The Media and Conventional Wisdom

The Nation has published an excellent article on the U.S. government’s vendetta against James Risen, a New York Times investigative journalist. The campaign is part of a larger effort by the Obama Administrations to punish government whistleblowers and “intimidate other investigative reporters,” as Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg told The Nation.

This week Risen gave a talk at Colby College in Maine that cautioned against groupthink in the media. He cited the early days of  the abolitionist movement in the 1830s, before it had become “a significant political force,” during a time when slavery was still a “bedrock political assumption of the United States.” This period, when abolition writers were outside the mainstream, should be studied, Risen said, for

what it’s really like to challenge the cement-like certainty of the conventional wisdom of the day, especially when it is constantly being reinforced by a mainstream press.

He went on to say:

It is difficult to recognize the limits a society places on accepted thought at the time it is doing it. When everyone accepts basic assumptions, they don’t seem to be constraints on ideas. That truth often only reveals itself in hindsight.

Risen is talking specifically about the rise of the national security state since 9/11, and how anyone who challenges its underlying assumption–the need for a global war on terror–“is considered dangerous and maybe even a traitor.”

Are there parallel examples in the science and society realm, where certain assumptions are difficult to challenge because they are reinforced by mainstream media?

23 Responses to “The Media and Conventional Wisdom”

  1. JH says:

    “Are there parallel examples in the science and society realm…”
    a) The “Wilderness Eden” Theology
    b) “Natural” farming
    c) The resource limits meme
    d) Human = Bad
    e) Corporate = bad
    f) Profit = bad
    g) Fossil Fuels = bad
    h) cars = bad
    I) hydropower = bad
    j) Nuclear power = bad
    These are ubiquitous in modern media reporting of environmental / development issues, and strongly bias reporting in favor of the perspective of environmental groups.

  2. Joshua says:

    ==> “assumptions are difficult to challenge because they are reinforced by mainstream media?”

    Given that “mainstream media” pretty much run the gamut – from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly and Laura Ingraham, etc. on the right to MSNBC on the left and a whole bunch a folks in the middle, I wonder if you have something specific in mind?

    Which issues “in the science and society realm” do you think might be “difficult to challenge…?” What science and society issues are neither MSNBC or Fox News raising, because hey might be considered dangerous if they did?

    Do you see anyone quaking in fear of challenging the “mainstream media” on any of the issues JH offered for his fear-mongering about fear-mongering? Are any of those issues not challenged, quite often, in the “mainstream media?”

  3. JH says:

    “JH offered for his fear-mongering about fear-mongering”
    Too funny joshie! 🙂 It’s not about fear mongering, though. It’s about bias.
    No one serious about scientific issues takes the RW media like fox or Limbaugh seriously, or the left wing nutters like Rachael Maddow. (note I don’t count the rightish WSJ or leftish NPR among the nutters, but I think Stewart falls a bit to the left of the thalweg).
    The “mainstream media” – NYT, WaPo, LA times, CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS – NPR, WSJ – are supposed to be unbiased, though. Right?

  4. Uncle Al says:

    Go Forth, Agents of Goldstein
    (Yellow Rose of Texas)

    My mother spied upon the State,
    My father did so too.
    The were just like the Rosenbergs
    Though they appeared true blue.
    My sister spies upon the State,
    And husband and their kids,
    We’ve got to get those camps in gear
    And fill them with our Yids.

    My neighbors spy upon the State,
    My grocer does it too.
    Kids in school and teachers spy,
    And priests to name a few.
    Drivers on the freeways spy,
    And drivers on the streets,
    And those who wait for buses,
    And those who walk on cleats.

    Republicans spy on the State,
    The Democrats do too.
    Socialists and fascists spy,
    The Greens know what to do.
    Congress spies upon the State,
    The courts and cops with hate.
    We must kill them all tomorrow
    Lest we quickly lose our State.

  5. Joshua says:

    OK. Let’s go back to Keith’s question:

    Are there parallel examples in the science and society realm, where certain assumptions are difficult to challenge because they are reinforced by mainstream media?

    Your response was quote part of the question and then provide a list – presumably in direct response to the question. Let’s take an example from your list. Let’s say “profit = bad.”

    So the gist of your argument is that groupthink in the media causes it to be “difficult to challenge” the notion that “profit = bad.” In other words, that someone might be considered “dangerous” or accused of being a traitor if they argue that profit equals good, to the extent that in the “mainstream media” you might see widespread evidence of journalists being too intimidated to argue that “profit = good.”

    But on the contrary, I would guess that on a daily basis, Fox News, or Rush, or the NYT, or even MSNBC would be presenting an argument to the public that profit = good, even if it is challenged or qualified in some of those media sources.

    In other words, your argument fails.

    I get it that you think that anyone who disagrees with you is “biased” (funny coincidence, isn’t it, that only those who disagree with you are biased?). As silly as it is, you’re entitled to that amusing line of thinking. But in light of the question Keith asked, your hand-wringing about a non-existent intimidation in the “mainstream media” that, for example, prevents people from arguing that profit = good, amounts to fear-mongering about fear-mongering.

  6. JH says:

    bla bla bla

  7. Joshua says:

    Very convincing argument.

  8. Buddy199 says:

    “…where certain assumptions are difficult to challenge because they are reinforced by the mainstream media?”

    Let’s see…Gay marriage?

    Probably the clearest example of the mainstrean news / opinion / entertainment media completely monopolizing a topic in an attempt to deliberately sway popular opinion while deligitimizing and stifling any possible dissenting views (which were even publically held by Barack Obama throughout the majority of his political career).

    Then there’s the 2008 campaign to apotheosize Barack Obama. Which has been followed by the 2014 Obama can’t tie his own shoelaces meme.

    Global warming is perhaps hyped a bit much?

    The Palestinians are their own worst enemies, and never learn?

    But this is nothing new. As Lyndon Johnson observed, “The press are like a bunch of birds on a telephone wire. One flies on, they all fly on. One flies off, they all fly off.”

  9. Joshua says:

    => “However you feel about it one way or another, this is without a doubt the clearest example of the dominant left of center news-opinion-entertainment industry completely monopolizing and circumscribing a cultural conversation in order to deliberately sway public opinion, while delegitimizing and stifling any and all dissenting views (which were even publically held by Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton throughout the majority of his political careers).”

    I love how “conservatives” – despite the existence of Fox News, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Laura Ingraham, Dennis Miller, etc. – never tire of playing the victim card.

    “The mainstream media” reflects changing public values on gay marriage. I realize that “conservatives” like to believe that the populace are cowed sheeple, manipulated by the big bad boogeyman librul media whenever the public comes to support views “conservatives” aren’t in agreement with. But the reliance on simply willfully not seeing the influence of the rightwing arm of “the mainstream media” is one of the best examples of motivated reasoning out there.

    Of course “conservatives” are not alone in that pattern. “libruls” are also prone to blaming bias from “the media” to explain political developments they don’t like. Blaming “the media” is one of the most obvious signs of the self-victimization that accompanies cultural cognition.

  10. Joshua says:

    This is also quite lovely.

    First we have this:

    ==> ” there is quite a bit of diversity of opinion across the media political spectrum…”

    And then we have this…

    ==> ” this is without a doubt the clearest example of the dominant left of center news-opinion-entertainment industry completely monopolizing and circumscribing a cultural conversation in order to deliberately sway public opinion, while delegitimizing and stifling any and all dissenting views”

    Can you say cognitive dissonance?

  11. JH says:

    Palin? 🙂 Perhaps with good reason. Had a great howl reading about the recent family brawl. I can just see the Palins hanging with Julian and Bubbles. The family estate populated by double-wides. Great characters to be sure, but national leadership? I shudder at the thought.

  12. Buddy199 says:

    The point being that buffoonery is either attacked or gently tolerated depending on whether the buffoon is to the media’s ideological liking.

  13. Buddy199 says:

    Well…uh…when we’re talking about two entirely different examples. National security does feature a wide range of opinion across all ideological stripes of the media, gay marriage definitely a more narrow range. Kind of self evident really.

  14. Joshua says:

    So you’re saying that Rush or Sean or Bill or Glenn or Laura or Dennis are intimidated to express their opinions on gay marriage?

    I see. So, really, they feel that it will bring about the end of the world, but they’re afraid to express that opinion. They only feel comfortable expressing their opinion, say that Obama is helping the terrorists, when it comes to national security issues.

    Yes, indeed, if there is a lack of diversity in opinions expressed across the media spectrum on issues like gay marriage, it isn’t because fewer and fewer dead-enders are clinging to the view that gays should be discriminated against. NO! That can’t be it! I

    It must be that “conservatives” are victims.

  15. Joshua says:

    There we go again.

    “The media.”

    The media = “conservatives” are a victim and rightwing media doesn’t exist*

    *except when “conservatives” want to cite viewership numbers for “The O’Reilly Factor.”

  16. Buddy199 says:

    By left of center mainstream media I refer to the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, three major networks and Hollywood / entertainment industry primarily. There is a dominant ideological viewpoint among those entities, and it sure isn’t conservative, or even in line with majority public opinion in the U.S. on a great many issues. That’s not paranoia or victimhood, it’s just a reality that most people do recognize. Nothing for you to get defensive about.

    The conservative media was born as a reaction to that ideological viewpoint, which 50% of the country didn’t identify with and then flocked to an alternative once it was presented to them. I don’t think these observations are fringe or conspiratorial, even most liberals would agree.

    As far as gay marriage, my point was neither pro or anti, but that the left of center news / entertainment media which dominate our culture far more than the conservative didn’t follow public opinion which somehow dramatically changed recently; public opinion was changed by a monolithic recasting and promotion of the issue.

  17. Nom de Plume says:

    As with most of life, things are more complicated than they seem. We admire people like Snowden, yet they find themselves both in violation of the law and of contracts they signed on employment. Even the Quakers who ran the Underground Railroad knew they were involved in civil disobedience that would bring about prosecution if they were caught.

    More troubling is when government infringes on laws designed to protect whistleblowers; more troubling still are efforts to squelch dissent. Yet not sixty years after Benjamin Franklin penned “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety,” his grandson was jailed for violating the Alien and Sedition Acts. Fear has always greased the way of political expediency.

    In this instance, I think Risen is pointing out that, on the whole, there is no general outcry of the changes that have taken place in America since 9/11, not from CNN, or MSNBC, or Fox News, or the major networks. This almost uniform silence constitutes the group think of the moment.

    Is science influenced by Mainstream Media group think? Beyond seeking grants? Umm . . . maybe, unless we extend the term MSM to the journals. Then we are confronted with a different sort of group think, from existing cliques with entrenched self interests, such as Priesley’s steadfast devotion to the phlogiston theory, or opposition to awarding the Longitude Prize to Harrison, to perhaps String Theory. Science is no different than any other human endeavor.

  18. JH says:

    OK, I’ll grant you that.

    And the Koch Bros are the root of evil but Steyer and Cameron and Eric Schmidt and Warren Buffet and all the other leftish types throwing their money around are just being good citizens, right?

  19. JH says:

    Well, jeez, there you go! There’s a guy on Fox who’s conservative! The media is totally balanced!

    And CNN even has a conservative on sometimes! And NPR has David Brooks!

    So there’s Fox AND two other conservatives on the media!

    Stop complaining you stupid conservatives!

  20. JH says:


  21. Joshua says:

    Actually, in contrast to JH’s and Buddy’s amusing hand-wringing about being victimized by the big bad left-wing media…

    Here’s a story that might actually align with Keith’s question:

  22. Bill C says:

    good one

  23. Metalhead Nick says:

    Not really assumptions, but women’s issues, domestic violence, rape etc. is still largely unreported or ignored. I forget the circumstances but a journalist from the NTY once told my wife that covering these things can be journalistic suicide…and the mainstream media mostly reinforces gender stereotypes etc. There is a lot to be said about this that said I’m probably not the best spokesman.

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