 seconds of coverage on the Iraq war.

Looking at the poll numbers and determining what people care about, versus the actual content of the news, distresses and yet epitomizes the state of media for news hounds like Schell and vanden Heuvel.

“The mainstream of public opinion as when measured by polls, which is a very imperfect measurement anyway, is something far different from the mainstream of what can be on the Sunday morning talk-shows,” Schell said. “The media is sort of a part of a political class. They are the ones who are on television, and not the people who are watching television.”

But vanden Heuvel does not discriminate, and sees the media phenomena of corporate takeovers as resonant to the American politics of how “we live with the downsized politics of excluded alternatives.”

The Nation is skeptical towards big media, and view big media as being problematic for the future and even more distressing for today.

“The larger problem is of where newspapers go, what happens because newspapers no longer have any sense of community interests,” vanden Heuvel said. “What will replace that? The roll of the internet in our politics; it will not set us free, but its democraticizing impulses are powerful. These are all larger questions we are thinking about at the magazine.”

The Nation came to UMass Boston and Cambridge to try and meet with young people in the community and maybe find new and old writers living in the area. Last June, the magazine held a conference to “engage a younger generation of muckrakers, student editors, and writers” to find out what is on their minds. They will be holding a second conference this June.