Media and Democracy in the Post-Modern Age
In the Watergate era, journalists were often seen as heroes. Even commercial TV and radio news outlets, although on the way to becoming showcases for infotainment, were considered by many to be potential parts of the solution. By the end of the 20th Century, however, most people didn't trust reporters any more than politicians, and a Roper poll found that 88 percent of those surveyed felt corporate owners and advertisers improperly influenced the press.
Most journalists who work for the mainstream media deny such influence, a lack of self-knowledge (or candor) that tends to make matters worse. The fact that getting ahead often means going along with the prevailing consensus remains one of the profession's debilitating secrets. But the issue isn't just that, or that a few media giants control the origination of most content, distribution, and transmission into our homes, or that we're being primed for a pay-for-access Internet world that will make notions about its democratic potential sound like science fiction. The underlying problem is how public discussion of vital matters is shaped by media gatekeepers.
Here’s an example: In August 2005, a cover story in Newsweek on Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts aggressively dismissed reports that he was a conservative partisan. Two primary examples cited were the nominee's role on Bush's legal team in the court fight after the 2000 election, described by Newsweek as "minimal," and his membership in the conservative Federalist Society, which was pronounced an irrelevant distortion. Roberts "is not the hard-line ideologue that true believers on both sides had hoped for," the publication concluded.
The facts suggested a different appraisal. Roberts was a significant legal consultant, lawsuit editor and prep coach for Bush's arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in December 2000, and wasn’t just a Federalist Society member but on the Washington chapter's steering committee in the late 1990s. More to the point, his roots in the conservative vanguard date back to his days with the Reagan administration, when he provided legal justifications for recasting the way government and the courts approached civil rights, defended attempts to narrow the reach of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, challenged arguments in favor of busing and affirmative action, and even argued that Congress should strip the Supreme Court of its ability to hear broad classes of civil-rights cases. Nevertheless, most press reports echoed Newsweek's excitement about his "intellectual rigor and honesty."
Given the Supreme Court’s decisions since Roberts became Chief Justice, whether the coverage of his confirmation qualifies as outright disinformation is worth considering. In any case it shows how many journalists assist political leaders, albeit sometimes unwittingly, in framing public awareness. As a practice, this is known in both government and public relations circles as "perception management," and it’s been going on for years.
That's why I was eager to attend the second Media and Democracy Congress in 1998. Journalists and media activists from across the country had gathered in New York to talk about the problems – things like concentration of ownership, the relentless slide into infotainment, an avalanche of gossip, disinformation, and "news" people don't need – and trade ideas about what to do. It was encouraging to be among colleagues and friends who weren't afraid of the A-word – advocacy.
During one panel journalistic iconoclast Christopher Hitchens noted wryly that the word partisan is almost always used in a negative context, while bipartisan is presented as a positive solution. It made me wonder: If that isn't an endorsement of the one-party state, what is?
Similarly, most journalists assiduously avoided saying, in print or on the air, that George W. Bush, Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan lied while president, although these are verifiable facts. But they did often note that Clinton and Reagan were great communicators, which is merely an opinion. The issue, Hitchens suggested, isn't a lack of information – it's all out there somewhere – but how most reporters think and how the news is constructed.
Which brings us to the “free market” and competition, two basic tenets of the corporate faith. Unfortunately, most journalists are loyal missionaries of the Capitalist Church, the kind of true believers who described utility deregulation in the late 1990s as a "movement to bring competition to the electric industry." That was a classic corporate sermon, not a fact. The same kind of thing was said – when anything was mentioned – about the Telecommunications Act of 1996, although the actual result of that legislation was to reduce competition and sweep away consumer protections.
In 2009, when Sen. John McCain introduced the Internet Freedom Act, designed to “free” giant telecom companies from restrictions on their ability to block or slow down access to the content of their competitors, the sermon hadn’t changed. For example, The Wall Street Journal announced that he was just trying to stop regulators from “micromanaging the Web.”
The mainstream media also had little to say about the giveaway of the digital TV spectrum, a prime example of corporate welfare. Making the giants pay for this enormous new public resource could have dramatically reduced the federal deficit and adequately funded public broadcasting and children's TV. Instead spectrum rights were handed out for free. The only "string" was a vague contribution to be determined at a later date.
In 1998, the Media and Democracy Congress did propose some alternatives: anti-trust laws to deal with the new world of global media, a tax on advertising – including the millions in political contributions that mainly end up in the coffers of media corporations – to adequately fund public broadcasting and public access, corporate divestment of news divisions, and a ban on children's advertising, to name a few. Unfortunately, none of these came to pass.
A year after that gathering Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman and reporter Jeremy Scahill, who went on to write a groundbreaking book about the private military contractor Blackwater, provided a dramatic illustration of just how limited mainstream media’s commitment to truth-seeking and keeping watch over the government could be. The dust up occurred at an awards ceremony organized by the Overseas Press Club. Goodman and Scahill were on hand to receive honors for their documentary, “Drilling and Killing: Chevron and Nigeria’s Oil Dictatorship.”
Realizing that the event’s keynote speaker was UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, an architect of NATO’s recently declared intervention in Yugoslavia, the urge to ask him some questions was irresistible. But they were prevented from talking to him prior to the speech, and Scahill subsequently learned that a condition of Holbrooke’s appearance was no interviews. Undaunted, he waited until the ambassador finished speaking, then approached the podium and tried again.
At that point Master of Ceremonies Tom Brokaw intervened. But not to defend Scahill’s right to inquire. No, instead the anchorman told him to sit down. When Scahill declined he was dragged away by security guards.
None of the noted journalists in the room uttered a word of protest. At a time when bombs were falling in Europe they apparently felt that “decorum” was more vital than finding out why a war had started. The official story was that the government of Slobodan Milosevic had refused to negotiate on Kosovo and was engaged in a brutal campaign of "ethnic cleansing" that bordered on genocide. NATO was intervening to prevent a "humanitarian catastrophe," claimed official sources, and sought only to alleviate human suffering and defend the rights of Kosovo's Muslim Albanians. But a series of stubborn facts, largely ignored by the mainstream media, contradicted those comforting assertions.
In February 1999, when so-called peace talks began in France, Yugoslavia was given an ultimatum: Grant Kosovo autonomy and let NATO station 30,000 troops there for the next three years – or else. If anyone was refusing to negotiate, it was the US and NATO. But the relentless use of buzzwords like ethnic cleansing and genocide, plus the redefinition of Milosevic as the world's latest “Hitler," gave this unyielding stance the veneer of humanitarian concern. Entirely omitted was the inconvenient reality that the violence in Kosovo was a part of an ongoing struggle between the government and separatists, who had been waging civil war for years.
So, why intervene, and why against the Serbs? The hidden agenda was to break Yugoslavia into smaller pieces. The Balkans is a strategic region, a crossroads between Western Europe and the oil-rich Middle East and Caspian Basin. In the 1990s, the Western powers had gained effective control over the former Yugoslav republics of Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia, as well as Hungary and Albania. The main hold out was the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In short, it stood in the path of the New World Order.
Another year passed, and in 2000, Goodman and Scahill recounted their experience at the Press Club to enthusiastic applause at the annual Project Censored awards ceremony. They were being recognized for covering the story the Press Club had suppressed: NATO’s deliberate push for war with Yugoslavia. Despite the self-imposed ignorance of corporate media’s gatekeepers, some of the truth had been revealed.
Other underreported news that made the Top Ten Censored Stories list that year included how pharmaceutical companies put profits before health needs, the American Cancer Society’s failure to prevent cancer despite its bloated budget, the destruction of Kurdish villages with US weapons, environmental racism in Louisiana, and US plans to militarize space in defiance on international law. But despite the success of many alternative outlets in breaking stories the “big” media ignored, nagging questions remained.
Peter Arnett, a former CNN reporter being honored that year for an article on reduced foreign media coverage, posed it this way: “We’ve had what might constitute new revelations today,” he said. “But even if the alternative press as a whole took on these stories, would it be enough?”
It was a good but disquieting question. And the same one could be asked about progressive movements in general. If various coalitions and alliances actually joined forces to challenge corporate power and capitalism itself, would it be enough to usher in some “real change?”
One of the underlying conundrums is how to make powerful institutions accountable – and to whom. Following progressive logic, real change involves, at the very least, stronger government intervention. But if the goal is to control mega-corporations that transcend national boundaries, competing with some national governments and dominating others, in the end even national level reform won’t cut it.
Progressives obviously don’t want corporate-dominated institutions running the world. But what’s the alternative? Will job creation, stronger enforcement and more accountability be enough, or does the current international order need to be completely overhauled and replaced? And if so, with what?
The United Nations could be made stronger, but this Cold War creation was flawed from the start, and has been marginalized and manipulated for more than half a century. The times cry out for more radical ideas, something like a global parliament, which is somehow linked to communities. This sounds utopian – or frightening, depending on your level of paranoia. But if the Corporate World Order inflicts much more damage it may start to look attractive. And if social and economic justice is truly the driving force of progressive politics, how far is it to an agenda for change that fundamentally challenges market control and links the global with the local? After all, one of the movement’s slogans is “Think Globally, Act Locally.”
The trouble is, there is no magical formula for effective democracy, and even if there was, most people are no longer optimistic, or even very hopeful about where the world is heading to put their faith in such grand plans.
In the so-called “modern era,” things basically made sense. Despite any temporary setbacks, technical dangers or threatening dictators most people believed in the possibility of a better future, changing the world that was changing us. But now we live in a “post-modern” world. And although it’s not a totally negative place, it emphasizes uncertainty, spectacle, and even the chaotic.
The term “post-modern” first came into use after World War II, referring to literature and art that took modern forms to their extremes. Since then, it has evolved into a general attitude toward society. Characterized by skepticism, it forces “authorities” and “their” institutions to defend themselves against charges that they are no longer relevant – or are just plain ignorant. On the plus side, that attitude helped bring down the Berlin Wall and has sometimes put experts and leaders in the hot seat. However, it also tends to challenge any strongly held belief.
Self-conscious and often self-contradictory, post-modernists believe that truth is merely a perspective and nothing should be taken too seriously. The characteristic expression is irony, emphasizing the doubleness in whatever is expressed. A favorite grammatical device is quotation marks, reinforcing the idea that the words don’t mean what they seem. This expresses the defensive cultural logic of late-capitalism, and plays well into the schemes of media and political demagogues.
Faced with machines that have made life more complicated, a vast amount of unsettling information, and an overwhelming variety of “choices,” it’s hardly surprising that people, especially the young, are no longer impressed with much of anything. Their favorite books often revel in this sensibility and abandon the grand narrative approach once standard in novels. Although most movies still rely on the old linear formula – the hero overcoming obstacles to reach an obvious goal – few people really believe in that. Real life is so much more ambiguous and complex.
At its extreme this new awareness leads to disillusionment, nihilism, and a disabling narcissism that favors fads and power over ethics and any ideology. These days narcissism no longer applies to “beautiful people” who relate only to their own images. They may also be pseudo-intellectuals, calculating promoters, or self-absorbed rebels. Even more unsettling, narcissists are ideally suited for success and power – callous and superficial climbers all too willing to sell themselves. In post-modern society, self-promotion is the ultimate form of work. It’s a state of affairs that could catapult someone like Sarah Palin into power.
The central institutions of post-modern civilization are, of course, the electronic media, which promote both chronic tension and cynical detachment. Most advertising suggests that appearances are what matter, while the shows wedged between them reinforce ironic distance, often winking at us that it’s all a put-on. And the news? Endless, ephemeral facts. But enduring truth? That’s the last thing we expect.
Meanwhile, for all its benefits, the “blogosphere” is largely accelerating social fragmentation. Many blogs and Websites attract only like-minded people, creating a self-segregated news and information environment that serves the interests of extremists. It’s not so different from the partisanship that characterized the press in the early 19th Century. Truth and facts are becoming debatable notions. This makes it far more difficult for people to reach agreement or even have a civil discussion, and easier for opportunists to ignore or distort reality for the sake of pushing initiatives based on convenience or special interests.
The result has been a loss of faith in almost everything, and an escapist mentality rooted in the belief that no meaningful change is possible. Popular culture feeds on this attitude, encouraging excess and striking poses while confusing commitment with fanaticism.
That said, the news isn’t all bad. Along with skepticism comes a re-awakened concern about the human spiritual condition and the planet’s health. The idea that “rational planning” provides all the answers is no longer convincing, gone with notions such as “bigger is better” and nature is merely a resource to be conquered and exploited.
In economics, the rigid approach to production known as Fordism, named for the man who brought us the assembly line and mass production using interchangeable parts, has given way to a more flexible, eclectic system emphasizing innovation and a post-industrial compression of time and space. The view that corporations and the global economy are only parts of a whole planetary system is gaining traction. As with most post-modern developments, however, there is a double edge. Re-engineering economics and work could lead to more worker-owned businesses, a renewed sense of community and environmental responsibility, and a groundswell against corporation domination. But it may simultaneously increase instability, turning even more people into contingent workers.
Commenting on the implications, former presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy once noted that post-modernism favors “fuzzy logic” and subjective impressions over rational arguments and clear thinking. It recognizes no absolutes, just degrees and disposable attitudes. “This predicament is not altogether reassuring,” he concluded, “as it may lead us to a state of ‘entropy,’ i.e., of randomness, chaos and disorder, with little basis for optimism as to what may result.”
Greg Guma is an author, editor, and former CEO of the Pacifica Radio Network. His books include The People's Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution, Uneasy Empire: Repression, Globalization, and What We Can Do, and Passport to Freedom: A Guide for World Citizens. He writes about media and politics on his blog, Maverick Media (http://muckraker-gg.blogspot.com).