In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. – George Orwell
I published an earlier version of this essay in 2014. Now, as we find ourselves inundated with lies, “alternative facts”, biased “fact checkers” and algorithm-manipulated news reports calculated to confirm our biases – all of which make some of us want to fall back upon familiar, “reliable” voices of traditional media – it seems even more relevant.
It’s easy enough to roll our eyes and make fun of rightwing politicians and their ignorant, racially coded statements, or to tell our friends, Did you see what Trumpus / Hawley / Cruz / McConnell / Greene / Miller / Carlson / Palin / Boebert, etc, said today? In-freaking credible! But it serves no purpose other than to entertain us. Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah and others do this five evenings a week, preaching to their choirs, and they do it better than we can.
It’s much more difficult, but potentially far more important, to identify the intentions of our media gatekeepers. Let’s think in terms of concentric circles.
Fox News, election-deniers, Breitbart and even more extremist, white supremacist bloggers are the outermost concentric circle of gatekeeping, where race-baiting and clownish entertainment masquerade as “news” or “opinion.”
The second, more inner circle is composed of CNN, MSNBC, the large daily newspaper chains and the major broadcast networks. There, manipulation of public opinion occurs in a subtler form. As Noam Chomsky has written,
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.
This is not to say that mainstream media gatekeepers always deliberately lie, although many clearly do. The truth is that the vetting process, just as it does with politicians, produces a population of journalists who consume the same myths about America and its noble intentions that the rest of us do, and they are paid handsomely to repeat them to us. When an exasperated interviewer asked Chomsky if he (Chomsky) thought the man was lying, this was his response:
I don’t say that you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you are sitting.
I also include the vast majority of American historians in this list, from the early 19th century to the present. Those historians – many of them racists and proponents of Eugenics – instructed our schoolteachers, and teachers instruct us. For an overview, read Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James Loewen.
We read American and world history through their – often, quite biased – lenses. Bias can mean emphasizing a conservative view of events. Or it can mean marginalizing alternative interpretations, such as they have done in crafting our national understanding of World War Two, for example, or in their palpable disdain (and jealousy of) Howard Zinn.
I shudder to think that in 200 years (if this culture survives), history students will be reading the likes of Henry Kissinger and Bill O’Reilly, or for that matter, Bill Clinton, to learn about America.
But I digress. Back to mainstream media, a practiced eye can discern three themes:
One: The “news” is merely the invitation to the real product, which is, of course, the commercials.
Two: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Violence – both the threat and the fear of violence, as well as our fascination with make-believe violence – make up the media sea that we swim in. The news reflects America’s unique love-hate relationship to it. As Archetypal psychologist James Hillman wrote, “harmless violence where no one gets hurt breeds innocence…the innocent American is the violent American.
Three: The bizarre mixture of these two themes produces a third one. Since they first attacked the American continent, white people have found themselves on the receiving end of constant, daily messages that they should be very, very worried. From Native Americans to Black men to Mexicans to Asians to Irish and other immigrants to Germans to Russian and Chinese communists to Muslim terrorists to Iranians, and now, back to Russians and Chinese, only the objects of our fears have changed. And at the same time, we learn that everything is all right in our fantasized consumer paradise, that buying stuff cures our worries. This kind of thinking is called “schizogenetic”.
But the innermost – and most insidious – level is composed of the center of opinion, the Ivy-League-educated liberal bastions of reason: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker and the Washington Post. These are precisely the sources that teach us the boundaries of acceptable discourse, outside of which lie the demons of fake news. We need to single out the WAPO in this regard, because it is owned entirely by Jeff Bezos, signatory to a $600 million contract with the Central Intelligence Agency. But allegations of WAPO / CIA collusion go back many decades.
We are grateful to the Washington Post, the New York Times, Time Magazine…whose directors have attended our meetings and respected their promises of discretion for almost 40 years. – David Rockefeller
These media sources have instructed educated Americans in a certain almost religious faith in reliable, objective news and history reporting. As Maximillian Alvarez writes:
The biases of unreliable narrators (newscasters, candidates, uncles) may be glaringly obvious. But often they’re much harder to see, especially in narratives that claim to be objective. They’re often hidden in the details, in the language used, in specific word choices, in the things a narrator chooses to emphasize and the things she chooses to leave out, in tone, etc. To get at that stuff requires what literature scholars call “close reading.”…every narrative manipulates (or at least tries to). The ones that pretend they don’t are the ones people should be suspicious of.
In this world, the gatekeeping intent is the same in its corporate world-view to the others. The best of the gatekeepers, however, deliver it in a more elevated form, to a more educated clientele, and it’s characterized by excellent prose, impeccable taste and soothing radio voices. Indeed, at this level, they convey their messages at least as much by style as by content. No shouting, name-calling, exclamation marks or all-capital-letters here!
Well-meaning, university-educated, independent-thinking, liberal Americans are almost literally seduced by the arrival of the glossier versions, where subtle messages of support for the American empire are digested along with Armani ads (Heavens! I’ve used the passive voice twice in one sentence!) that subvert the bad news with a more fundamental message: consume, or be left behind. In mythic terms: be glad you’re a hero and not a victim. As Jerry Falwell said, “This is America. If you’re not a winner it’s your own fault.” In this context, when we are free to turn the page, occasional images of poverty and suffering merely reinforce our sense of privilege.
We should recall that all of these purveyors of rational, thoughtful discourse have consistently supported every one of the United States’ military invasions of Third World countries. For several years, they have been united in framing the idea of “Russiagate”, and almost all of their allegations (reported as news rather than opinion) have been erroneous at best and pure propaganda at worst.
I’m digressing again. The point is not that the Russian government may have attempted to influence American elections, but that such efforts absolutely pale in comparison to quite successful efforts by Israel, Saudi Arabia and, of course, the continuing and mostly unpunished Republican Party attempts to subvert the recent election, hack its voting machines, deny the final vote and prevent its certification. This was the real story of 2020, and also of 2016.
And do I really need to remind you that the U.S. has been destroying elections and popular democratic movements in dozens of countries every year since the end of World War Two?
Even this week (May 2021), the purveyors of high, dignified, liberal thinking have published countless articles about why the U.S. should not withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. But they are so well-written!
Meanwhile, despite their reasoned arguments, trust in mainstream media has plummeted to an all-time low. Although this has opened up a vast can of frightening rightwing and QAnon worms, in the long run it may be a good thing. Only when old, unsatisfying mythologies collapse and their priests are sent packing can we begin to imagine real news.
It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. – William Carlos Williams