Towing the Line with the Mainstream Media
“Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”
– Benjamin Franklin
“The media serve the interests of state and corporate power, which are closely interlinked, framing their reporting and analysis in a manner supportive of established privilege and limiting debate and discussion accordingly.”
As Chomsky accurately pointed out – merely stating what should be obvious – the major media set the boundaries of acceptable discussion. They serve the function, among others, of saying in effect, “Thus far, and no further.” To step outside these parameters is thus implicitly portrayed as stepping off the edge of the earth. Beyond these bounds we enter the irrational, lunatic fringe. However, as also should be obvious, the bounds of discussion are extraordinarily narrow. Five corporations control network media in the U.S., six in Canada. They share a common perspective and present an extremely narrow range of views. Major issues are framed within a common lens of spin, omission of certain critical, salient facts, and outright distortion. Other major issues are not covered at all, or buried on page 39, in a minor note, right next to a recipe for oatmeal porridge or some other riveting feature. It should go without saying that if we allow the corporate media to set the parameters of discussion, we are lost.
It is now a matter of public record that the U.S. government has contracted out to Haliburton subsidiary KBR to build detention centers in America. KBR itself announced this in their own press release, stating that the contract is “open-ended” in terms of time-frame and scale. This should be worrisome. We remember that detention centers have been built – and used – before. In the U.S. and Canada during the second world war, the Japanese detention centers left a horrible and grotesque legacy. And of course, we have the chilling memory of the Nazi prison camps. When the U.S. government, already moving rapidly in the direction of fascism, as any sane observer recognizes, starts building detention centers, we should take this as noteworthy. This is newsworthy, or nothing is. But if the major media don’t cover it, then we all feel it is unacceptable to talk about it.
It is now a matter of public record – not theory – that the executive branches of the U.S., Canadian and Mexican governments, along with at least three extremely powerful corporate lobby groups, have begun, under the signed agreement called the Security and Prosperity Partnership, what is being called a “dialogue” to create “full regulatory harmonization” and “deep integration” within “Fortress North America” in “the new security environment.” This is a program that is far more broad and ambitious than NAFTA, CAFTA or the FTAA, yet it is being met with almost complete silence by the mainstream media. Are we to then accept that such a major program, which is being carried out without Congressional or Parliamentary oversight or debate, which will redefine the economies, military and security structures, laws, regulations, borders and political process of the three nations, is not fit for public discussion, is not a legitimate topic of debate or dialogue, is beyond the range of acceptable discourse? The answer is, of course – or should be – obvious.
If we concede to the major media setting the bounds of discussion, and thus accept that these are the limits to rational or legitimate dialogue, then we have conceded defeat. Must we accept such narrow and arbitrary terms on the bounds of sane and reasonable discourse? What are we, men and women, or cattle?
“Half the American population no longer reads
newspapers: plainly, they are the clever half.”
– Gore Vidal
“If words were invented to conceal thought,
newspapers are a great improvement of a bad invention.”
– Henry David Thoreau
“I find it so difficult to dispose of the few facts which to me are significant, that I hesitate to burden my attention with those which are insignificant. Such is, for the most part, the news in newspapers and conversation.” – Thoreau
“Trying to be a first-rate reporter on the average American newspaper is like trying to play Bach’s St. Matthew Passion on a ukulele.” – Ben Bagdikian
“If you don’t want to work, become a reporter. That awful power, the public opinion of the nation, was created by a horde of self-complacent simpletons who failed at ditch and shoemaking and fetched up journalism on their way to poorhouse.” – Mark Twain
“Newspapers are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization.” – G B Shaw
“The average newspaper, especially of the better sort, has the intelligence of a hillbilly evangelist, the courage of a rat, the fairness of a prohibitionist boob-jumper, the information of a high school janitor, the taste of a designer of celluloid valentines, and the honor of a police-station lawyer.” – HL Mencken
“If you’re not careful the media will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” – Malcolm X
“The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers…[A despotic] government always [keeps] a king of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or what should look like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.”
– Thomas Jefferson, 1785
“I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens who, reading newspapers, live and die in the belief that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time.” – Thomas Jefferson
“The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them, inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he who’s mind is filled with falsehoods and errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.” – Thomas Jefferson
As my father used to say, if everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you follow? Or more directly, if everyone else is content to eat shit sandwiches, do we have to do the same? Why do we tune into the corporate media at all? Surely we are more intelligent than this. I believe most are. And polls show that the great majority of people have a pretty clear sense of what’s going on; and further more, have a high degree of skepticism about the major media. Why then do we continue to tune in, to eat this stuff up, or to allow the mass media to define the parameters of debate and discussion? I have to guess, or conclude, that it is a matter of group think. Heaven forbid that we deviate from the herd.
“In matters of style, swim with the current;
in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”
– Thomas Jefferson
As every intelligent observer knows, mainstream media in Canada and the U.S. are either corporate owned or corporate dominated, due to dependency on advertising revenues. As such, we cannot be surprised to find a very narrow range of perspective and a remarkable commonality of spin across the mass media, with disinformation, distortion and omission of vital information being the norm.
What I’d like to suggest is that we keep the obvious in mind at all times: if we are writers, bloggers, independent journalists or media workers, or for that matter, anyone who is involved with or interested in the actual goings on in our world, we must not allow the mainstream media to set the parameters of legitimate public discourse.
Nor can we allow the mainstream media – the corporate-dominated media – to set the tone. The tone in the mass media is tepid, timid, blasé, and not truly objective at all. The media gets itself worked up into a frenzy in order to vilify the proper enemies, or pronounce the corporate party line, but when it comes to reporting or commenting on the short-comings or failures of business as usual and the party line, the best they can muster is a valium stupor of spiritless, apathetic hand-wringing – and this only when the far more common response of rationalization, justification, spin and denial are not the reaction. Genocide in Africa, the race toward ecological self-destruction, risk of nuclear confrontation over Iran or other conflicts, the institutionalization of war crimes as defined by international law, the legalization and routine, systemic use of torture, the destruction of constitutional rights and liberties: these are just a few examples of subjects that demand more than a luke-warm response; at least, that is, if we are to retain our human decency, if we are to address ourselves to the issues in a sane or humane manner, or if we are to introduce into the debate and discussion any of these qualities.
Call it like it is. Euphemistic, wishy-washy reporting and commentary smacks of either intellectual timidity or simple laziness, as well as moral cowardice. The people I admire most in terms of writers are those who have a marked intelligence, or more simply, a basic clarity of mind, and far more importantly, a deep sense of compassion, combined with a willingness to frankly speak the truth, even when it is unpopular to do so. Chomsky, and even more so, Thoreau, come to mind along with others. What we need to hear more of is people speaking plainly and intelligently, with compassion, and also with spine. Journalism that sparks little more passionate response than three day old porridge is not what we need. The usual skirting of issues and bland hedging, is about as effectual at addressing the issues we face as is making love in a wet suit.
In either case, if we allow the mainstream media to set the parameters of debate, the framing of the issue, the bounds of discussion; or to set the tone of public discourse – then we are lost.
As should be self-evident, the relevant facts and evidence must be brought forth, even if this is outside the bounds of discussion as defined by the dominant corporate-controlled media; and the tone of our dialogue must be at least somewhat more impassioned than what is set as the norm of reasonable discussion by the same dominant media forces. To do otherwise is to lose before beginning.
Effective action, or even simple integrity, can be based only upon truth, and courage to speak the truth. It also requires a willingness to meet the issues of the day with more than a banal and blasé spiritlessness, pretending to objectivity, neutrality or “balance”. We need to break the barriers of the media monopolies, and firstly, within our own minds and discourse.
J. Todd Ring
April 10, 2007