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Combating media propaganda

In an early posting on the media, I argued that there are some benefits to having a partisan media, where different media outlets pursue competing agendas in addition to covering the news, and where they abandon the notion of practicing “neutral”, “unbiased”, and “objective” journalism. I suggested that this kind of partisan journalism is common in other countries and that there is reason to think that the public is better served by them than by the kind of journalism practiced in the US.

There is an example in the US of the kind of partisan journalism that I am advocating and that is Fox News. The thought that I am promoting Fox News as a model to be followed may surprise readers of this blog who would know that Fox News’s politics are quite different from mine.

The problem is not that Fox news is so obviously biased, but that it operates in a climate where the ideal is that of so-called “neutral objectivity” which enables it to pretend to be something it is not. Even Fox’s slogans that it is “Fair and balanced” and “We report, you decide” signal its genuflection at the altar of what journalism should be, even as it practices a form of it that is counter to those stated goals. The problem with Fox is that in the US we have an unbalanced partisan media. There is no major media representing the political and economic interests of the working and middle class and pro-peace groups. All we have are Fox, which is openly partisan, and the other major news outlets trying to be “neutral”, but all of whom effectively serve the pro-war/pro-business elites.

In previous postings (see here, here and here), I described the filters that act to produce the kind of unbalanced journalism that we have in the US today. They are:

1. Size, ownership, and profit orientation
2. The advertising license to do business
3. Sourcing mass media news
4. Flak and the enforcers
5. Anticommunism/terrorism as a control mechanism
6. Class nature of the journalistic profession

To create a truly objective media is impossible under the current system since it requires us to be able to create a system that bypasses all these filters. Some alternative media models have tried to eliminate some of them. The BBC for example, tries to remove at least the first two filters. It does this by the British government levying a tax on all owners of radios and TV and this provides a steady revenue stream for the BBC which can operate commercial free. The existence of a Board of Governors can shield the journalists from the more obvious and direct forms of governmental control. In the US, a variation on this model is found on public radio and TV, where there is a mix of governmental subsidy and private individual membership, coupled with corporate underwriting.

This kind of funding mechanism gives a slightly greater degree of independence to the journalists and produces a slightly different form of journalism, although the other four filters still remain and prevent public broadcasting from straying too far off the reservation. The BBC and NPR are careful to not deviate too far from the pro-war/pro-business framework, and PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is remarkable for how subservient it is to the official line, even more so than the commercial networks. So public funding does not eliminate all the problems of the media, just a few of its more obvious and obnoxious features.

It is interesting that even this slight deviation from the standard line by the BBC and NPR is enough to raise the hackles of government and corporations and thus one has the periodic calls for cutting the public subsidy. The people who call for this kind of ‘reform’ always cloak their arguments in terms of the marketplace. They always urge that public broadcasting get more money from the private sector because they know that depending on advertising revenue has a strong inhibiting effect on how the news is covered. This has already has an effect as public broadcasting has increased its dependence on corporate underwriters, thus bringing filter two back in to a greater extent.

It seems unrealistic to expect that we can create a traditional new media outlet that is free of the six biasing filters. That would require legislative action and could well produce a system that is even worse than what currently exists, one closer to the kind of direct governmental control that is found in some totalitarian societies.

This is why I recommend that the better way might be to create a media system where the biases that are already there are made manifest. If the requirement to be neutral and objective were removed, then people would be soon realize that what differentiates Fox News from CBS or CNN or any other mainstream media outlet is not that one is biased and the others are not, but that each merely serves a different faction of the ruling classes and the pro-war/pro-business party. People would then be able to shop around for other perspectives.

The advent of satellite TV now allows people to get a much wider array of news that has more diverse biases. For example, al-Jazeera provides a counter to the bias of the mainstream US media and satellite TV enables people to see it and other alternative sources from around the world. The catch is that this is expensive and out of reach of most people.

It is a success of the propaganda model that most people in the US will immediately characterize al-Jazeera as ‘biased’ compared to the American media, when the reality is that what distinguishes al-Jazeera from CNN is not that the former is biased and the latter is not, but that they each have different biases. Knowing this enables one to start reading between the lines. But because of the cost of producing and distributing television programs, even al-Jazeera is constrained by the filters that reflect the sheer economics of the business.

The internet provides a great opportunity for providing alternative news perspectives and agendas that are relatively free (at least for now) from the financial barriers to entry. The internet has many features that enable it to overcome the six filters. The cost of entry is low and one can reach vast numbers of people with very little investment. That means that almost anyone can start a media outlet and can avoid having to depend on advertising (at least somewhat) to generate revenue. That also makes one less sensitive to flak, although that still exists.

As an example, take the website Antiwar.com. This is an excellent site for news. It has a clear agenda and is unabashed about it, as its name suggests, and yet it does not spread falsehoods. It does not depend on advertising, being dependent largely on voluntary contributions of individuals like myself. In my opinion, it is one of the best sources of news and information, culling it from a wide range of primary sources from around the world and drawing in knowledgeable commentators of various political stripes, far superior to the dreary and predictable meanderings of the op-ed writers in the mainstream press. The people behind the site are not shy about revealing their libertarian/paleo-conservative political orientation, so you know what you are getting.

Cursor is another good source for information and commentary, this time from a progressive political perspective.

And of course, there are the blogs, which allow for greater participation and networking among political activists, who no longer need to depend on the big media or expensive mailings to network and inform and organize.

The danger that the low-entry cost of the internet poses to the dominance of the cozy media-business-government filtered system has not gone unrecognized. This is why there are increasing calls for regulation of the internet that would effectively limit access, or for elimination of ‘net neutrality’, i.e. for measures that would privilege groups that can pay more for access to the internet. The more the internet goes under private corporate control, the easier it would become for the filters to be brought to bear in this sector of the media too. Again, the control is unlikely to take the form of direct editorial control. It will come in the form of economics, by making the medium expensive to access so that the economic and advertising filters kick in.

Recall that in the early days of newspapers and radio, it was the low cost of entry that led to diverse and vibrant media, and in the case of newspapers, quite partisan forms of it. Newspapers in those days were not shy about pushing their agendas. That cost has now risen for newspapers, squeezing out all but the big corporations. Setting up a radio station is still cheap, oddly enough, but in that sector alternative voices they have been squeezed out by the government creating a licensing system that enables it to dole out portions of the electromagnetic spectrum to those who have the resources and clout to lobby them for it, and threatening low-power so-called ‘pirate’ stations with heavy fines and confiscation if they dare to make use of what are the public airwaves. The restrictions on ownership have now been relaxed to allow a few giants like Clear Channel to control large numbers of radio stations nationwide, thus having a strong control on the message.

So as I see it, the solution to the problem of the media lies in maintaining the low-cost entry to the internet, exposing the hidden partisan nature of the current media system, and extolling the creation of competing partisan news outlets who are free to have an overt agenda.

POST SCRIPT: Is Fox News being paid by the White House?

I have written earlier about the journalistic tactic of posing things as questions in order to avoid taking responsibility for stating the same idea as an assertion. Jon Stewart gives more examples. . .

. . . and for Jon Stewart’s and Little Richard’s reactions to Bush’s speech on Monday, see here.

Comments

  1. says

    Dr Singham –

    Even if the Internet offers the opportunity to eliminate media propaganda, how do we encourage people to seek out a broad range of opinions on a given topic, rather than read only the media outlets that they agree with? How to prevent many pockets of radicalism from developing?

    Carl

  2. says

    Carl,

    There is alwasy the danger that you pose. I think though, that we need to avoid seeking a perfect solution. While there will always be people who delibrately wear blinkers, I don’t think most people are like that. Most people would like to know what is really going on but they will do that only if they get presented with information that cotradicts what they think is true.

    If we have a variey of partisan media, the chnaces are greater that when someone says “I read X” in the papers, someone else in the group will say “Really, I read that it was not-X.” Then people are more likely to ask “Well, is it X or non X?” They may not change their minds, but at least they will have to deal with it in some way.

    Currently, we are simply told it is X and people accept it because no other view is presented and thus they think it is the “truth.”

  3. Erin says

    Mano, with all due respect, I do not think there is any evidence for your viewpoint here. I think the burden of proof is on those who wish to demolish the existing media to establish that people’s personal associations are diverse enough and deep enough, and that their attachments to their preexisting views are dispassionate enough, and that their ability to resist charismatic demagogues is well-developed enough, for intelligent voter behavior to emerge in this manner. I will be shocked if you are able to find evidence of this. By contrast, I can point you to a long line of evidence against people’s willingness to abandon former ideas in favor of demonstrably better ones: the literature on confirmation bias.

    Please note that I am not saying that what we have is good. It is not. But at least there is some slim chance in our dialogue that we are reading the same sources and arguing using the same facts. Speaking as one who works in a “science” where people do not, by and large, feel any obligation to wrestle with the same facts — I guarantee you, this is a far worse outcome. You cannot count on anyone, even clever people with Ph.D.s and chaired professorships, to behave in the manner that your media would require.

  4. says

    Erin,

    I wasn’t actually suggesting that we demolish to existing media (I don’t even know how that could be done) but suggesting that we dispel the illusion that they are neutral or objective, or that they can maintain a hard line between fact and opinion.

    I was also suggesting that once people are aware that all media are promoting a certain agenda, they become more acute news consumers. Of course, they can still read only what they want to hear, but that is what they do now anyway.

    I am suggesting that the most dangerous forms of propaganda is when people do not know that they are the victims of it, which is what the current situation is.

    Mano

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