Parecon & Journalism
[This is an excerpt from the Zed Press published book, Realizing Hope.]
The idea of journalism is not overly complex. Societies involve huge ranges of activity and possibility. Each day events occur, processes unfold. The qualities of our lives depend on these events and processes in two senses.
First, there is just the simple benefit of knowing and vicariously enjoying or feeling solidarity over or of otherwise partaking of information about events beyond our own narrow sway.
If there is a new insight, achievement, or benefit, or new suffering, struggle, challenge, or possibility--whether we are talking about scientists unearthing news about human origins or cosmic foundations, or about inventors scaling new heights of speed or size, or about a disease or natural disaster, or about new medicine or energy provision, or about new policy or personal conflict, or new social possibilities or problems to address--people benefit from knowing. There is curiosity. There is vicarious pleasure.
But second, what happens can also literally affect what we can do, or what we wish to do, or need to do, due to the changing world around us--or it can call upon us to do things to impact conditions, to affect policies, to make choices, etc.
The above refers to news, of course, but also, I want to say, to analysis of events, trends, and possibilities, and to what is called commentary or prescription. It refers, that is, to everything that is included in a good news program, newspaper, etc.
By journalism, in other words, we are here referring to:
... information transferred from people who investigate and accumulate data and who also have time to think about it and make estimates, evaluations, and judgments, to other folks whose time goes largely in other directions, or who live in other places and who therefore need and or enjoy this helpful service.
In a capitalist economy journalism, or what we might better term information-conveying media such as newspapers, periodicals, tv, and radio, are profit seeking firms with corporate divisions of labor and with products to sell to consumers. The media’s profit seeking aspect which is imposed by markets, and the corporate division of labor aspect which is preferred for class reasons, required for control, and also imposed by markets, are quite typical of capitalist firms more generally. Oddly, however, in many cases, what such institutions are selling and to whom isn’t always precisely what it seems.
In examining capitalism’s journalistic institutions Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky developed what they called the Propaganda Model to explain journalism’s main features and operations. Here I merely paraphrase and otherwise borrow from Herman’s summary of the results.
“What is the propaganda model and how does it work?” Herman asks. The model’s “crucial structural factors” arise from the fact that “the dominant media are firmly imbedded in the market system.” Newspapers, periodicals, TV news, radio, and the rest are all profit-seeking businesses, “owned by rich people (or companies)” and “funded largely by advertisers who are also profit-seeking entities, and who want their ads to appear in a supportive selling environment.”
Media institutions "operate as well in context of and also lean heavily on government and major business firms as information sources.” Operating in society both ”efficiency and political considerations” as well as “overlapping interests, cause a certain degree of solidarity to prevail among the government, major media, and other corporate businesses.”
Like all institutions media are impacted by internal requisites but also by demands and impositions from without. “Government and large nonmedia business firms” are best positioned (and sufficiently wealthy) to “pressure the media with threats of withdrawal of advertising or TV licenses, libel suits, and other direct and indirect modes of attack.”
Internal profit seeking and external stability maintaining factors “are linked together, reflecting the multileveled capability of government and powerful business entities and collectives (e.g., the Business Roundtable; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; the vast number of well-heeled industry lobbies and front groups) to exert power over the flow of information.”
Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda model, still in Herman’s own words, emphasized “five factors involved” in constraining and determining media output: ownership, advertising, sourcing, flak, and anticommunist ideology.” The last was due to the time of development of the model. Had it been labeled “prevailing ideology” it would have been more general, or nowadays, as this book is being written, if it were labeled antiterrorist ideology, it would be timely.
The five factors, as Herman expresses it, “work as 'filters' through which information must pass, and that individually and often in additive fashion greatly influence media choices.”
The model stresses “that the filters work mainly by the independent action of many individuals and organizations; and these frequently, but not always, have a common view of issues and similar interests. In short, the propaganda model describes a decentralized and nonconspiratorial market system of control and processing, although at times the government or one or more private actors may take initiatives and mobilize coordinated elite handling of an issue.”
The result of the domination of journalism and information conveyance by capitalist economic institutions and the concordance of interests with the state and other major social institutions, or, when necessary, imposition of content by them, is evident every day all around us.
In American media it is routinely the case that due to contextual spin based on all manner of verbal and visual coloration and contextual biasing, as well as due to what is emphasized to the point of endless repetition and what is excluded to the point of virtual invisibility or literal disappearance, and even due to what is called misstatement but is, of course, bald lying, as one analyst, Danny Schechter of Media Watch put it in his book by the same name, “The more you watch the less you know.”
Thus the average citizen may believe that spending on poor people’s welfare dwarfs spending on armaments and subsidy to rich corporations, or that foreign aid much less police and military aid goes more to countries that are free and care for their citizens than to countries that are repressive and routinely violate their citizens. Or people believe that crime is rising when it is falling, or that guns in the home protect citizens, or that danger from street thugs should be their main worry, or that blacks are unreasonable beneficiaries of social aid at the expense of whites, or that Iraq, or earlier Nicaragua, or Grenada, and so on, are serious dangers that must be stopped lest our population suffer horrible violations.
Here is the way media critic and linguist Noam Chomsky summarized the information problem some years ago:
“An academic study that appeared right before the presidential election reports that less than 30 percent of the population was aware of the positions of the candidates on major issues, though 86 percent knew the name of George Bush's dog. The general thrust of propaganda gets through, however. When asked to identify the largest element of the federal budget, less than 1/4 give the correct answer: military spending. Almost half select foreign aid, which barely exists; the second choice is welfare, chosen by 1/3 of the population, who also far overestimate the proportion that goes to Blacks and to child support. And though the question was not asked, virtually none are likely to be aware that `defense spending' is in large measure welfare for the rich. Another result of the study is that more educated sectors are more ignorant--not surprising, since they are the main targets of indoctrination. Bush supporters, who are the best educated, scored lowest overall.”
Due to the tireless and relentless efforts of dissidents, it is no longer the case, particularly among the less wealthy and less powerful sectors, that confusion about the basic character of U.S. society and life is as deeply believed as in decades past, though the problem is still extensive, especially in crisis times such as those leading up to a war. But the dictates of capitalist journalism have in any case only added to another problem--the feeling on the part of the public that horrible problems are a fact of life, a part of history and society that cannot be avoided. There may be more understanding than in the past, at some deep level, of the extent to which everything is broken, but there is also much more cynicism than in the past about the possibility of things being sane and whole. Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that “there is no alternative” is not believed due to people having some comprehension of some law of nature or history that makes it so--there is no such law--but because the viewpoint is hammered home around the globe, millions of times every day by way of what the media reports and ignores and what it ridicules and celebrates.
How does parecon differ from all the above?
First, journalistic and information handling institutions in a parecon include no hierarchies of wealth and power. Those working in the industry, whether writing or otherwise, do not occupy dominant or subordinate positions and do not internally rationalize these. They work at balanced job complexes, no better or worse than those enjoyed by other people. They have self managing power like everyone else, no more and no less. They earn for socially valued work at the same equitable rate as everyone else, not more per hour, not less per hour save if their conditions are worse or better, or they work harder or less hard. They have no structural reason to see themselves as systematically better or worse than others, no hierarchical position to defend, no class allies and advantages to mask or manifest. As a result parecon removes a key biasing variable present in capitalism by eliminating personalities and consciousnesses bent on protecting and defending elite interests against those below.
Second, the education people experience in a society with a parecon does not curb or curtail their curiosity, nor bias their knowledge of history and social relations. There is no social structural force bending their experience systematically against honest portrayal and assessment. So here too, a substantial internal factor, myopic and elitist education that constricts the work of those writing or disseminating information is removed.
Third, there is no paid advertising, no sale of audience to advertisers, and media related workplaces do not seek profits in any other form, either. They don’t sell audience, they simply amass, generate, and disseminate information, analysis, and vision.
The media’s motive is communication, and though incomes are made by workers, they can only be made if what occurs is socially valued by free and capable audiences and media workers' earn neither more nor less than anyone else makes for the same duration, intensity, and onerousness of labor throughout the rest of the economy.
Finally fourth, there are no centers of power, whether within the media industries themselves or in the broader society, political or economic, that can bend events and outcomes to their will and compel coverage and commentary in accord.
There is no reason to expect ideological uniformity, either. In a good society with a parecon and other innovative and liberatory structures different people will have different views, and sometimes there will be alignments of groups with contrary beliefs and desires, and no doubt journalists and other information workers will fit on various sides of key issues, as well. As a result, information consumers will not only sometimes have taste for magazines or shows more about science than about sports, or vice versa, but also will sometimes have tastes more reflecting values and conceptual frameworks they like and respect than other conceptual frameworks they may disagree with or even find abhorrent. Values of journalists and media institutions will impact what they cover, what they judge, what they propose, and how they do all three. The difference from now isn’t that beliefs and aspirations stop affecting choices, but that when differences in choice exist their roots are in honestly different and clearly recognized perceptions and values, not in pressures that massive centers of power and wealth impose, often even without acknowledgement.
Still, there is another special feature that will most likely characterize pareconish media. Diversity is valued throughout and pareconish society, not only for vicarious enjoyment but to avoid placing all eggs in one basket. This implies recognition of the merits of dissident views and providing space and protection for minority and even small minority opinions. Pareconish media, in the large, can be expected to allot space and resources for viewpoints that are not widely, or are even only very marginally supported.
This will likely occur via the planning process. Just as consumers negotiating with producers can know that they want to allot significant amounts to research in technology, science, and art on grounds that work that isn’t understood as yet and hasn’t demonstrated its intrinsic worth as yet, is worthy, nonetheless, because in sum total such work generates what will be worthy in the future, so too a public can understand and support the importance of diverse and as yet even individually seemingly unworthy information sources on grounds of the need for innovation and exploration and continual diversity of content.
The implications of all this are simple. Pareconish journalists may make mistakes, of course. They will misunderstand events at times, or miss things that are important or exaggerate things that aren’t. One journalist in a better future will see things one way, another will have a different perception and valuation. The two will often be at odds such that they cannot both be correct.. Readers will pick and choose sources, of course, and time and experience will give us insight into journalists’ accuracy and often journalists’ values too. But variations we see in future better media will rarely if ever supinely manifest external pressures or even manifest internally generated institutionally based inclinations aimed to please particular constituencies despite the contrary indications of evidence and logic.
Bias that isn’t mere error will be far more unusual than now because in a future society with a parecon there is no income or power motive to bend one’s perceptions. In short, there is no way to parlay readership or popularity into income or power. The impetus really is to capture reality accurately and to comment on it wisely.
But the really key change is that even when bias does rear its head, it has no particular structural longevity and is not replicated widely. Bias due to idiosyncratic views and commitments of particular writers (or artists, etc.) rather than due to socially imposed interests, is far less likely to recur in others, over and over, throughout the media industry, always biasing in the same direction, unless due to widespread honest error. In that respect journalism and information handling in general are undertaken without commercial pressures. The test of evidence and logic aggressively curbs escalating divergences from truth and sensibility in judging and communicating what is and what isn’t the case.
The pareconish New York Times prints all the news, all the analysis, all the prescription, that its many writers (all with balanced job complexes), themselves choose to focus on in a self managing manner, with resources governed by a social negotiation in accord with the population’s desires, including desires for diversity and dissent. And beyond the pareconish New York Times there are diverse other sources of information, including ones that operate, as on the internet now, free and with few if any costs, essentially privately, via volunteerism.
Instead of each writer becoming acclimated, at risk of losing employment, to the constraints of reproducing hierarchies of power and wealth as defined by owners and editors and in order to sell maximum receptive audience to advertisers--each writer examines events and conveys what he or she finds important in light of feedback regarding the needs and desires of very diverse constituencies of readers, listeners, and viewers and in accord with the collective constraints of budgets and the mutual regard of fellow workers.
Do all periodicals and shows operate in the same way?
Not at all. Not only are some oriented around entertainment and others around news, commentary or investigation, with some focused on sports, but others on international relations, or economy, polity, family issues, science, and so on. But even more, parecon doesn’t dictate the internal detailed decisions of workplaces about their approaches to their labor or priorities. Parecon dictates only that there will be self management, workers councils, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of work, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning for allocation. Different media institutions, like different eating places, research institutes, schools, playgrounds, hospitals, and assembly plants will almost certainly have different ways of implementing these structures and of pursuing their endeavors, even in one industry much less between industries. In fact, this is even more true for media, where product differentiation is greater, than it is true for many other domains. And the different choices made by media workers councils will affect who wishes to work in which institutions, and who finds them a desirable source of information and insight, as well.
There are other differences also, such as in modes of delivery, appearance, volume, (not least removing the massive ad content), but, while incredibly important, those are matters of outcome, not structure, the latter being our focus here.
The main point is that information media will remain, in the future as now, part and parcel of the elaboration, protection, and correction of social practices and structures. What changes is the character of those practices and structures which in turn changes the internal dynamics of the information media and its product too, as noted above.
In sum, parecon’s requisites for working in and organizing media prove consistent with what are likely to be desirable media’s desires vis a vis product and process, and vice versa.