INTRODUCTION: Journalism and the Open Society
In contemporary US, and in most countries, the media presents itself as a sentinel of the ‘public interest’. This implies that ‘public interest’ is universally encompassing and equally distributed in its benefits for all classes. The implication is that there is no difference for a pauper than a billionaire when it comes to the media reporting on fiscal policy, health care, minimum wage, or corporate welfare vs. social welfare. When delivering news, analysis, and opinion, the media operates under the self-ascribed assumption that it works in the name of the nebulous ‘public interest’, deliberately sidelining the reality of a class-based structure and an institutional system rooted in elitism and inequality.
In this brief essay, I examine the degree to which the media as a guardian and promoter of the status quo hinders the broader public interest in favor of the elites. Although this ought to be self evident because the very rich own media corporations, it is far from the case. The media’s self-ascribed role as the ‘Fourth Estate’, guardian of truth and public welfare, presents the image of neutrality. This essay examines whether the media undermines social justice in its incessant effort to sustain the bourgeois social order and institutional structure of which it is an integral part. In this respect, the media’s goal the question is whether the media attempts to inform and educate or create robo-citizens and keep them in a zombie-like state.
Some believe that the media is a catalyst to freedom and democracy as it claims. Others claim it reflects a system of authoritarianism operating under the cloak of freedom and democracy invariably equated with consumerism. Is the media the catalyst to social progress or sociopolitical conformity? Do corporate media organizations protect the ‘public interest’, as they likes audience/readers/listeners to believe, or is their goal maintain the hierarchical social order by manufacturing consent and forging consensus among a broad spectrum of the population? (Edward S. Herman, (Noam Chmosky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy and the Mass Media, 1988.)
In the age of universal education and technology that permits users to access all kinds of information instantly from around the world, molding public opinion is seemingly more difficult than it was in the pre-internet era. It is especially challenging in the political domain because a segment of the population rejects the idea that it has a choice in electing public officials who have been pre-selected by the party apparatus and financed by the wealthy with the finalists presented to the public for their approval. Similarly, it is becoming challenging for the corporate media to mold public opinion that individuals lacking in good character traits are to blame for structural problems in society not the system rooted in absence of social justice.
While there are difficult challenges for the corporate media, which is also interested in turning a profit by presenting the news and analysis it chooses to publish both entertaining and substantive, sensational and empirical, there is no doubt that even people who are very skeptical of the media’s role in society are profoundly influenced by it. In fact, despite the emergence of social media representing many voices from around the world, the mainstream media rapidly intertwined with social media remains dominant in shaping peoples’ world-view. This is because of its vast access and because it accords itself a sense of legitimacy that small social media lacks especially considering its ‘unfiltered nature’.
Corporate media journalists would have the robo-citizens, which they are helping to manufacture, believe that the process of reporting and analysis is carried out by ‘objective’ reporters and analysts who transcend their contemporary setting and are somehow above earthly affairs. On 8 August 2016, the New York Times published an article entitled “Trump is Testing the Norms of Objectivity in Journalism”, an article that clearly accepts as reality ‘objectivity in journalism’. This is the same newspaper that has a long history of biased reporting and analysis in every area from foreign affairs to domestic politics. The paper was openly biased against Senator Bernie Sanders and always favored Hillary Clinton with reports intended to mold public opinion; yet, it considers itself ‘objective’. Claiming that there is such a thing as journalistic objectivity not just by the New York Times but all corporate media organizations is essential to maintain a sense of legitimacy and authority in the domain of serving the public interest. lhttp://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/08/business/balance-fairness-and-a-proudly-provocative-presidential-candidate.html?_r=0
A couple of years after 9/11, an Argentine colleague mentioned to me that a journalist from the university where he was teaching in Buenos Aires attended an international conference on journalism. An American journalist making a presentation insisted that American journalism rested on the foundations of objectivity. The irony was that conference was underwritten by corporate sponsors, including think tanks with a very clear ideological and political orientation and corporate-owned media organizations where reporting and analysis must always fall within the prescribed corporate ideological and sociopolitical perimeters. Despite this reality evident to any journalism undergraduate of a journalism school usually named after a corporation or a millionaire donor, mainstream journalists and analysts insist on presenting themselves and their profession as ‘objective’; this even as they find themselves in a self-censorship mode because they know there is no other way to keep their job.
One reason for the claim to objectivity is that many countries have tightly controlled media, while newspapers and media outlets in many countries are linked to political parties. The assumption that corporate media is not state or party affiliated affords journalists and media organizations the illusion that they are indeed ‘objective’. This implies that they are no different than nuclear physicists conducting research and writing for scholarly peer reviewed journals. Needless to point out, humanities and social science under whose domain journalism rests is not physical science. There is a methodological difference as well as differences in the objectives and goals between the scientific endeavors of a geneticist and a journalist.
Presumably, all journalists have a sense of the profession’s methodology and history as well as how the profession is practiced in other countries despite the homogenized nature of the field in the age of corporate media consolidation. Of course, historically, bourgeois liberals have accorded themselves the privilege of ideological objectivity to distance themselves from both leftists and rightists. The temptation to make subjective reality into an objective science governed by natural laws of the physical universe is a never ending quest of the corporate media precisely because it serves narrow class interests rather than the illusory ‘public interest’. A central reason that the corporate media insists on projecting the image of a field as objective as astrophysics is that its goal is mass ideological, political, social, cultural conformity; creating and maintaining robo-citizens, rather than the quest to overthrow the unjust institutional structure.
Just as the church in Western Christendom, the Byzantium and Islamic Middle East once represented themselves as the infallible representatives of God’s Truth in all domains of life, in our contemporary world the media accords to itself a similar lofty role to maintain credibility by its very structure. Of course, there are many more dissenting voices in our time in comparison to Medieval Europe, Byzantium and the Middle East when the vast majority of the population remained docile and superstitious. However, like the church was an institution helping to preserve the status quo by engendering conformity among the faithful, the media has assumed such a role in our secular pluralistic world.
A History Synopsis of the Press and in Bourgeois Society
The first Industrial Revolution in England, which coincided with the Age of Reason (Enlightenment) centered in 18th century France, laid the foundations for universal education to prepare people for the changing workforce. The foundations of journalism as we know it were established in that transitional period as much for Europe as for America. Because Western journalism has its ideological foundations in the Age of Reason when the bourgeois value system replaced that of the church identified with the landowning nobility since the era of Frankish Emperor Charlemagne, it is hardly an enigma that journalism mirrors the bourgeois social order and institutions that also have their origins in the 18th century. The ideological foundations of journalism rest in the pluralism of the Enlightenment that coincided with the American and French revolutions thrusting the bourgeois elites into the forefront of society.
The socioeconomic hegemony of the bourgeoisie by the 19th century throughout the Western World, in European colonies, and spheres of influences around the world entailed that the bourgeois model of journalism would become prevalent and remain so until this day. Part of journalism’s role was to publicize ‘bourgeois democracy’ as the ‘natural’ system of government best suited for the ‘natural’ economic system of capitalism; a theme on which that Adam Smith dwelled in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes Wealth of the Nations (1776).
A theme of the Enlightenment, it was widely accepted that man is able to apply the laws of nature to society and create a more rational institutional structure that would better serve mankind. However, Enlightenment thinkers reflected the rise of the bourgeoisie who believed the old aristocratic social order was anachronistic. The goal was to replace the old elites in society with the bourgeoisie that reflected far reaching and rapid changes in the evolving capitalist economy and claimed to embody the welfare of all people.
Bourgeois journalism necessarily promoted the distinct awareness in the public debate of the private sector (merchant capitalists, industrialists, bankers and landowners) vs. public sector realm with the former fighting to mold public policy that would further strengthen capitalist interests. In 1962, Jurgen Habemas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere described the development of how bourgeois society evolved during the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries and how the increasing role of the public sphere entailed the weaving of ideological, political, cultural and socioeconomic developments inculcated into the public dialogue.
Amid increasing public awareness of the private sector-public sector dichotomy, which journalism helped to promote, public opinion became an integral part of the bourgeois political landscape. By the second half of the 19th century with the vast expansion of the middle class in Western countries, especially the US, capitalists and politicians, academics and journalists began to take more seriously the citizen as a consumer. Considering the expansion of the educated lower middle class developing self-conscious as a political force, this meant that journalists had the task of presenting the bourgeois political economy as all-inclusive and participatory. Therein rested the challenge of apologists who needed to explain the contradictions of a system rooted in inequality as democratic or equal merely because it afforded ‘the opportunity’ to all for upward social mobility.
Hardly was an issue before the French Revolution, public opinion redefined the concept of the ‘national interest’, identifying it with ‘the people’, presumably all people – all people outside the realm of aristocratic privilege, as the Abbe Sieyes argued in “What is the Third Estate?” In reality, the political economy marginalized not just the working class, but women, immigrants and minorities, while insisting on embodying the ‘public interest’.
Dichotomous thinking about state power versus civil society, which theoretically represents all people but in fact the elites, was imbedded in liberal bourgeois thought since the early 19th century. This remains prevalent in our times even more so than in the past. Journalism has always reflected this dichotomous thinking, and as an integral part of the bourgeois institutional structure. Never questioning its own ideological assumptions, journalism cannot engage in self-criticism beyond the confines of its ideological assumptions, as the hypocritical New York Times claim of objectivity illustrates. Instead, it accepts as gospel truth its ideological assumptions and self-righteous and self-anointed role as public interest sentinel.
Nationalism and patriotism have been catalytic for journalism in molding robo-citizens and defending the status quo. Wars from the Napoleonic era down to the regional conflicts of the early 21st century only strengthen the fervor of nationalism as a secular religion considering individual identity with the nation-state. Across Europe and the US since American War of Independence, nationalism has been the opium of the people, largely because journalism helps to promote it as such. The political and socioeconomic elites use war to rally support around the flag despite the fact that military policies serve the very narrow interests of defense-related industries, banks and business sectors linked to defense. Rarely questioning the elites they serve, journalists enthusiastically fall in line operating under the illusion that they are serving the public.
As Habermas argued, the public sphere’ which journalism proclaims to represent and reflect is an imaginary community. More significant, there are inherent contradictions in the liberal-bourgeois constructs of journalism’s assertions as the political economy is in a constant state of evolution. Mass politics and consumerism capitalism by the turn of the 20th century obviated the bourgeois public sphere that was a reality when Alexis de Tocqueville was writing Democracy in America in the 1830s. The challenge for bourgeois journalism is how to project the image – the illusion – of the elitist bourgeois social order as representative of all of society in the age of mass politics. Right-wing populism made famous in the mid-19th century in Western Europe was one answer to the puzzle, though by no means the only one.
With the creation of trade unions and working-class based political parties, class consciousness became more ubiquitous, realizing that corporate journalism did not embody working class interests. Anti-establishment journalism representing workers was inevitable. However, government and business adamantly fought against it because it challenged the orthodoxy of mainstream journalism’s legitimacy as representative of the social contract and public interest. At the same time that moguls like William Randolph Hearst. Joseph Pulitzer, and Lincoln Steffens dominated the mainstream press, dissenting voices such as Upton Sinclair, Ray Stannard Baker, and John Reed presented the world from the viewpoint of the masses rather than elites at the turn of the 20th century.
The age of mass politics forced mainstream journalism to adopt ‘reformist’ positions in order to avoid revolutionary solutions that some among the leftist intelligentsia and radical trade unions demanded. By the 1930s when the social welfare state became a necessary means to preserve the bourgeois social order and the Axis Powers were posing a serious threat to Western bourgeois democracy, journalism once again had the challenge of reflecting on the contradictions of its methodology and claims as an objective mechanism of information in society.
Historically, bourgeois journalism defended the social order and economic system that the state served, while castigating politicians as the enemy. This strategy by mainstream journalism diverted focus from capitalism as the root cause of social problems, placing blame on politicians, although politicians served capitalist interests. This was as much in the Great Depression as after WWII. Once the social welfare era of the New Deal ended with Truman launching a Cold War, the corporate media reflected the new political reality with the goal of engendering mass conformity to the regime of anti-communism and loyalty to the capitalist system and bourgeois society at home and around the world.
Reporting, news analysis, and editorial opinions centered on ‘the present danger’ of Communism at home and world-wide, while subordinating civil rights, human rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights or any issue pertaining to social justice. Journalists never questioned the assumptions of the Cold War. They did not even question allegations made by Senator Joseph McCarthy against citizens accused of Communist sympathizing, and they never bothered to investigate if those allegations and list of names existed. If they wanted a job, they needed to worship at the same temple as the state and corporations. The same type of journalistic practice prevailed during the George W. Bush administration that declared war on Iraq based on fake claims of weapons of mass destruction.
The global anti-Communist crusade during the Cold War and counter-terrorism crusade in the early 21st century were convenient excuses to engender conformity in a society that set aside democratic principles and practices, including First Amendment rights. Silencing dissent of any kind that questioned anything from the corporate world to the defense establishment has been the norm. Amid such propagandistic quest by mainstream journalism, the challenge for journalism has been to present its goal as defending the public interest, freedom and democratic principles, while in essence the goal was to suppress all they claimed to defend.
Because dissent was thoroughly crushed by the state in very subtle ways, the corporate media’s task has not been as daunting as it may appear. After all, every institution from churches to schools works toward the same goal of helping to create robo-citizens whose identity and values rest in a consumerist culture. Public opinion matters only within the narrow perimeters of the corporate neoliberal ideology. The result has been creating ‘robo-citizens’ ‘zombified’ because journalism is reduced to propaganda and an extension of government and business public relations departments. (Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (1962) and Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964)
Because journalism is necessarily reduced to propaganda and conformity to the bourgeois social order necessitates it, the blurring lines between advertising and news become so evident that they are hardly distinguishable. Adding to this framework the advent of tabloid journalism that exploded since the 1980s, we have a cult of the rich and famous media focused on the personal lives of the elites and celebrities rather than reporting and analyzing problems in the lives of the average citizen.
This does not mean that there has not been popular reaction to the corporate media’s incessant endeavors to manufacture robo-citizens. The evolution of American society in the 1950s and 1960s toward a civil rights and anti-war mode by large segments of the American middle class forced yet another shift in public policy. Forging bourgeois consensus that entailed the media’s goal was to help bring along the robo-citizens became necessary to maintain public confidence in the social order and political economy. Toward that goal, the media helped to drive across to the American public that consumerism was equated with democracy.
As Herbert Marcuse argues, consumerism as a form of social control is at the core of the corporate media that molds the perception of freedom; equating subjugation with freedom, as long as one has the ability to purchase it in the form of consumer goods. In short, the media constantly projects the bourgeois materialist value system as universal that must be embraced by all people; something that resembles more a Fascist corporatist goal than a democratic one. The media defines the illusory public sphere within the consumerist confines and all programing on TV from news broadcasts to situation comedies presented from such a prism to reinforce the value system.
Since the Civil Rights movement, which addressed legal issues for minorities and women, society has shifted more theoretically than in practice to reflect that class transcends gender and race. To make sure that the masses are convinced there is indeed equality and social justice, the ubiquitous drug of political correctness emerged to provide the cloak of democracy. No institution has been better in delivering the political correctness pill to the masses than the corporate media.
Beneath the thin veil of political correctness rest the ugly realities of institutional racism as we have seen with the treatment of minorities by the criminal justice system and police killings of black youth; sexism as statistics regarding wage inequalities and job promotion; xenophobia and Islamophobia that is in fact openly celebrated within the Republican Party and covertly practiced by liberals hiding behind political correctness. Political correctness has become a substitute for social justice and even those castigating it realize its usefulness to protect the image of the pluralistic society. As long as one speaks/writes politically correct words, what’s the point of addressing deep-seated institutional racism, sexism and xenophobia through public policy?
Political correctness along with consumerist values have resulted in more conforming robo-citizens in the age of the internet that theoretically permits greater pluralism. Subjugated by consumerism and technology that become substitutes for human freedom and creativity, the one-dimensional human more readily accepts political correctness only as long as the political economy is perceived to offer the faint hope of realizing the American Dream. People are eager to be robo-citizens because they know that is the way to survive in the workplace and in society demanding conformity.
But what if hope to realize the American Dream becomes distant, as it did by 2016 amid the presidential race, no matter how conforming the robo-citizen has become? A large segment of the population turns either to right wing populist solutions that borders on neo-Fascism, or a more left-oriented one that resembles a New Deal society that FDR built in the 1930s to save capitalism from self-inflicted wounds. In such scenarios, the corporate media is faced with contradictions in the political economy so glaring that it has no choice but to strip away the mask of objectivity, especially as it must weigh in its own financial and strategic interests. (Justin Lewis, Beyond Consumer Capitalism: Media and the Limits of Imagination, 2013)
From the early 1980s until the present, there have been a number of bestselling books arguing that the media is ‘left-leaning’. Upon a closer examination of the term ‘left’, one discovers that critics are referring to a liberal ideology with a multicultural slant that reflects a pluralistic society, deliberately stigmatizing it for advocating ‘big government’. In other words, left for rightwing critics means any favorable of issues that many in the Democratic Party espouse, ranging from abortion, to racial profiling by police, women’s right to equal wages, gay rights and other lifestyle issues, from a fairer tax system and an environment policy based on science not profit.
Needless to point out, the ‘left-leaning’ media that the extreme right wingers so label does not address social justice issues, income inequality, mass illegal surveillance of citizens, human rights abuses, war crimes the US commits against innocent civilians as recorded by international human rights organizations. In fact, anyone covering Keynesian economics favorably would be a Communist, although Keynesianism was the salvation of capitalism in the 1930s.
The result of right wing criticism against the ‘left-leaning’ media has meant the increasing right wing orientation of all media to the degree that political and business consensus is a universally shared goal by the corporate-owned media. This is regardless of whether journalists favor Republican or Democrat candidates whose goal is after all to carve policy intended to strengthen the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the dwindling middle class and workers. After all, the media is a business and it relies on ad revenue sources for its survival. Journalists know they cannot pursue a career unless they fall in line with the corporate ideological and political position of the corporate media mogul employer.
The media cannot offend its corporate sponsor by covering a labor strike from the perspective of labor, or covering equal pay for equal work from the perspective of immigrants, blacks and women. At most, the media will mention such grievances but always tilt reporting to favor business in the name of ‘jobs creation’, even if that means the employers are paying below poverty level wages, oppose unionization, collective bargaining, worker benefits, health and safety. Pro-business reporting is invariably backed by politicians siding with business. Therefore, the political establishment lends to media a sense of legitimacy, while dismissing the grievances of workers, women and minorities as contrary to the economic national interest.
The multi-billion dollar corruption scandals involving big banks and investment firms such as Wells-Fargo and Goldman Sachs are news-worthy only in-so far as Justice Department fines are causing stock market instability rather than reflecting systemic corruption symptomatic of capitalism. Popular protests against police killings of unarmed black youth, which protests may cause several hundred of several thousand dollars damage to property, are newsworthy as indicative of a segment of society that breaks the law. In short, the media treats the hundreds of billions defrauded by Wall Street investment firms as part of doing business and refuses to condemn it as a major crime against society. Wells Fargo CEO retired under pressure because of his bank’s corrupt practices, instead of going to prison. At the same time that the media reports this as normal business practice, it has no problem denouncing as criminals popular protesters against police racist violence. Such reporting by the media is a very clear reflection of the corporate agenda with political undertones.
Although some have argued that former General Electric CEO Jack Welch was the first to introduce the concept of corporate agenda through NBC network, this practice is as old as TV that always relied on corporate sponsors and government in order to survive and thrive. The combined pressure on journalists from both their corporate employers and government simply prevents any kind of reporting and analysis that deviates from prescribed perimeters. The trick is to appear genuinely critical when in fact the goal must remain to eulogize the status quo. Mostly through the use of populist rhetoric, journalists are able to accomplish as much while in essence remaining faithful to the corporate goals and political objectives of the employer.
In theory, the First Amendment guaranteed free speech as much in the 19th century as in the early 21st century. However, in practice corporate journalism practices what the political and business climate wants both in domestic and foreign affairs. In case reporters deviate, both government and corporations have all the leverage at their disposal to remove them. For example, in extreme cases ever since the Espionage Act of 1917, which was intended against enemies and traitors, government has given itself the right to go after journalists. Ironically, the ‘liberal’ Obama administration has used the Espionage Act more liberally to make sure there is conformity to US policy in all matters from illegal surveillance to overt and covert military and intelligence operations. At the same time, journalists are often subject to covert surveillance just in case they try to circumvent official positions of corporate media and government.
As we have seen already by briefly examining the history of bourgeois journalism, there has never been ‘fairness’ in media because that implies it is a scientific endeavor rather than a political one and it represents all classes rather than the capitalists. Naturally, there are journalists who verify stories better than others for accuracy and try to present more than just one viewpoint. However, in cases where there is even be an attempt to condemn the capitalist system and the political structure under which it operates the journalist will be out of work.
This does not mean that is all cases there ought to be two sides of the story. For example, should journalists writing about the Third Reich’s “Jewish Question” have been presenting the pro-Nazi position as morally equivalent to that of the Holocaust victims? Should journalists writing about the Ku Klux Klan’s lynching activities have been presenting the story from the perspective of the black victims as well as their executioners justifying their activities? Clearly, this is where the question of values, morality and journalistic principles enters into the picture. The editorial policy embraces a set of values and principles based on its ideological and political position, thus the stories presented to the public are ipso facto a perspective reflecting editorial policy.
Even media watchdog groups are as biased if not more than the media. For example, the conservative Accuracy in Media (AIM) organization insists that the media has a liberal bias. Considering the funding historically comes from large corporations such as oil companies, it comes as no surprise that AIM adamantly opposes Democrats with an environmental and socially progressive agenda, blaming the Black Lives Matter movement rather than analyzing how the media covers the police favorably and how unfavorably it portrays minorities. The liberal Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) claims that there is a conservative bias in news reporting and analysis.
If we go beyond the US and look at the media around the world, it is eye-opening how the exact same story, let us say the war in Afghanistan or the inner city police shootings of black youth are reported so strikingly different. The American audience relying on the mainstream media is left with a completely different impression than its counterparts around the world, although the headline news stories are on the same subject.
Despite factors working in its favor, the media has an image problem, according to all public opinion polls. According to Gallup, only 32% of the American public trusts the mass media "to report the news fully, accurately and fairly". This percentage is the lowest since 1972, reflecting a trend that is actually broader across the entire Western World. There are other polling organizations that have the public trust of media in the single digits, but all polling must be taken with some measure of skepticism because the respondents decrying the media’s credibility rely on it for their news and their views are shaped by it.
As younger people receive their news through social media outlets, and the mainstream media is identified with people over thirty, the future looks brighter for social media than for the mainstream that will eventually absorb or have a working relationship with the major social media outlets delivering news. Interestingly, older people express much greater confidence in the media than young people, and Democrats more so than Republicans. http://www.gallup.com/poll/195542/americans-trust-mass-media-sinks-new-low.aspx