Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Liars' Channel

Ahab came into his house sullen and angry because of the word which Naboth the Jezreelite had spoken to him; for he had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.” He laid himself down on his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no bread. But Jezebel his wife came to him, and said to him, “Why is your spirit so sad, that you eat no bread?”

He said to her, “Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite, and said to him, 'Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if it pleases you, I will give you another vineyard for it.' He answered, 'I will not give you my vineyard.'”

Jezebel his wife said to him, “Do you now govern the kingdom of Israel? Arise, and eat bread, and let your heart be merry. I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” So she wrote letters in Ahab's name, and sealed them with his seal, and sent the letters to the elders and to the nobles who were in his city, who lived with Naboth. She wrote in the letters, saying, “Proclaim a fast, and set Naboth on high among the people. Set two men, base fellows, before him, and let them testify against him, saying, 'You cursed God and the king!' Then carry him out, and stone him to death.”

The men of his city, even the elders and nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent to them, according as it was written in the letters which she had sent to them...Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned, and is dead.” It happened, when Jezebel heard that Naboth was stoned, and was dead, that Jezebel said to Ahab, “Arise, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreeelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.” – 1 Kings 21:4-15, World English Bible (a public domain translation).

In 1921, the famous American journalist Walter Lippmann said that the art of democracy requires what he called the 'manufacture of consent.' This phrase is an Orwellian euphemism for thought control. The idea is that in a state such as the U.S. where the government can't control the people by force, it had better control what they think. The Soviet Union is at the opposite end of the spectrum from us in its domestic freedoms. It's essentially a country run by the bludgeon. It's very easy to determine what propaganda is in the USSR: what the state produces is propaganda...Propaganda is to democracy what violence is to totalitarianism...For those who stubbornly seek freedom around the world, there can be no more urgent task than to come to understand the mechanisms and practices of indoctrination. These are easy to perceive in the totalitarian societies, much less so in the propaganda system to which we are subjected and in which all too often we serve as unwilling or unwitting instruments.” – Noam Chomsky, Propaganda, American-style, Interview with David Barsamian of KGNU Radio in Boulder, Colorado.

War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives...I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.” – U.S. Marine Major General Smedley Butler (30 July 1881 – 21 June 1940).

There is general agreement that an independent, pluralistic press is a requirement for an effective democracy. There is also general agreement that a crisis exists in the press's ability to protect and advance democracy...Thus, although there exists an unwritten professional creed that the role of journalists is to inform the citizenry in order to advance democracy, the creed is sorely out of touch with reality...In addition, the suggestion by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky that the media, in a democratic capitalist society, function as a propaganda arm for the government certainly undermines the historical image of journalists as protectors of democracy.” – “The role of the press in a democracy: heterodox economics and the propaganda model,Journal of Economic Issues, 1 June 2004.

Many of the most famous members of the D.C. Press corps – the true power elite of American journalism – accept high-paying corporate speaking engagements and have direct personal ties to the political candidates...But the real compromises lie deeper – in corporate sponsorship that defines the very parameters of what is considered acceptable discourse. Take the pundit talk shows, where a parade of center-to-right-wing talking heads appear each week to engage in what passes as political debate. From 'This Week With David Brinkley' to “The McLaughlin Group,' two corporate sponsors predominate: General Electric and Archer Daniels Midland, two of the biggest corporate recipients of subsidies, tax breaks and government contracts in the country.” – “Strange bedfellows: Journalists as corporate shills,Salon Magazine, 1999.

Unfortunately, CNN and Cooper's combination of great TV and bad journalism are not idiosyncratic; television news routinely falls into the trap of emphasizing visually compelling and dramatic stories at the expense of important information that is crucial but more complex. The absence of crucial historical and political context describes the print coverage as well; the facts, analysis and opinion that U.S. citizens need to understand these events are rarely provided. For example, in the past week we've heard journalists repeat endlessly the observation that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Did it ever occur to editors to assign reporters to ask why?” – “Great Television/Bad Journalism: Media Failures In Haiti Coverage,Op-Ed News, 25 January 2010

The quotes cited above form a pattern, and are part of a larger truth: that ruling elites resort to manipulation of public opinion and of public perceptions in order to advance their own agenda. In Biblical times, this was done by a word-of-mouth campaign instigated by members of the ruling elite in order to rob a man of his inheritance. In modern industrial society, particularly in the United States, this is done via a highly developed, technologically advanced media, the ownership of which is concentrated in the hands of a very few.

Of course, this is well known to many people, and readers of this blog may know that I covered this very topic many months ago in my posts, A Safety Net Of Alternative Systems - Citizen Media and Telling Your Story As Self-Defense - Necessary Tools. Lately, though, this theme has come back to my mind in the wake of several newsworthy events, and the resulting coverage by the mainstream media.

I think now of the continual drumbeat of American media hostility against Iran on account of its supposed “nuclear weapons program.” (How quickly the press seems to have forgotten the 2007 stories about the U.S. Government's National Intelligence Estimate stating that Iran had not been pursuing nuclear weapons since at least 2004. I still have a copy of the newspaper in which I found that story, just in case anyone needs a cure for selective amnesia.)

Then there's the Newsweek cover I saw a few weeks ago when I stopped in at a store on the way to work, the cover that showed a picture of a Nigerian teenager with a caption about the “New Al-Qaeda Threat.” A discerning reader of its lead article would conclude that it was just so much more unquestioning rah-rah cheerleading for the “war on terror.” There's also the media coverage of Scott Brown's election “victory” in Massachusetts, with all the news agencies talking of signs of a huge Republican 'resurgence.' What is not mentioned is that Brown's opponent conceded the race at least an hour before the polls closed, and long before any news organization was ready to call the race. And there's the coverage of the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, in which various news outlets immediately began describing the country as “dangerous,” with the potential for massive “looting and rioting” – coincidentally, just before a massive injection of U.S. troops into that country.

Connect the dots between media portrayal of various countries and peoples, the resources of the countries portrayed, and subsequent U.S. military or political action against these people, and it starts to get a bit...maddening (as blogger SoapBoxTech recently put it)...for people who like honesty and fair play.

Our media are next to useless at best, and downright dangerous at their worst. When I say “useless,” I mean that they don't actually report news so much as offer visceral, frequently voyeuristic, often sensationalist, attention-grabbing sound bites and photo op's. This is when their focus is turned outward toward the larger world. Too often they fail even to turn outward, and they report as news what are actually their own internal workings. So we find out that Avatar is a box-office hit, we hear about the winners of American Idol, we learn about the “beautiful people” from Star and Us and People magazines, and KFWB in Los Angeles, which used to be an “All News, All the Time” station is now reduced to reporting mainly on happenings in Hollywood (along with airing conservative talk shows!).

Ah, but what about “dangerous”? It should be obvious by now that the mainstream media in this country have been used and are being used to justify the taking of things from poor people and poorer nations by the rich, and to justify the continued concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the rich. The purpose of the media is not to inform or educate, but to put a good face on a mess of very bad situations, shaping our responses to suit our handlers' wishes while making us stupid.

This would be bad even in ordinary times. But these are not ordinary times. Over all our lives looms a triple threat: the collapse of industrial society due to energy descent, the ruining of our environment, and the dysfunctional responses by the rich and the powerful to these things. To deal with this threat requires a nation that is educated and informed, and thus able to make intelligent decisions. But intelligent people are a threat to corporate profits. So we keep getting lied to, and corporate media continues to train us to make emotional, knee-jerk responses to complex problems.

The biggest liar by far is Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation, which owns Fox TV and Fox News, although other mainstream outlets are trying hard to imitate Fox. Over the next few weekends, I'd like to share some new observations and thoughts that have occurred to me as I have again begun to think about the mainstream media, our relation to it, and possible avenues for breaking free from its influence.

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