INTRODUCTION: Journalism and the Open Society
In contemporary US, and in most countries, the media presents itself as a sentinel of the ‘public interest’. This implies that ‘public interest’ is universally encompassing and equally distributed in its benefits for all classes. The implication is that there is no difference for a pauper than a billionaire when it comes to the media reporting on fiscal policy, health care, minimum wage, or corporate welfare vs. social welfare. When delivering news, analysis, and opinion, the media operates under the self-ascribed assumption that it works in the name of the nebulous ‘public interest’, deliberately sidelining the reality of a class-based structure and an institutional system rooted in elitism and inequality.
In this brief essay, I examine the degree to which the media as a guardian and promoter of the status quo hinders the broader public interest in favor of the elites. Although this ought to be self evident because the very rich own media corporations, it is far from the case. The media’s self-ascribed role as the ‘Fourth Estate’, guardian of truth and public welfare, presents the image of neutrality. This essay examines whether the media undermines social justice in its incessant effort to sustain the bourgeois social order and institutional structure of which it is an integral part. In this respect, the media’s goal the question is whether the media attempts to inform and educate or create robo-citizens and keep them in a zombie-like state.
Some believe that the media is a catalyst to freedom and democracy as it claims. Others claim it reflects a system of authoritarianism operating under the cloak of freedom and democracy invariably equated with consumerism. Is the media the catalyst to social progress or sociopolitical conformity? Do corporate media organizations protect the ‘public interest’, as they likes audience/readers/listeners to believe, or is their goal maintain the hierarchical social order by manufacturing consent and forging consensus among a broad spectrum of the population? (Edward S. Herman, (Noam Chmosky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy and the Mass Media, 1988.)
In the age of universal education and technology that permits users to access all kinds of information instantly from around the world, molding public opinion is seemingly more difficult than it was in the pre-internet era. It is especially challenging in the political domain because a segment of the population rejects the idea that it has a choice in electing public officials who have been pre-selected by the party apparatus and financed by the wealthy with the finalists presented to the public for their approval. Similarly, it is becoming challenging for the corporate media to mold public opinion that individuals lacking in good character traits are to blame for structural problems in society not the system rooted in absence of social justice.
While there are difficult challenges for the corporate media, which is also interested in turning a profit by presenting the news and analysis it chooses to publish both entertaining and substantive, sensational and empirical, there is no doubt that even people who are very skeptical of the media’s role in society are profoundly influenced by it. In fact, despite the emergence of social media representing many voices from around the world, the mainstream media rapidly intertwined with social media remains dominant in shaping peoples’ world-view. This is because of its vast access and because it accords itself a sense of legitimacy that small social media lacks especially considering its ‘unfiltered nature’.
Corporate media journalists would have the robo-citizens, which they are helping to manufacture, believe that the process of reporting and analysis is carried out by ‘objective’ reporters and analysts who transcend their contemporary setting and are somehow above earthly affairs. On 8 August 2016, the New York Times published an article entitled “Trump is Testing the Norms of Objectivity in Journalism”, an article that clearly accepts as reality ‘objectivity in journalism’. This is the same newspaper that has a long history of biased reporting and analysis in every area from foreign affairs to domestic politics. The paper was openly biased against Senator Bernie Sanders and always favored Hillary Clinton with reports intended to mold public opinion; yet, it considers itself ‘objective’. Claiming that there is such a thing as journalistic objectivity not just by the New York Times but all corporate media organizations is essential to maintain a sense of legitimacy and authority in the domain of serving the public interest. lhttp://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/08/business/balance-fairness-and-a-proudly-provocative-presidential-candidate.html?_r=0
A couple of years after 9/11, an Argentine colleague mentioned to me that a journalist from the university where he was teaching in Buenos Aires attended an international conference on journalism. An American journalist making a presentation insisted that American journalism rested on the foundations of objectivity. The irony was that conference was underwritten by corporate sponsors, including think tanks with a very clear ideological and political orientation and corporate-owned media organizations where reporting and analysis must always fall within the prescribed corporate ideological and sociopolitical perimeters. Despite this reality evident to any journalism undergraduate of a journalism school usually named after a corporation or a millionaire donor, mainstream journalists and analysts insist on presenting themselves and their profession as ‘objective’; this even as they find themselves in a self-censorship mode because they know there is no other way to keep their job.
One reason for the claim to objectivity is that many countries have tightly controlled media, while newspapers and media outlets in many countries are linked to political parties. The assumption that corporate media is not state or party affiliated affords journalists and media organizations the illusion that they are indeed ‘objective’. This implies that they are no different than nuclear physicists conducting research and writing for scholarly peer reviewed journals. Needless to point out, humanities and social science under whose domain journalism rests is not physical science. There is a methodological difference as well as differences in the objectives and goals between the scientific endeavors of a geneticist and a journalist.
Presumably, all journalists have a sense of the profession’s methodology and history as well as how the profession is practiced in other countries despite the homogenized nature of the field in the age of corporate media consolidation. Of course, historically, bourgeois liberals have accorded themselves the privilege of ideological objectivity to distance themselves from both leftists and rightists. The temptation to make subjective reality into an objective science governed by natural laws of the physical universe is a never ending quest of the corporate media precisely because it serves narrow class interests rather than the illusory ‘public interest’. A central reason that the corporate media insists on projecting the image of a field as objective as astrophysics is that its goal is mass ideological, political, social, cultural conformity; creating and maintaining robo-citizens, rather than the quest to overthrow the unjust institutional structure.
Just as the church in Western Christendom, the Byzantium and Islamic Middle East once represented themselves as the infallible representatives of God’s Truth in all domains of life, in our contemporary world the media accords to itself a similar lofty role to maintain credibility by its very structure. Of course, there are many more dissenting voices in our time in comparison to Medieval Europe, Byzantium and the Middle East when the vast majority of the population remained docile and superstitious. However, like the church was an institution helping to preserve the status quo by engendering conformity among the faithful, the media has assumed such a role in our secular pluralistic world.
A History Synopsis of the Press and in Bourgeois Society
Coinciding with the rise of nation states during the nascent stage of capitalism in the 16th century, the advent of the printing press accounted for the first newspapers in Europe. As early as 1400 European merchants printed stories about business conditions, while governments issued news bulletins around the beginning of the 17th century. Although News Letters and gazettes existed in the 17th century sporadically, England’s Daily Courant was the first daily paper in 1702 with limited circulation considering the very low number of literate individuals.
The first Industrial Revolution in England, which coincided with the Age of Reason (Enlightenment) centered in 18th century France, laid the foundations for universal education to prepare people for the changing workforce. The foundations of journalism as we know it were established in that transitional period as much for Europe as for America. Because Western journalism has its ideological foundations in the Age of Reason when the bourgeois value system replaced that of the church identified with the landowning nobility since the era of Frankish Emperor Charlemagne, it is hardly an enigma that journalism mirrors the bourgeois social order and institutions that also have their origins in the 18th century. The ideological foundations of journalism rest in the pluralism of the Enlightenment that coincided with the American and French revolutions thrusting the bourgeois elites into the forefront of society.
The socioeconomic hegemony of the bourgeoisie by the 19th century throughout the Western World, in European colonies, and spheres of influences around the world entailed that the bourgeois model of journalism would become prevalent and remain so until this day. Part of journalism’s role was to publicize ‘bourgeois democracy’ as the ‘natural’ system of government best suited for the ‘natural’ economic system of capitalism; a theme on which that Adam Smith dwelled in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes Wealth of the Nations (1776). A theme of the Enlightenment, it was widely accepted that man is able to apply the laws of nature to society and create a more rational institutional structure that would better serve mankind. However, Enlightenment thinkers reflected the rise of the bourgeoisie who believed the old aristocratic social order was anachronistic. The goal was to replace the old elites in society with the bourgeoisie that reflected far reaching and rapid changes in the evolving capitalist economy and claimed to embody the welfare of all people.
Bourgeois journalism necessarily promoted the distinct awareness in the public debate of the private sector (merchant capitalists, industrialists, bankers and landowners) vs. public sector realm with the former fighting to mold public policy that would further strengthen capitalist interests. In 1962, Jurgen Habemas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere described the development of how bourgeois society evolved during the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries and how the increasing role of the public sphere entailed the weaving of ideological, political, cultural and socioeconomic developments inculcated into the public dialogue.
Amid increasing public awareness of the private sector-public sector dichotomy, which journalism helped to promote, public opinion became an integral part of the bourgeois political landscape. By the second half of the 19th century with the vast expansion of the middle class in Western countries, especially the US, capitalists and politicians, academics and journalists began to take more seriously the citizen as a consumer. Considering the expansion of the educated lower middle class developing self-conscious as a political force, this meant that journalists had the task of presenting the bourgeois political economy as all-inclusive and participatory. Therein rested the challenge of apologists who needed to explain the contradictions of a system rooted in inequality as democratic or equal merely because it afforded ‘the opportunity’ to all for upward social mobility.
Hardly was an issue before the French Revolution, public opinion redefined the concept of the ‘national interest’, identifying it with ‘the people’, presumably all people – all people outside the realm of aristocratic privilege, as the Abbe Sieyes argued in “What is the Third Estate?” In reality, the political economy marginalized not just the working class, but women, immigrants and minorities, while insisting on embodying the ‘public interest’.
Dichotomous thinking about state power versus civil society, which theoretically represents all people but in fact the elites, was imbedded in liberal bourgeois thought since the early 19th century. This remains prevalent in our times even more so than in the past. Journalism has always reflected this dichotomous thinking, and as an integral part of the bourgeois institutional structure. Never questioning its own ideological assumptions, journalism cannot engage in self-criticism beyond the confines of its ideological assumptions, as the hypocritical New York Times claim of objectivity illustrates. Instead, it accepts as gospel truth its ideological assumptions and self-righteous and self-anointed role as public interest sentinel.
Nationalism and patriotism have been catalytic for journalism in molding robo-citizens and defending the status quo. Wars from the Napoleonic era down to the regional conflicts of the early 21st century only strengthen the fervor of nationalism as a secular religion considering individual identity with the nation-state. Across Europe and the US since American War of Independence, nationalism has been the opium of the people, largely because journalism helps to promote it as such. The political and socioeconomic elites use war to rally support around the flag despite the fact that military policies serve the very narrow interests of defense-related industries, banks and business sectors linked to defense. Rarely questioning the elites they serve, journalists enthusiastically fall in line operating under the illusion that they are serving the public.
As Habermas argued, the public sphere’ which journalism proclaims to represent and reflect is an imaginary community. More significant, there are inherent contradictions in the liberal-bourgeois constructs of journalism’s assertions as the political economy is in a constant state of evolution. Mass politics and consumerism capitalism by the turn of the 20th century obviated the bourgeois public sphere that was a reality when Alexis de Tocqueville was writing Democracy in America in the 1830s. The challenge for bourgeois journalism is how to project the image – the illusion – of the elitist bourgeois social order as representative of all of society in the age of mass politics. Right-wing populism made famous in the mid-19th century in Western Europe was one answer to the puzzle, though by no means the only one.
With the creation of trade unions and working-class based political parties, class consciousness became more ubiquitous, realizing that corporate journalism did not embody working class interests. Anti-establishment journalism representing workers was inevitable. However, government and business adamantly fought against it because it challenged the orthodoxy of mainstream journalism’s legitimacy as representative of the social contract and public interest. At the same time that moguls like William Randolph Hearst. Joseph Pulitzer, and Lincoln Steffens dominated the mainstream press, dissenting voices such as Upton Sinclair, Ray Stannard Baker, and John Reed presented the world from the viewpoint of the masses rather than elites at the turn of the 20th century.
The age of mass politics forced mainstream journalism to adopt ‘reformist’ positions in order to avoid revolutionary solutions that some among the leftist intelligentsia and radical trade unions demanded. By the 1930s when the social welfare state became a necessary means to preserve the bourgeois social order and the Axis Powers were posing a serious threat to Western bourgeois democracy, journalism once again had the challenge of reflecting on the contradictions of its methodology and claims as an objective mechanism of information in society.
Historically, bourgeois journalism defended the social order and economic system that the state served, while castigating politicians as the enemy. This strategy by mainstream journalism diverted focus from capitalism as the root cause of social problems, placing blame on politicians, although politicians served capitalist interests. This was as much in the Great Depression as after WWII. Once the social welfare era of the New Deal ended with Truman launching a Cold War, the corporate media reflected the new political reality with the goal of engendering mass conformity to the regime of anti-communism and loyalty to the capitalist system and bourgeois society at home and around the world.
Reporting, news analysis, and editorial opinions centered on ‘the present danger’ of Communism at home and world-wide, while subordinating civil rights, human rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights or any issue pertaining to social justice. Journalists never questioned the assumptions of the Cold War. They did not even question allegations made by Senator Joseph McCarthy against citizens accused of Communist sympathizing, and they never bothered to investigate if those allegations and list of names existed. If they wanted a job, they needed to worship at the same temple as the state and corporations. The same type of journalistic practice prevailed during the George W. Bush administration that declared war on Iraq based on fake claims of weapons of mass destruction.
The global anti-Communist crusade during the Cold War and counter-terrorism crusade in the early 21st century were convenient excuses to engender conformity in a society that set aside democratic principles and practices, including First Amendment rights. Silencing dissent of any kind that questioned anything from the corporate world to the defense establishment has been the norm. Amid such propagandistic quest by mainstream journalism, the challenge for journalism has been to present its goal as defending the public interest, freedom and democratic principles, while in essence the goal was to suppress all they claimed to defend.
Because dissent was thoroughly crushed by the state in very subtle ways, the corporate media’s task has not been as daunting as it may appear. After all, every institution from churches to schools works toward the same goal of helping to create robo-citizens whose identity and values rest in a consumerist culture. Public opinion matters only within the narrow perimeters of the corporate neoliberal ideology. The result has been creating ‘robo-citizens’ ‘zombified’ because journalism is reduced to propaganda and an extension of government and business public relations departments. (Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (1962) and Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964)
Because journalism is necessarily reduced to propaganda and conformity to the bourgeois social order necessitates it, the blurring lines between advertising and news become so evident that they are hardly distinguishable. Adding to this framework the advent of tabloid journalism that exploded since the 1980s, we have a cult of the rich and famous media focused on the personal lives of the elites and celebrities rather than reporting and analyzing problems in the lives of the average citizen.
This does not mean that there has not been popular reaction to the corporate media’s incessant endeavors to manufacture robo-citizens. The evolution of American society in the 1950s and 1960s toward a civil rights and anti-war mode by large segments of the American middle class forced yet another shift in public policy. Forging bourgeois consensus that entailed the media’s goal was to help bring along the robo-citizens became necessary to maintain public confidence in the social order and political economy. Toward that goal, the media helped to drive across to the American public that consumerism was equated with democracy.
As Herbert Marcuse argues, consumerism as a form of social control is at the core of the corporate media that molds the perception of freedom; equating subjugation with freedom, as long as one has the ability to purchase it in the form of consumer goods. In short, the media constantly projects the bourgeois materialist value system as universal that must be embraced by all people; something that resembles more a Fascist corporatist goal than a democratic one. The media defines the illusory public sphere within the consumerist confines and all programing on TV from news broadcasts to situation comedies presented from such a prism to reinforce the value system.
Since the Civil Rights movement, which addressed legal issues for minorities and women, society has shifted more theoretically than in practice to reflect that class transcends gender and race. To make sure that the masses are convinced there is indeed equality and social justice, the ubiquitous drug of political correctness emerged to provide the cloak of democracy. No institution has been better in delivering the political correctness pill to the masses than the corporate media.
Beneath the thin veil of political correctness rest the ugly realities of institutional racism as we have seen with the treatment of minorities by the criminal justice system and police killings of black youth; sexism as statistics regarding wage inequalities and job promotion; xenophobia and Islamophobia that is in fact openly celebrated within the Republican Party and covertly practiced by liberals hiding behind political correctness. Political correctness has become a substitute for social justice and even those castigating it realize its usefulness to protect the image of the pluralistic society. As long as one speaks/writes politically correct words, what’s the point of addressing deep-seated institutional racism, sexism and xenophobia through public policy?
Political correctness along with consumerist values have resulted in more conforming robo-citizens in the age of the internet that theoretically permits greater pluralism. Subjugated by consumerism and technology that become substitutes for human freedom and creativity, the one-dimensional human more readily accepts political correctness only as long as the political economy is perceived to offer the faint hope of realizing the American Dream. People are eager to be robo-citizens because they know that is the way to survive in the workplace and in society demanding conformity.
But what if hope to realize the American Dream becomes distant, as it did by 2016 amid the presidential race, no matter how conforming the robo-citizen has become? A large segment of the population turns either to right wing populist solutions that borders on neo-Fascism, or a more left-oriented one that resembles a New Deal society that FDR built in the 1930s to save capitalism from self-inflicted wounds. In such scenarios, the corporate media is faced with contradictions in the political economy so glaring that it has no choice but to strip away the mask of objectivity, especially as it must weigh in its own financial and strategic interests. (Justin Lewis, Beyond Consumer Capitalism: Media and the Limits of Imagination, 2013)
1) Does Journalism Solely Advance a Political and Corporate Agenda?
From the early 1980s until the present, there have been a number of bestselling books arguing that the media is ‘left-leaning’. Upon a closer examination of the term ‘left’, one discovers that critics are referring to a liberal ideology with a multicultural slant that reflects a pluralistic society, deliberately stigmatizing it for advocating ‘big government’. In other words, left for rightwing critics means any favorable of issues that many in the Democratic Party espouse, ranging from abortion, to racial profiling by police, women’s right to equal wages, gay rights and other lifestyle issues, from a fairer tax system and an environment policy based on science not profit.
Needless to point out, the ‘left-leaning’ media that the extreme right wingers so label does not address social justice issues, income inequality, mass illegal surveillance of citizens, human rights abuses, war crimes the US commits against innocent civilians as recorded by international human rights organizations. In fact, anyone covering Keynesian economics favorably would be a Communist, although Keynesianism was the salvation of capitalism in the 1930s.
The result of right wing criticism against the ‘left-leaning’ media has meant the increasing right wing orientation of all media to the degree that political and business consensus is a universally shared goal by the corporate-owned media. This is regardless of whether journalists favor Republican or Democrat candidates whose goal is after all to carve policy intended to strengthen the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the dwindling middle class and workers. After all, the media is a business and it relies on ad revenue sources for its survival. Journalists know they cannot pursue a career unless they fall in line with the corporate ideological and political position of the corporate media mogul employer.
The media cannot offend its corporate sponsor by covering a labor strike from the perspective of labor, or covering equal pay for equal work from the perspective of immigrants, blacks and women. At most, the media will mention such grievances but always tilt reporting to favor business in the name of ‘jobs creation’, even if that means the employers are paying below poverty level wages, oppose unionization, collective bargaining, worker benefits, health and safety. Pro-business reporting is invariably backed by politicians siding with business. Therefore, the political establishment lends to media a sense of legitimacy, while dismissing the grievances of workers, women and minorities as contrary to the economic national interest.
The multi-billion dollar corruption scandals involving big banks and investment firms such as Wells-Fargo and Goldman Sachs are news-worthy only in-so far as Justice Department fines are causing stock market instability rather than reflecting systemic corruption symptomatic of capitalism. Popular protests against police killings of unarmed black youth, which protests may cause several hundred of several thousand dollars damage to property, are newsworthy as indicative of a segment of society that breaks the law. In short, the media treats the hundreds of billions defrauded by Wall Street investment firms as part of doing business and refuses to condemn it as a major crime against society. Wells Fargo CEO retired under pressure because of his bank’s corrupt practices, instead of going to prison. At the same time that the media reports this as normal business practice, it has no problem denouncing as criminals popular protesters against police racist violence. Such reporting by the media is a very clear reflection of the corporate agenda with political undertones.
Although some have argued that former General Electric CEO Jack Welch was the first to introduce the concept of corporate agenda through NBC network, this practice is as old as TV that always relied on corporate sponsors and government in order to survive and thrive. The combined pressure on journalists from both their corporate employers and government simply prevents any kind of reporting and analysis that deviates from prescribed perimeters. The trick is to appear genuinely critical when in fact the goal must remain to eulogize the status quo. Mostly through the use of populist rhetoric, journalists are able to accomplish as much while in essence remaining faithful to the corporate goals and political objectives of the employer.
In theory, the First Amendment guaranteed free speech as much in the 19th century as in the early 21st century. However, in practice corporate journalism practices what the political and business climate wants both in domestic and foreign affairs. In case reporters deviate, both government and corporations have all the leverage at their disposal to remove them. For example, in extreme cases ever since the Espionage Act of 1917, which was intended against enemies and traitors, government has given itself the right to go after journalists. Ironically, the ‘liberal’ Obama administration has used the Espionage Act more liberally to make sure there is conformity to US policy in all matters from illegal surveillance to overt and covert military and intelligence operations. At the same time, journalists are often subject to covert surveillance just in case they try to circumvent official positions of corporate media and government.
2) Do Media Networks Gain Politically or Financially by Supporting either Candidate?
The obvious media favoritism to Clinton and opposition to Trump stems not just from the financial gain that Wall Street envisions under her pro-business administration, but also from Trump’s neo-isolationist rhetoric that would have the US abandon its traditional role as the world’s policeman. The combination of Trump’s economic nationalism that US multinationals detest, his pro-Russia overtures and protectionist tilt directed at Mexico and China where US corporations have substantial investments made him unacceptable for most corporations.
It is hardly a secret that from George Washington to the present there have always been capitalists behind politicians pushing their agendas. Both Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt had corporations that backed them and others that adamantly opposed them. The press simply reflects the division in political support among the elites that agree on the merits of capitalism but disagree on how capitalism must operate and under what political system. The problem comes when the media organizations fail to disclose conflicts of interest, campaign contributions, or other entanglements between the corporate media and government or political parties.
Absence of full disclosure and transparency regarding financial interest and/or influence by media organizations has always been an issue when it comes to the relationship between media and political parties. Political analysts are invariably paid by the corporate network, think tank, government or business. Lobbyists, political consulting firms and certain corporations have political affiliations with either or both parties. It is no secret that a number of billionaires, including the Koch Brothers, are contributors to right wing politicians and causes. Others, like Warren Buffet and George Soros have sided with the Democrat Party. In other words, billionaires are not of one mind about how capitalism ought to function, any more than they are of one mind about how government ought to function.
The socioeconomic elites have no illusions that the state exists not as an arbiter for all social classes equally and fairly, but to maintain the social order. Nevertheless, there are ideological and political divisions among the elites that invariably link themselves to one or the other party while at the same time trying to influence party platform. For example, the Democrat Party of the Clintons and Obama operating under a neoliberal economic agenda hardly resembles that of FDR in the 1930s. Wall Street in collaboration with the entrenched leadership within the Democrat party made sure that it turned toward a rightist course from Truman to the present. Similarly, the Republican Party of Donald Trump has no resemblance to that of Eisenhower largely because the Republican elites moved farther to the right ideologically to the degree that they are not far off a European neo-Fascist party. The media mirrors these shifts accordingly, as it is an integral part of the socioeconomic elites that own it and support it through advertising.
A disturbing trend of course is rapid media consolidation permitting fewer voices of expression while continuing to perpetuate the illusion of choice. In 1983, fifty companies owned 90% of US media, whereas in 2016 six companies owned 90% of the media. The media corporate giants are GE, Viacom, Disney, CBS, Time Warner, and News-Corp. In 2010 media revenue was about $275 billion. Whereas in 1995 it was illegal by FCC rules for any company to own more than 40 radio stations, in 2016 Clear Channel (iHeartCommunications) owns more than 1200 stations. It is an enigma that anyone can claim that this kind of media concentration is reflective of all people and the ‘public interest’.
Tax policy is one area where government has leverage over the media and is able to use it. It is no secret that the Bush administration used the tax leverage with the media to secure more favorable coverage of its militarist foreign policy toward Iraq where it claimed there were weapons of mass destruction and an enclave of terrorism posing a threat to the Western World and Israel. VIACOM, parent company of CBS, caved to administration pressure because it had a financial and political incentive at a time that all other media had fallen in line. This does not mean that the sole incentive of the media is a financial one, although it is an important one because at the end of the day the media exists to make a profit while struggling to keep the citizenry docile and in conformity mode to the institutional structure.
3) Is There Fairness in Media?
As we have seen already by briefly examining the history of bourgeois journalism, there has never been ‘fairness’ in media because that implies it is a scientific endeavor rather than a political one and it represents all classes rather than the capitalists. Naturally, there are journalists who verify stories better than others for accuracy and try to present more than just one viewpoint. However, in cases where there is even be an attempt to condemn the capitalist system and the political structure under which it operates the journalist will be out of work.
This does not mean that is all cases there ought to be two sides of the story. For example, should journalists writing about the Third Reich’s “Jewish Question” have been presenting the pro-Nazi position as morally equivalent to that of the Holocaust victims? Should journalists writing about the Ku Klux Klan’s lynching activities have been presenting the story from the perspective of the black victims as well as their executioners justifying their activities? Clearly, this is where the question of values, morality and journalistic principles enters into the picture. The editorial policy embraces a set of values and principles based on its ideological and political position, thus the stories presented to the public are ipso facto a perspective reflecting editorial policy.
Even media watchdog groups are as biased if not more than the media. For example, the conservative Accuracy in Media (AIM) organization insists that the media has a liberal bias. Considering the funding historically comes from large corporations such as oil companies, it comes as no surprise that AIM adamantly opposes Democrats with an environmental and socially progressive agenda, blaming the Black Lives Matter movement rather than analyzing how the media covers the police favorably and how unfavorably it portrays minorities. The liberal Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) claims that there is a conservative bias in news reporting and analysis.
If we go beyond the US and look at the media around the world, it is eye-opening how the exact same story, let us say the war in Afghanistan or the inner city police shootings of black youth are reported so strikingly different. The American audience relying on the mainstream media is left with a completely different impression than its counterparts around the world, although the headline news stories are on the same subject.
What is not reported at all, or reported but glossed over or sensationalized is just as important as what is covered in depth. Editorial decisions are made on the basis of a set of criteria that have nothing to do with ethics rooted in the welfare of the public, but rather the profit motive, serving a political and business agenda. Media reporting on foreign affairs, economy, social issues and culture are all focused on the corporate/national security model and always to the deliberate exclusion of social justice at home and human rights abroad.
The most recent example of manipulation rather than fairness is media involves the Trump sex tapes and Clinton emails. On 7 October 2016, the Trump sex tape revelations coincided with a US announcement formally accusing Moscow of hacking in US computers, namely of the Democrat Party, to steal information and make it available through WIKILEAKS. The government and the Clinton campaign focused on the hacking of John Podesta’s computer by Moscow but never denied the substance of the contents in the emails that are indeed proof that Clinton is beholden to Wall Street.
The US government and media would have a great deal more credibility on this issue if they could present the evidence that Russia was indeed behind the computer hacking, but also if the US did not have a history since the Spanish-American War of overthrowing governments or interfering in the free elections of other countries. Just as the US was accusing Russia of interfering in the US election, Washington is actively trying to overthrow Assad and refuses to permit elections even if Assad agrees to step down as long as he or anyone linked to him is a candidate. Perhaps the hypocrisy here is lost on the public because no media organization would dare ask by what moral authority is the US condemning another country of interfering in its elections when it has been doing the same thing in Russia and around the world for more than century.
It is true that Russia prefers Trump who wants cordial relations with Moscow, whereas Clinton will definitely continue the policy of containment and confrontation. Although Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the idea, even if true, does it invalidate the reality of the candidate’s campaign promises to the public versus her promises to contributors? The issue for the pro-Clinton media is not that she privately opposed the $15-dollar federally-mandated minimum wage because it would be an anathema to her corporate campaign contributors but that Russia was behind the leaks. Does the process of delivery invalidate the content and exonerate Clinton and her staff? These are issues on which the media is divided depending on which candidate they favor.
In manufacturing consent, the media manufactures robo-voters who follow the vast political machines of the two parties stretching from the local level to the highest office. The robo-voter operates within the confines of the existing political system, never questioning the system that she/he deems as natural as the change of seasons. The key to the success of molding robo-voters is for the media to project the illusion of freedom of choice. So entrenched is this illusion of choice in the American institutional structure that during the Cold War the CIA encouraged a two party system in a number of countries around the world, as long as both parties operated within the confines of the capitalist economy and accepted economic integration with the West.
This is not to suggest that there are no differences or disagreements about specific policies, political parties and individual personalities on which media organizations fight over. Conservative media organization FOX News bitterly disagrees with the New York Times ideologically and politically; the former attracting religious and social conservatives and mostly whites, while the latter attracts a more educated readership from the largely urban professional class across racial and ethnic lines. Media demographics play a role and it is evident by the types of advertisements that they attract.
Opposing views are within the context of the two-party system that determines policy because there are billions of dollars at stake in government contracts and subsidies for corporations depending on whether their favorite candidates is elected from the local level all the way to the presidency. Inter-sector competition for political influence has been intense because political parties tend to favor certain sectors over others, something that has been evident through the republic’s history. Naturally, the media reflects this inter-sector competition – non-renewable energy sector industries vs. renewable (solar and wind) energy sector, more regulation on pharmaceutical companies vs. less regulation on agrichemical industries. The task of the media is to convince the public that regulation is bad, although public opinion polls indicate that 56% favor more health insurance regulation, 55% more pharmaceutical regulation, and 48% more energy regulation. It is the media’s job to convince people they are wrong about their own self-interest. http://ehstoday.com/news/ehs_imp_36921
Because the media presents the issues in the context of ‘jobs to be gained or lost’ although the issue is profits for specific sectors from defense to agribusiness, the rob-voter is left with the impression that the politician running for office is either a facilitator or an obstacle to jobs creation while the corporation’s fate rests with government. In fact, the politician’s fate rests with the corporations whose agenda government must advance. While the role of lobbyists is well known in policy making and even drafting entire pieces of legislation, the media will never go so far as to condemn the system that allows for such practices to the detriment of the majority.
4) Is the Media Trustworthy?
Historically, the press can ruin or promote a presidential candidate; drive him to move toward war as was the case with Woodrow Wilson in WWI, or drive him to withdraw reluctantly from conflict as was the case with Nixon during the Vietnam War amid the Watergate scandal. As an instrument of forging popular consensus and keeping a robo-citizenry preoccupied with issues ranging from petty inner city crime to the drug addiction problem, from entertainment news to human interest stories, the media largely defines the agenda for society rather that accurately reflecting it. Because of its role of prioritizing news and deciding what to eulogize and what to condemn, a large segment of the public does not trust it.
Public opinion polls clearly indicate that the level of public trust in the media is very low. Conservatives and extreme right wing elements see the media as an instrument of the liberal establishment that opposes gun control and supports abortion, homosexuality, and open borders. Progressives see the media as a corporate-controlled instrument catering to a political and economic agenda that further strengthens business and political elites whose only goal is to maintain the existing social structure and institutional order to the detriment of the majority. Such dichotomous public perception of the media is not confined to the US but it is a global phenomenon considering that globalization has meant the media transcends national borders.
The people that the media calls upon for commentary and analysis, the people they interview, the way editorial decisions are made to present a story are all elements indicative of what it wishes to project to its audience. For example, a story on US drones killing an innocent families in Afghanistan focuses on the technical flaw of the operation with a military officer arguing that drone warfare is designed to deliver strategic hits at the lowest possible cost while sparing the lives of US soldiers. Dismissed as collateral damage, the victims are not the focus of US media coverage.
However, when a Russian plane hits a civilian target in Syria, there is in-depth coverage of the victims and strong condemnation of Russia’s war crimes vs. the mere accident in which US drones are involved in killing civilians. The American public on the receiving end of such media coverage naturally concludes what the media and government want about these two cases. When one bothers to go into the web for more critical coverage of such issues within the US and around the world it becomes clear that the US corporate media lacks as much credibility as the media in Russia or China. Just as nationalism works in favor of Russian media’s credibility so is the case for the American media. In other words, the robo-citizen’s identity with the nation-state – Russia or US – makes it easier to accept one-sided media versions.
Despite factors working in its favor, the media has an image problem, according to all public opinion polls. According to Gallup, only 32% of the American public trusts the mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly”. This percentage is the lowest since 1972, reflecting a trend that is actually broader across the entire Western World. There are other polling organizations that have the public trust of media in the single digits, but all polling must be taken with some measure of skepticism because the respondents decrying the media’s credibility rely on it for their news and their views are shaped by it.
As younger people receive their news through social media outlets, and the mainstream media is identified with people over thirty, the future looks brighter for social media than for the mainstream that will eventually absorb or have a working relationship with the major social media outlets delivering news. Interestingly, older people express much greater confidence in the media than young people, and Democrats more so than Republicans. http://www.gallup.com/poll/195542/americans-trust-mass-media-sinks-new-low.aspx
5) Is There a Communications War between Mainstream Media and Social media and anti-Gov Organizations?
Social media largely reflects what is already in the corporate media, but it is to an extent grassroots, unfiltered and far more representative of society in its raw form than the mainstream media. Much has been written about how social media is taking over, and statistics indicate that in the US at least it has a dominant role. After all, the market capitalization of the three social media sites amounts to more than $400 billion, making it as powerful as any corporate media organization.
It stands to reason that social media is invariably influenced by the corporate institutional content and reporting/analysis methodology. Moreover, its users rely on the mainstream media for content, though not exclusively. YOUTUBE video of events around the globe have revolutionized the media because it is simply impossible for the BBC, CNN, New York Times or any mainstream media organization to compete with that kind of instant raw news coverage. One might be amazed to discover that 62% of adults rely on social media for their news information. However, it is from the top ten sites that have a massive market capitalization, reflecting the kinf concentration we see in the corporate media. http://www.journalism.org/2016/05/26/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2016/
Of course there is a vast difference between the mega social media sites such as FACEBOOK and TWITTER and smaller ones struggling for an audience in a highly competitive environment. Mainstream media apologists argue therein rests the problem. To increase visits to the site, social media will post just about anything no matter how offensive, how fictitious, how useless to the edification of the public. Small social media have no resources to compete with the corporate media, while the larger social media are slowly evolving into the new mainstream media. Not only does the larger social media follow a corporate business model, but in fact commercializes its users’ information for profit and cooperates with government agencies to track their activities. In this sense, social media could be seen as a tool serving the surveillance state and making a profit in the process.
Social media represents just about every ideological, political, religious, and cultural perspective that exists in the world. In the absence of any quality or any other control filters, social media often provides the raw ideas and sentiments of people who may be strong advocates of a socially just society or one of racial purity based on male hegemony and hierarchy. Invariably, small social media is up against both corporate media that defines the ‘news-worthy’ issues and the manner they are covered, and they ms compete with the large social media outlets that operate profitably and at the same serve as surveillance vehicles on behalf of business and government.
Only large organizations such as TWITTER and FACEBOOK enjoy broad influence, but they are used as much by the elites as the ordinary person. And an anti-government and anti-establishment vehicle, WIKILEAKS has influence in the world of non-traditional media. This is because they secure material that the mainstream media cannot obtain and will never do so in the manner that WIKILEAKS does. Unlike WIKILEAKS, the mainstream media’s mission is to preserve the status quo rather than undermine it with embarrassing leaks. This is not the case with the other large social media organizations that are as conformist to the bourgeois social order and political economy as the mainstream media, but with an “Open Door” policy to dissent.
Media outlets outside the perimeters of the mainstream media have played a role in society, as evidence in grass roots movements like Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street. However, social media already reflects not just grassroots rebel elements, but reactionary ones as well. In fact, there are hate groups, neo-Nazis and just about every element imaginable on social media, a few with very creative and educational content and style, others merely intended to capture the unsuspecting reader’s attention with sensationalism unrivaled by the filtered mainstream media.
In-so far as the mainstream media’s goal is to create robo-citizens and forge bourgeois consensus that serves the elites, it is fairly homogenized in that respect. By contrast, social media is as diverse as the population and its various ideological, political, religious, cultural orientations. In other words, even without the garbage filtered out of social media, it is actually far more representative of society than the elitist corporate or state-owned media. While the large social media organizations are an integral part of Wall Street and as cooperative with US intelligence and national security agencies as the corporate media, the goal is to reflect the pluralistic nature of society rather than to engender sociopolitical conformity as the corporate media aims regardless of liberal or conservative ideological position of the specific news organization.
The top stories on social media fall in the category of ‘human interest’, fashion and lifestyle. In other words, the type of material that the mainstream media covers as well, considering that network morning news is indeed not much different. Not a single one of the top 25 news stories on social media in 2015 dealt with political, economic or social issues, reflecting the tastes of readers. However, this reflects the conditioning of the robo-consumer that the mainstream media has already molded; social media simply represents continuity.
The underlying assumption about social media vs. corporate media is that the former tends to be more liberal than the latter despite open access for just about anything on social media. Just as the New York Times and CNN had a news reporting and analysis bias in favor of the Democrat Party, so do some of the large social media organizations. However, both large social media and mainstream media news organizations are corporate owned and have a stake in the market economy and the two-party system that sustains it. Neither would advocate the overthrow of the social order and institutional structure that accounts for America lacking in social justice, human rights, and a quasi-police state – minorities gunned down merely because of racial profiling and mass secret surveillance of the public as we now know after Snowden and WIKILEAKS.
Just as the radio came along to compete with newspapers and then television, social media has fallen within the bourgeois mold because it is an integral part of an existing system that it did not invent simply because the technology is different than a newspaper. Although mass communications are significant in society, radio and TV were not responsible for social change and neither is social media in our time. Technological innovations have an impact in the delivery of news, but this does not mean anything when it comes to the social order and institutional structure that remains unchanged. The success of social media rests on the existing system as much as it does for the corporate media.
Contrary to the manner that it presents itself, the media is not above the existing political system; not above the existing social order; not above the economic system; not above the cultural milieu as though it is observing events on earth from a giant spaceship without any self-interest in earthly affairs. The media is in fact a reflection of the bourgeois institutional structure and value system and guardian of the status quo. In so far as it serves it and benefits from it, its role is to perpetuate not change or alter it for the sake of creating a more just society. On the contrary, the media is the catalyst to keeping the masses indoctrinated so they remain in conformity robo-citizen mode to the existing social order and political economy.
Because the media is an instrument of preserving the status quo, it is and always has been the vehicle of the political and socioeconomic elites. As society evolves and objective realities in the lives of people have moved beyond the illusions that the media perpetuates about what constitutes a just society, social change will necessarily entail that the media will obviate its own usefulness because it will be a marginalized instrument of the elites exposed as merely that and nothing more. Modern technology will obviously have an impact on how public opinion is molded, but it will be on the margins because we have seen already how new technology is used as part of police state surveillance methods and more thorough commercialization of personal information.
Because of corporate control of media, with government on its side, the class war is now more intense than ever. However, it is not a class war in the traditional Marxian sense where workers are struggling for their rights against capitalists. There is a new type of class war, one launched by corporations with government and media in all its forms on their side against society that they wish to keep subjugated for the sake of greater profits. In this new class war, the army is made up of journalists, analysts, well-paid experts from academia, think tanks, corporations and government all working toward the same goal of strengthening the capital, the defense establishment and edging ever so closer toward a police state.
Jon V. Kofas, Ph.D. – Retired university professor of history – author of ten academic books and two dozens scholarly articles. Specializing in International Political economy, Kofas has taught courses and written on US diplomatic history, and the roles of the World Bank and IMF in the world.