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.

How institutional filters operate

Many people have criticisms of the media. They hold the media responsible for the sorry state of civic discourse and the fact that, for example, about half the population still believes that Iraq had something to do with 9/11. Their plaintive cry “If only the media would do its proper job, then people would be better informed and we would have better government” is often heard. They wonder why the media highlights some stories and ignores others, and suspect dark motives.

In this series on the way the media operates, I have tried to steer the discussion away from issues of human motivation and bias in understanding the media. What we have is not a system of individuals consciously and deliberately steering news coverage in a particular direction which they know to be false or misleading. Only a few people at the very top of the institutions are likely to be like that.

Instead we have a system in place that has the effect of weeding out all but those individuals who view the news in a particular way. Most of the journalists who remain and prosper in the system are those who have internalized the values of the corporate media system and its rules of operation. Rather than thinking of themselves as doing something that is less than good journalism, they actually think that they are upholding its finest traditions, of maintaining “objectivity” and “neutrality”. So by and large they will be able to work with a clear conscience. That is the sign of a really good propaganda model. People cannot fake things on a consistent basis for a long time. If individual journalists were writing and saying things that they did not themselves believe in, it would soon become obvious and they would not be effective.

All large institutions have such filters that weed out people with ideas that oppose its basic interests. For example, the advertising industry is unlikely to be congenial to those who feel that telling the truth about products, both good and bad, is important in creating an informed consumer. Those people, even if for some reason they chose to enter that profession, are likely to be weeded out quite early. The people who remain and succeed are not necessarily intellectually dishonest. They are people who think that it is better to dwell on the positive rather than the negative, and that the marketplace as a whole will be the best judge of what is good and bad, not individuals, and that it is not their job to make such judgments on behalf of others. They see their job as to present their product in the best possible light.

Universities are also not immune from this kind of filtering. They tend to filter out those people who do not value knowledge, however esoteric, for its own sake. People who think that the only knowledge of any value is that which has a practical and immediate payoff are not likely to find universities to be congenial places for them, except in a few departments like engineering or business. The converse is true for manufacturing industries. Those places have little use for people who like to think about ideas in the abstract and are unable to translate those ideas into actual products.

The problem with the media is not that it has such filters in place that result in producing “news” that suits the needs of the pro-war/pro-business one party state. The problem is that the media is not perceived by the public as having any kind of bias at all. And it is this that makes it dangerous.

Most people are savvy enough to realize that the advertisements they see for products are not produced by impartial people. They are aware that consumers of print and video media are the targets of a careful campaign to persuade them to adopt a particular point of view, which is that the product being advertised is something they need (which may not be the case) and that it is the best among the options available to satisfy that manufactured need (which may not be true).

Despite this self-awareness, it is a dubious tribute to Madison Avenue that advertising is so successful in persuading people to purchase products. But even advertisers know that advertising is even more successful when people are not consciously aware that they are being marketed to. Hence we have the more recent innovations of product placement in films and TV shows, and having seemingly ordinary people in places like bars praise the virtues of products to other patrons, thus creating what seems to be a spontaneous “buzz” for a product. ‘Word of mouth’ praise from friends and acquaintances is more effective than being pitched something by people who are paid to do so.

The success of the propaganda media is likewise dependent on most people not realizing that they are being sold a product, in this case a particular slant on “the news.” For example, I was sitting in a restaurant one day and a person at another table was recommending The O’Reilly Factor to his companions as a show that “tells it like it is” with “no spin.” This person had clearly bought into the slogans that are carefully marketed by news organizations, that they are fair and balanced. Such people are for more susceptible to propaganda than those who understand the invisible drivers at work in creating the news.

Next in the series: How this knowledge can be used to build a better news system.

POST SCRIPT: Happy first birthday, Baxter!

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The class nature of journalists

There is one final filter that Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman do not include in their in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent that I think is worthy of addition, and that is the changing class nature of journalists and the professional paths that have developed.

Journalists in the past could enter the profession with little formal education. They could join a newspaper after high school as copy boys (and be essentially gofers), and then work their way up the ladder to become full-fledged reporters. They pretty much learned their profession on the job, by observing the reporters in the newspaper and being mentored by them.

An important consequence of this kind of career path is that the profession was open to a wide array of people. In particular, there was little in the way of barriers, especially income and wealth barriers, to entry in the profession. Furthermore, the very fact that journalism was so open made the profession less desirable to the members of the professional classes and people in the upper income brackets. Such people were more likely to steer their children to the prestigious professions of medicine and law and the corporate world.

In other words, the class background of journalists tended to be working or lower-middle class. Even when they rose in the profession, their background and families and haunts were those of the less privileged groups in society and one could expect them to view the government and its policies through the eyes of the people who were affected by them, rather than from the point of view of those deciding and implementing the policies. Issues such as unemployment rates and business layoffs and welfare and neighborhood decay were likely to affect people they knew personally, either as family members or friends and acquaintances. They were likely to even know petty criminals personally and socially, so the impact of issues of law and order and the state of prisons were things that they were familiar with on a personal level, and were not merely statistics or stuff they read about in think-tank reports.

But the rise of journalism as a profession has changed that dynamic. Oddly enough, Watergate played a role, making reporters seem glamorous, and journalism an appealing career for those who in earlier times would have disdained it. Having a college degree, preferably in journalism, became the new entry point and the cost of obtaining this entrance ticket naturally acted as a barrier to lower-income people entering the profession. As a result, over time, the class background of journalists has changed. Furthermore, the range of interpretations of what journalism should be became restricted, constrained by the views of the elite schools of journalism. The rough edges of the working class journalist had become eliminated, and we now produce journalism graduates who fit smoothly into the corporate media structure.

Reporters now are likely to have little in common with the poorer segments of societies. They are more likely to have stock portfolios, good health care and retirement plans, and to live in nice neighborhoods and hob-nob with the well-to-do. Their class interests mirror those of the elites in society. It is not a secret, for example, that the Washington press corps socialize with the very people they are supposed to cover, attending the same parties and hosting and being guests at each others’ homes.

When dealing with issues such as unemployment, such reporters’ instincts now are likely to be with the interests of Wall Street rather than the impact on the people without jobs. They are more likely to be concerned with the state of the Dow Jones index than on how families survive without a wage earner. If workers go on strike, journalists are more likely to view this from the point of view of the effect on the consumer or management rather than that of the strikers. When reporting on issues like raising the minimum wage, they are more likely to focus on the impact such an act would have on business profits, rather than the impact on workers’ families and lives. When companies go bankrupt, they are likely to view this from the viewpoint of its stockholders rather than the workers who are now suddenly abandoned.

Since journalists are now members of the same demographic that advertisers consider as desirable (people with disposable income), they are much more at home with the idea of the media as serving the needs of advertisers, with its great focus on providing ‘soft’ feature coverage of sports and entertainment and lifestyle issues rather than the gritty aspects of hard news, because those are the things that they themselves are interested in.

As a result of all six filters, we finally have a fully functioning propaganda model that works smoothly. The profit motive and the economics of publishing push reporting towards coverage that is sympathetic to government and corporate interests. The pro-war/pro-business one party state ensures that contrary voices to the governing consensus are marginalized. And the barriers to entry into the profession means that the resulting class nature of journalists make them find the atmosphere created by these two forces very congenial.

Should we then be surprised that the media functions the way it does?

POST SCRIPT: Safe/Not safe

As usual, it is up to a comedy show to expose the fatuousness of Bush trying to simultaneously argue that he has made the country safer while trying to terrify people with the dangers out there.

Daily Show commentator John Oliver sums up the Administration message, “George W. Bush is the right man to lead us in the era post to whatever horrible calamity he leads us into next.”

After all, as Will Rogers once said, “If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can’t it get us out?”

The final two filters

In the previous posting in this series, I wrote about how Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent provide a good model for how a sophisticated propaganda model works. They point out that rather than direct control of news, what exists in the US is a system of five filters that has the effect of steadily weeding out of the system those who do not serve the needs of the dominant interests. In the previous post, I described three of the filters. Today, I will discuss the other two.

4. Flak and the enforcers

Chomsky and Herman define flak as “negative response to a media statement or program.” They point out that “If flak is produced on a large scale, or by individuals or groups with substantial resources, it can be both uncomfortable and costly to the media. Positions have to be defended within the organization and without, sometimes before legislatures and possibly even the courts. Advertisers may withdraw their patronage.” (p. 26)

They point out that there are many groups that have been created with the specific aim of creating flak to keep the media in line. Those that have the most resources tend to be the ones most able to maintain a sustained barrage of flak and it should be no surprise that the best funded are those who advance the interests of the big corporations or wealthy individuals. It is also no accident that the charge of a “liberal media” is so incessantly repeated, despite any evidence to the contrary. Doing so ensures that the media will internalize that critique and reflexively try and make sure that nothing they do could be so interpreted.

The treatment that Tom Ricks experienced when he spoke about some of Israel’s actions during the invasion of Lebanon is a good example of this kind of flak. Whenever a mainstream media outlet suggests that the motives of ‘our’ governments (US or Israel) is anything less than perfectly pure, or that the motives of ‘them’ (currently Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, Syria, or North Korea) is anything other than evil, you can be sure that they will encounter flak from all the agencies and lobbying groups with a vested interest in maintaining the standard narrative.

After awhile, journalists and their editors realize that life is a lot simpler if some things are simply left unsaid, irrespective of whether they are true or not. This is why comedy shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and late night comics have a little more freedom to say what is actually on their minds. They can deflect some flak by invoking comedic privilege.

So while avoiding topics or statements that might generate flak becomes a decision that can be explained and even justified on business principles, the net result is that media coverage becomes hugely sympathetic and favorable to the interests of the government, corporate interests, and the think tanks that are funded by them, because they are the ones who can generate and sustain huge amounts of flak.

This also explains why the very people who are always trashing the media are the very ones who are always given plenty of time by that same media to air their views. As Chomsky and Herman point out, “Although the flak machines steadily attack the mass media, the media treat them well. They receive respectful attention, and their propagandistic role and links to a larger corporate program are rarely mentioned or analyzed. . .This reflects the power of the sponsors, including the well-entrenched position of the right wing in the mass media themselves.” (p. 28)

Chomsky and Herman wrote those words in 1988 but they still apply. I am told that new CBS evening news anchor Katie Couric interviewed Rush Limbaugh on the news program on Thursday, September 7, even though Limbaugh’s shtick is to routinely berate the “liberal media.”

Take, for another example, Ann Coulter (please!). Media Matters reports:

Republican hatemonger Ann Coulter has continued her attack on the media, including making a recent statement where she reaffirmed her wish that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh had bombed The New York Times’ building.

There seems to be no low to which Coulter won’t sink in her pursuit of airtime. She recently apparently endorsed the murder of Rep. John P. Murtha (D-PA) and suggested that Democratic support of a recent Supreme Court decision is “siding with Al Qaeda.” Coulter’s musings about violence against her perceived enemies are nothing new; she once suggested that former President Clinton be assassinated.

You might think that the media would distance themselves from such advocacy of political murder. But you’d be wrong: Coulter continues to be invited on a wide range of television programs, including on MSNBC and NBC.

Media Matters poses the question: “Is there nothing she could say they would find inappropriate?” The answer is no, not as long as she advances the interests of her sponsors, whereas someone who thoughtfully and carefully and (most importantly) competently argues against the powerful interests will find it hard to get even a fraction of the airtime she does.

5. Anticommunism as a control mechanism

This final filter is interesting. Chomsky and Herman wrote their book in 1988 when the Soviet Union was still in existence and Cold War anti-communistic ideology and rhetoric was still dominant. They write:

“This ideology helps mobilize the populace against an enemy, and because the concept is fuzzy it can be used against anybody advocating property rights or support accommodation with Communist states and radicalism. . .Liberals at home, often accused of being pro-Communist or insufficiently anti-Communist, are kept constantly on the defensive in a cultural milieu in which anticommunism is the dominant religion. . .Many of them have internalized the religion anyway, but they are all under great pressure to demonstrate their anti-Communist credentials. This causes them to behave very much like reactionaries.” (p. 29)

While anti-Communism ideology is still there as an important controlling mechanism (for example, those who advocate single-payer health insurance policies are routinely charged with advocating “socialized medicine”), one could replace “communism” with “terrorism” and “property rights” with “human rights” in the above passage and have an almost perfect description of the current political climate. This lends support for my long-held view that fear is the dominant controlling factor that authoritarian governments use in controlling their populations, and they will always find something to keep the public’s knees shaking, as long as we let them.

Before the terrorist threat conveniently came along, the decline of the Soviet Union in 1991 as an existential threat to the US resulted in a need for a replacement threat to maintain fear. For a while it was alleged that drugs and crack cocaine that was threatening the very fabric of American life and the “drug cartels” were the new global enemy and the “war on drugs” was the grand crusade in which the country was engaged. Remember the much-hyped Medellin cartel, that fearsome South American group that was supposedly threatening to destroy life and civilization as we know it? For a while back in the 1990s, people were constantly being alarmed by suggestions that drug dealers were lurking everywhere, even behind the bushes in our elementary schools, trying to coax our children into becoming addicts so that the US would be turned into a nation of drug-crazed addicts.

While the drug war served as a stop-gap fear generator, it was really not a good long-term candidate since much drug use takes place among the elites in the US, and it is hard to see the rich and famous being given the ‘perp walk’ and put in jails and tortured.

“Terrorism” is more serviceable as a fear device since its threats are vague and indiscriminate. Linking it to Islam makes it seems deliciously alien and exotic and dangerous, just like Communism was, although in actual fact there is little to distinguish Islam from Christianity or Judaism since they are all merely variations of the same superstition.

Next in the series: How the media filters work and how they can be combated.

Picking at the scab of 9/11

As I write this (on Saturday, September 9, 2006) the media is gearing up for a full orgy of commemorating the events of five years ago. We see retrospectives, we see TV specials, we hear stories from survivors and from the loved ones of those who perished.

Why all this fuss? Who really benefits from all this?

All this attention seems to me to be unseemly, as if people relish wallowing in past tragedies. I can’t imagine that this is of any help to those people who actually suffered from the event. Like most people affected by tragedy, they are probably trying to get on with their lives and having this massive rehash of events cannot be helping. This huge media circus is picking at the scab of 9/11, making sure that that particular wound never heals. As James Wolcott says: “How many times and how many ways must the adrenaline be pumped, the tragedy replayed, and the suffering exploited? The fall of the towers has become a ritual fetish, an annual haunting, that doesn’t exorcise fear, but replenishes it.”

Some people and groups obviously benefit from these kinds of commemorations.

The media clearly love this kind of thing. It is like state funerals or the funerals of police officers who are killed. The media is skilful at milking these events for emotion, exploiting the stock images such as the crying spouse, the bewildered children, the grieving parents, and the supportive friend. Media commentators can dwell on the topics of heroism and sacrifice, and speak in somber tones and describe the Lessons We Should Learn From The Tragedy.

This kind of thing is not really news but it has the feel of news. It has a standard script, is easy to cover, can be planned and written well in advance, has access to archival material, and can be packaged slickly.

The Bush administration also clearly feels they benefit from this coverage. They undoubtedly think it aids them in their War to Keep the American People in a State of Perpetual Fear. Bush has been going around the country this past week making speech after speech, making two contradictory points and hoping no one will notice. One is how dangerous the world is with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda still at large and thus why people should shelter under his protective wing. The other point is how the actions of his administration (which have violated norms of law and human and civil rights enshrined in the US constitution and international treaties) have made the country safer.

Is it only me who feels that there is something embarrassing about the US, undoubtedly the most powerful country in the world, cowering in fear because of a rag-tag group of people roaming around in remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan? Simon Jenkins of the Guardian seems to think so as he imagines the interview he might have with bin Laden:

[bin Laden] would agree, as did the CIA’s al-Qaida analyst in Peter Taylor’s recent documentary, that the Americans have done his job for him. They panicked. They drove the Taliban back into the mountains, restoring the latter’s credibility in the Arab street and turning al-Qaida into heroes. They persecuted Muslims across America. They occupied Iraq and declared Iran a sworn enemy. They backed an Israeli war against Lebanon’s Shias. Soon every tinpot Muslim malcontent was citing al-Qaida as his inspiration. Bin Laden’s tiny organisation, which might have been starved of funds and friends in 2001, had become a worldwide jihadist phenomenon.

I would ask Bin Laden whether he had something special up his sleeve for the fifth anniversary. Why waste money, he would reply. The western media were obligingly re-enacting the destruction and the screaming, turning the base metal of violence into the gold of terror. They would replay the tapes and rerun the footage ad nauseam, and thus remind the world of his awesome power. Americans are more afraid of jihadists this year than last. In a Transatlantic Trends survey, the number of them describing international terrorism as an ‘extremely important threat’ went up from 72% to 79%. As for European support for America’s world leadership, that has plummeted from 64% in 2002 to 37% this year.

Bin Laden might boast that he had achieved terrorism’s equivalent of an atomic chain reaction: a self-regenerating cycle of outrage and foreign-policy overkill, aided by anniversary journalism and fuelled by the grim scenarios of security lobbyists. He now had only to drop an occasional CD into the offices of al-Jazeera, and Washington and London quaked with fear. The authorities could be reduced to million-dollar hysterics by a phial of nail varnish, a copy of the Qur’an, or a dark-skinned person displaying a watch and a mobile phone.”

All this wallowing on the events of 9/11 is meant to make us feel obliged to feel some emotion, a phony grief, so that we will feel obliged to take part in the commemoration events all over again, to spend a few moments in silence at the exact moment when the first tower was hit, to fly flags at half mast, to attend church services and similar meetings, to mouth pious sentiments.

Frankly, all this strikes me as bogus sentimentality and I refuse to play along. I do not plan to do any commemorating on Monday and I avoid reading all the news articles that tell me How Sad I Should Feel on September 11. I cannot see why I should feel any more sad for the people affected by that day than for the people whose deaths are recorded on the obituary pages of my newspaper every day, many of whom have also died suddenly and prematurely, to the great sorrow of their loved ones.

We are all going to die some day. Some of us will die sudden deaths at the hands of criminals or because of accidents. Those who know the people who died or know their loved ones will naturally feel sorrow and that honest grief should be respected.

But when it comes to the deaths of those whom we do not know, there is no measure by which we can conclude that some deaths are worse than others and call for more grief and sympathy. The death of a child who is killed by a drunk driver should have the same significance as the death of someone in the collapse of the twin towers, and the families of both deserve the same compassion and assistance. But that is not what happens. Some are clearly singled out for preferential treatment.

I see the attacks on the World Trade Center as a criminal act of mass murder with political motives, just like the Oklahoma City bombing. We should be treating it as a police matter, not as a war of civilizations. But instead, what we repeatedly hear is the hype about how the events of 9/11 “changed everything.” But has it really? The same paper quotes a recent Quinnipiac poll that suggests that almost three-quarters of Americans have not changed their lives as a result of the events of that day. This shows a hearty good sense.

But some things have changed, as Simon Jenkins points out, and this change is not good.

What has changed, grotesquely, is the aftershock. Terrorism is 10% bang and 90% an echo effect composed of media hysteria, political overkill and kneejerk executive action, usually retribution against some wider group treated as collectively responsible. This response has become 24-hour, seven-day-a-week amplification by the new politico-media complex, especially shrill where the dead are white people. It is this that puts global terror into the bang. While we take ever more extravagant steps to ward off the bangs, we do the opposite with the terrorist aftershock. We turn up its volume. We seem to wallow in fear.

The Plain Dealer of Saturday, September 9, 2006 dutifully plays its role in following the pack journalism and ratcheting up the fear. A front-page article says:

Forget the perception that Cleveland is a poor and undesirable city, a place terrorists would never attack. Remember that Oklahoma City was devastated by terrorism.

Accept the fact that Northeast Ohio can be attacked.

Are we ready?

Yes, Cleveland could be attacked and we could all die!!!! Oh my God, what should we do?

We can let Simon Jenkins have the last word:

The gruelling re-enactment of the London bombings in July and this weekend’s 9/11 horror-fest are not news. They exploit grief and horror, and in doing so give gratuitous publicity to Bin Laden and al-Qaida. Those personally affected by these outrages may have their own private memorials. But to hallow the events with repetitious publicity turns a squalid crime into a constantly revitalised political act. It grants the jihadists what they most crave, warrior status. It more than validates terrorism as a weapon of war, it glorifies it.

The best way to commemorate 9/11 is with silence. Instead, Bin Laden must be laughing.

The media filters

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent provide a good model for how a sophisticated propaganda model, such as that which exists in the US, works. They point out that rather than direct control of news, what exists is a system of filters that has the effect of steadily and almost invisibly weeding out of the system those individuals and media businesses that do not serve the interests of the ruling elites.

They point to five filters at work:

1. Size, ownership, and profit orientation

They point out that in the nineteenth century in Britain “a radical press emerged that reached a national working-class audience. This alternative press was effective in reinforcing class consciousness: it unified the workers because it fostered an alternative value system and framework for looking at the world.” (p. 3) Of course such a press was seen as a major threat to the elites and they sought to suppress it using punitive measures, by “using libel laws and prosecutions, by requiring an expensive security bond as a condition for publication, and by imposing various taxes designed to drive out radical media by raising their costs.”

Those punitive measures were not successful in driving out the working class press. What was successful in both England and the US in driving out the popular working class press was the rapid increase in the costs of running a newspaper due to technological improvements, along with the need to reach larger audiences. The cost of printing machinery alone now runs into hundreds of thousand of dollars even for small publications. This results in newspapers having to have large amounts of startup capital and an ability to suffer losses for a long time before they start to become profitable. This means that ownership of a media outlet is only possible to those with deep pockets, which effectively rules out all but those with wealth. So a class bias is built into the system from the beginning. Furthermore, only those with access to high levels of government can obtain the lucrative broadcast licenses for radio and TV, thus further cementing the links between government and the wealthy classes and the media.

2. The advertising license to do business

In the early days of newspaper publishing, the price of the newspaper had to cover the cost of publishing. But the growth of advertising has resulted in those publications that can generate a lot of advertising being able to set a selling price well below cost. This results in those publications that do not attract advertisers being at a huge price disadvantage. Actually, this is a double whammy. Advertisers are not be interested in the size of the circulation per se, but in the demographics of those numbers. They tend to target their advertising at those publications which succeed at attracting upscale readers with disposable income, the very people who can afford to pay a higher subscription price, while those publications that target the lower-income market are likely to get less advertising and thus have higher newsstand prices, even though their readership can afford it less.

Advertising distorts in other ways too. In order to attract advertisers and corporate sponsors, the media have to make sure not to offend them. “The power of advertisers over television programming stems from the simple fact that that they buy and pay for the programs (p. 16). . .[A]dvertisers also choose selectively among programs on the basis of their own principles. With rare exceptions these are culturally and politically conservative. Large corporate advertisers on television will rarely sponsor programs that engage in serious criticism of corporate activities, such as the problem of environmental degradation, the workings of the military-industrial complex, or corporate support of and benefits from Third World tyrannies.” (p. 17)

The auto industry is a good example. Newspapers in general tend to treat the auto industry and dealers very gently because they spend so much on advertising. The auto sections of the paper are usually just puff pieces sprinkled into the advertisements for auto dealers and cars.

One is far more likely to see analyses of welfare fraud than auto dealer fraud because poor people ‘don’t count’ and if they are offended and stop reading, the advertisers don’t really care. But they do care if the Gap-shopping, Benz-driving, golf-playing readership drops.

3. Sourcing mass media news

The media, being a business interested in enhancing profits for their owners and shareholders, naturally seek to cut costs. They cannot have reporters everywhere where news may break because that is too expensive. So they tend to focus on predictable, set-piece news events, “manufactured” news, which essentially means covering the press conferences of government and business sources. “These bureaucracies turn out a large volume of material that meets the demands of news organizations for reliable, scheduled flows.” (p. 19)

“Another reason for the heavy weight given to official sources is that the mass media claim to be “objective” dispensers of the news. Partly to maintain the image of objectivity, but to also protect themselves from criticisms of bias and the threat of libel suits, they need material that can be portrayed as presumptively accurate. This is also partly a matter of cost: taking information from sources that may be presumed credible reduces investigative expense, whereas material from sources that are not prima facie credible, or that will elicit criticism and threats, requires careful checking and costly research.” (p. 19)

It thus costs the media little extra to report the words of the powerful in government or business or those who spout the conventional wisdom. “In effect, the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access by their contribution to reducing the media’s costs of acquiring the raw materials of, and producing, news.” (p. 22) Government leaders know this, which is why they are so eager to go on the air and repeat the same things over and over again, such as their fraudulent case for invading Iraq and their claims that things there are going just fine and that those who criticize the war are appeasers and terrorist sympathizers. In fact, just this week, George Bush has been making pretty much the same speech over and over and the media covers it. All the administration officials have to do is simply make assertions without producing any evidence, and they can be sure it will be reported.

But even well-informed private citizens who go against the official line will have to provide detailed arguments and evidence in order to be taken seriously and even then, television would eliminate them because that medium requires very short sound bites and you do not have the luxury of building a case. If I say “Saddam Hussein is a war criminal” on TV, I do not have to produce any evidence in support because that is the official line. If, instead, I say “George Bush is a war criminal”, I cannot expect that statement to be accepted uncritically, and to make a strong case for it requires time, and that is a luxury that TV does not provide, let alone the flak the media will get for allowing me to say it. So for purely business, and not ideological, reasons it makes sense for the media to keep out those who would make the latter charge, unless the person making it has prima facie credibility by also belonging to the government and business elite.

This is where the lack of division among the two parties on major issues of war and the economy comes into play. As long as we have effectively a one-party state on such matters, there will be correspondingly little careful examination of these issues. This is where the Democratic Party leadership shares some responsibility for the mess the US has got into in Iraq. By not providing a strong critical stance on the case for war early on, it failed to provide the cover the media needed to be able to investigate all the lies and deceptions that the Bush administration foisted on the public in the run up to the war and even since then.

In the case of the Vietnam war, the media only started reporting critically about the war when it began to be a serious drain on the economy and the business elites feared that the massive war expenditures were hurting the general economy, although the weapons industry still benefited. Furthermore, the draft was causing unrest even among the middle and upper classes, an important demographic for the media, and political leaders started facing angry constituents that forced them to question that war’s rationale and implementation. We see the same thing beginning to happen with the Iraq war. Political leaders are now starting to question the war, although at this stage they are focusing on the safer question of poor implementation rather than the more fundamental questions of the war’s immorality and illegality. The sudden upsurge in the attacks of Donald Rumsfeld and the calls for his resignation are the first signs that the elite consensus is breaking down.

The same thing happened with Watergate, which is always brought up as an example of how the media in the US is an antagonist of big government, rather than the cozy partner it really is. What happened there was an intra-party dispute within the ruling one-party system, where one faction (the Republicans) was seen by the other faction (the Democrats) as violating the unwritten rules by which they shared power. They don’t care if yours or my phone is tapped, but tapping each other’s phones is breaking the rules of the game. Since each faction has support in the government and corporate bureaucracies, reporting on Nixon’s shenanigans was not the media attacking the system itself, but just reporting on a factional power struggle within the one-party consensus.

Next in the series: Two more filters

The media propaganda model in action

In the previous post, I quoted a former Fox News staffer who revealed in 2003 how the senior management at Fox News carefully monitored and directed what news would be covered and, more importantly, how it should be covered. This was done by means of “The Memo” that was sent out by top management every day to all the news staff. For example, the staffer said:

[J]ust after the U.S. invaded Iraq, The Memo warned us that anti-war protesters would be “whining” about U.S. bombs killing Iraqi civilians, and suggested they could tell that to the families of American soldiers dying there. Editing copy that morning, I was not surprised when an eager young producer killed a correspondent’s report on the day’s fighting – simply because it included a brief shot of children in an Iraqi hospital.

These are not isolated incidents at Fox News Channel, where virtually no one of authority in the newsroom makes a move unmeasured against management’s politics, actual or perceived. At the Fair and Balanced network, everyone knows management’s point of view, and, in case they’re not sure how to get it on air, The Memo is there to remind them.

When the existence of The Memo was revealed, there was some criticism of this practice. Most people took this as a sign of how biased Fox News is. But what distinguishes Fox News’s propaganda model is just the crudity of its methods, reminiscent of the amateurishness of totalitarian governments. A really good propaganda model designs a system where journalists think they are acting autonomously as independent seekers of truth. So to examine such a good system, we should move away from Fox and look at how the rest of the media operates and the same staffer who revealed the existence of The Memo demonstrates this when he compares his experience at Fox with that at other news outlets.

Not once in the 20+ years I had worked in broadcast journalism prior to Fox – including lengthy stays at The Associated Press, CBS Radio and ABC/Good Morning America – did I feel any pressure to toe a management line. But at Fox, if my boss wasn’t warning me to “be careful” how I handled the writing of a special about Ronald Reagan (“You know how Roger [Fox News Chairman Ailes] feels about him.”), he was telling me how the environmental special I was to produce should lean (“You can give both sides, but make sure the pro-environmentalists don’t get the last word.”)

This is quite a compliment to the other news outlets. But the real compliment to them is not that they are unbiased seekers and revealers of the truth but that the propaganda model works so invisibly there that even someone who worked within the system for so long was oblivious to its operation.

To avoid any misunderstanding, let me emphasize that I am not doubting the writer’s sincerity. I am sure that he and other journalists at these other places very rarely encounter any direct political interference in their work. But that does not mean that their news does not have an agenda. It is just that the agenda is not overtly enforced.

Another misunderstanding I wish to avoid is that the agendas I am talking about is not the “liberal” or “conservative” agenda that gets much discussed. The whole debate over whether the media is “liberal” is a bogus one, whose roots and purposes will be examined in a later posting. As I said in an earlier post, what we have in the US is a single pro-war/pro-business party with two factions, and the media reflects this. The two factions are divided over social and moral issues such a church-state separation, abortion, affirmative action, flag burning, pledge of allegiance, sex education in schools, evolution, sex, etc. The existence of heated debates over these issues can easily give one the impression that there are deep divisions in the country that are reflected in the media and in government.

Some deep divisions do exist. But it is noteworthy that they usually involve issues that do not affect the entrenched economic interests of the country. Behind the smokescreen provided by these angry debates over social and cultural issues is a smoothly operating one-party system that serves the interests of an elite group. But most people do not care to delve too deeply into the kinds of arcane governmental actions that are of most interest to the business industries. Those decisions, and the rules interpreting them, are made by small congressional committees that operate in closed committee rooms in close collaboration with industry lobbyists and well outside the glare of the media lights.

As I wrote about a year ago:

If you are in the mood for being disgusted about how unbelievably corrupted the democratic process has become in Congress in general, see this article titled Four Amendments & a Funeral: A month inside the house of horrors that is Congress by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone and posted on August 10, 2005. The article describes how the legislative process has become far removed from what you might have idealized in your government classes or in Schoolhouse Rock. As Rep. Bernie Sanders says “Nobody knows how this place is run. If they did, they’d go nuts.”

The whole system operates in a manner similar to that used by magicians and conjurors and three-card Monte tricksters. They usually have a line of patter and lots of motion to distract you from the fact that the actual action is elsewhere. All the high profile, high energy, heated rhetoric over social and cultural issues serve as essentially entertainment, as patter, to distract you from what is really going on. In fact, a useful rule of thumb for political and media observers is to not pay a lot of attention to what politicians disagree about but instead look at what they agree on. That is where all the scandals are. When someone calls for bipartisanship on some issue, that is when you should be most on your guard.

For an example of how successful the propaganda system is, in a recent poll, 46% of the public and 65% of Republicans agree with the proposition that “there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 terror attacks” despite the fact that this was always known to be a falsehood and that even George Bush himself on occasion has explicitly denied that there was a connection, and even claims that no one in his administration claimed such a connection.

Such a result, so convenient to this administration in persuading the public to support its illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq, could only come about due to a highly sophisticated propaganda operation where people were misled and lied to without realizing how they were being led by the nose.

Understanding that this is how the government operates is important in understanding how the media works. The media is designed to cover those areas that create disturbance and is not well suited to explore those areas where there is no public disagreement among high officials. This is why they almost always miss the big issues.

In the next posting on this topic, I will look at the filters that operate in the media that produces the kinds of journalists and journalism that allows this subversion of Lincoln’s ideal of government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

POST SCRIPT: Surrendering freedoms

The same survey I referred to above also seems to indicate that a disturbingly large percentage of people (and a majority of Republicans) are willing to freely give up the rights enshrined in the Fourth Amendment to the constitution for what they think is security.

Benjamin Franklin said that “They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security.” And that is exactly the kind of state where we are moving towards, where there is neither security nor liberty.

The entangled media, business, and political monopolies

In many ways the monopoly media in the US reflects the monopolistic political system that exists here. For all the talk about being a two-party system, there is very little difference between the parties. This is not to say that they are identical, but we cannot understand how the media reflects the political system if we have an exaggerated idea of the differences between the Democratic and Republican parties.

It is more accurate to say that what exists in the US is not a two-party state but a single pro-war/pro-business party with two factions. The two parties share a common interest in promoting business interests and the interests of the well-to-do over that of the people in general and workers in particular. This pro-business attitude by both parties extends to both parties being pro-war because wars are, almost always (especially in the short run), good for business, especially certain kinds of businesses, those famously warned of by President Eisenhower when he referred to the ‘military industrial complex.’ It is interesting to note that he raised this issue in his farewell address in 1961 just three days he was due to leave office after completing two terms. In other words, he knew how things really worked but could not speak the truth until he was able to avoid any political repercussions.

Once one understands the pro-business nature of both major parties, it becomes easy to understand why our elected representatives have opposed things like single-payer health insurance plans (because these would go against the interests of the insurance companies), why they have opposed exploration of alternative fuel sources (because they go against the interests of the oil industries), why they have opposed better fuel standards for cars (because they go against the auto industry), and why they oppose raising the minimum wage (because it raises the cost of business)..

But for the purposes of analyzing the media, the most important fact is that the government has steadily allowed increasing monopoly ownership of the media, by removing the restrictions that used to exist limiting the number of television station and radio stations and newspapers that a single corporate entity could own in a single market. What we now have is a situation where just six big corporations dominate the media landscape. See this chart for how this interlocking web of interests operates. And since many of the same people populate the boards of these corporations, the homogeneity of the media is enhanced even more. Furthermore, these media conglomerates have strong ties to other business sectors. For example, one media giant is General Electric, which is also a powerhouse in the defense contracting industry, and thus directly benefits from wars.

So the media is closely intertwined with a wide network of business interests. These news media conglomerates are generous contributors to politicians who promote their interests. Only a very quixotic politician will speak out against them. Most of our elected legislators are more beholden to these interests that underwrite their campaigns and can lavishly entertain them, than they are to the voters who put them in office. The popular idea that these media giants became what they are because of free-market competition is a myth. As media analyst Robert McChesney says:

This concentrated, conglomerated and profit-driven media system is hardly the result of “free enterprise.” These giant companies are the recipients of enormous direct and indirect subsidies and/or government-granted monopoly franchises. They include: monopoly licenses to radio and TV frequencies, cable and satellite TV monopoly franchises, magazine postal subsidies and copyright, to mention a few. For these firms the most important competition may well be in Washington, getting the cushy subsidies and licenses. These policies, worth tens of billions annually, are generally made in our name but without our informed consent. That is the heart of the problem, and it points us to the solution: informed public participation on media policy-making.

One should not make the mistake of assuming that individual journalists are aware of all of these ties and consciously write in ways that avoid offending powerful interests. A few unprincipled careerists may do so but I suspect they are fairly rare. It is very hard for most people to believe in one thing and, on a daily basis, to conform to a culture that requires adhering to a completely opposite set of values. Doing so is perhaps a sure path to a mental breakdown.

One should also not assume that there exists a direct line of orders coming down from high to journalists as to what the news should be. In other words, it is not as if the CEO of General Electric tells the head of NBC to tell the head of the news division to tell the executive producer of NBC Nightly News to tell anchor Brian Williams that he should promote a new war with Iran because General Electric’s aircraft engines division needs to make more profits.

Fox News is one organization that actually does try to direct journalists in such brazen ways. It is no secret that Rupert Murdoch, the head of Fox’s parent company News Corporation takes a keen interest that the editorial content of his media empire serve his own business and political interests. There was some embarrassment in 2003 when a former staffer at Fox revealed that every day, Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News Channel (FNC), would send out a Daily Memo that told the journalists what they should cover and how they should cover it.

Editorially, the FNC newsroom is under the constant control and vigilance of management. The pressure ranges from subtle to direct
. . .
[T]he roots of FNC’s day-to-day on-air bias are actual and direct. They come in the form of an executive memo distributed electronically each morning, addressing what stories will be covered and, often, suggesting how they should be covered. To the newsroom personnel responsible for the channel’s daytime programming, The Memo is the bible. If, on any given day, you notice that the Fox anchors seem to be trying to drive a particular point home, you can bet The Memo is behind it.

Fox’s operation is a very crude propaganda model. Some countries, especially those with a totalitarian structure have used it but it is rarely effective in the long run because the news consumer quickly catches on to what is going on and starts to discount the news or look for alternative, even underground, sources. In the US, because of the obviousness of Fox’s actions, some people already realize that Fox News is determinedly pushing an agenda, though many still accept at face value its “fair and balanced” slogan.

A more sophisticated propaganda model is one in which everyone involved in the media, including journalists, believes they are reporting impartially without fear or favor, while at the same time serving the corporate interests of the owners of their media. The real success of a good propaganda model, such as exists in the US, is when people do not realize that this is what is in place but think that the news they get from the mainstream media is objective.

Next in the series: How a sophisticated propaganda model is created and operates.

Media self-censorship

When we talk of a ‘controlled’ media, we tend to think of editors and political leaders telling reporters what they should write about and how. That does happen in some countries and newspapers, and we rightly call those things ‘propaganda’. But that kind of overt control is rarely effective over the long term because when people know that journalists take their instructions from people with openly political agendas, they tend to factor that in and discount the credibility of those news sources.

Propaganda is far more effective when there is no overt control or censorship of journalists but where they can be persuaded to self-censor, because then everyone, reporters and reading public alike, think that what they are getting is ‘objective’ news and are thus more likely to believe it. Implementing such a sophisticated propaganda model requires some overt pressure initially, but reporters and editors quickly learn what they can and cannot say if they want to advance their careers.

Take for example the case of Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks. I wrote earlier that Ricks reported that US military analysts had told him that Israel was allowing the Hezbollah to keep some rockets that killed Israeli civilians because that helped them deflect criticism when they killed Lebanese civilians. This, of course, goes against the accepted official line that ‘our’ (i.e. the Israel and US government’s) motives are always pure and that it is only ‘they’ (whoever the current enemy happens to be) who would do evil things.

It is interesting to see what happened to him after that. Howard Kurtz, on whose show Ricks made these comments, says:

One other note. On Reliable Sources two weeks ago, “Washington Post” Pentagon reporter Tom Ricks said he’d been told by U.S. military analysts that Israel was leaving some Hezbollah rocket launchers intact because the killing of Israeli civilians provided an image of moral equivalency in the war. “Post” editor Len Downie, responding to a letter from former New York mayor, Ed Koch, says he told Ricks he should not have made those statements.

Ricks told the New York Sun that he accurately reported the comments from analysts but that, quote, “I wish I hadn’t said them, and I intend from now on to keep my mouth shut about it.”

Notice that Ricks was not denying the accuracy of what he had said or the fact that it was a relevant and important piece of information about the nature of modern warfare. He was saying that he had learned not to offend powerful people and groups, people who have the ears of his bosses. He and his editors have learned that they cannot step outside certain boundaries of thought. You can be sure that every reported has heard this story and taken its lesson to heart.

That is one example of how self-censorship is created. Here’s another.

Chris Mooney described how Scott Gold, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times wrote a “hard-hitting but accurate” piece which reported that the scientific consensus was firm that “abortion does not cause breast cancer” and that those who claimed it did had dubious credentials.

Mooney says that “In an internal memo exposed by the Web site LAobserved.com, the Times’s editor, John Carroll, singled out Gold’s story for harsh criticism, claiming it vindicated critics who accuse the paper of liberal bias.” Carroll said that Gold should have sought out a credible scientist to defend the breast cancer-abortion link. In other words, Gold should have done a ‘he said/she said’ story.

Mooney says that this criticism might have had the desired effect. In a subsequent article on intelligent design creationism, Gold went out of his way to highlight the views of the IDC movement and make it seem to have much more credibility among scientists than it did.

Mooney concludes, “Scott Gold had it exactly right on abortion and breast cancer. Then he produced an article on “intelligent design” so artificially “balanced” it was downright inaccurate and misleading.”

These examples can be multiplied over and over. Those journalists who cannot stomach this self-censorship and want to simply call it like it is have to leave the profession. Those who remain either have already accepted this ethic or internalize it so that eventually they don’t even realize that they are doing so. It just becomes ‘natural’ for them to practice journalism this way, and thus it becomes the culture of reporting, the ‘correct’ way to do things.

It would be wrong to assume that this kind of self-censorship occurs because of the actions of a few people here or there. That would not be effective. It would also be wrong to assume that it occurs because of a deliberate and planned conspiracy among powerful people. That would be too crude and obvious. That is not how such systems come about. The kind of self-censorship we see occurs as a natural consequence of certain kinds of systemic forces operating in invisible ways to create the ‘objective’ media that we now have. How that system operates will be the topic of the next few postings in this series.

POST SCRIPT: Bad news from Antarctica about CO2 levels

The most recent results from examining ice cores from Antarctica show that current carbon dioxide levels are substantially higher now than they have ever been in 800,000 years and rising faster than ever before. (See my earlier posting on this.)

The picture is the same: carbon dioxide and temperature rise and fall in step.

“Ice cores reveal the Earth’s natural climate rhythm over the last 800,000 years. When carbon dioxide changed there was always an accompanying climate change. Over the last 200 years human activity has increased carbon dioxide to well outside the natural range,” explained Dr Wolff.

The “scary thing”, he added, was the rate of change now occurring in CO2 concentrations. In the core, the fastest increase seen was of the order of 30 parts per million (ppm) by volume over a period of roughly 1,000 years.

“The last 30 ppm of increase has occurred in just 17 years. We really are in the situation where we don’t have an analogue in our records,” he said.

The consequences of having media monopolies

Understanding the US media is an important part of political education and two of the best analysts are Ben Bagdikian who wrote the classic The Media Monopoly (updated recently to The New Media Monopoly) and Robert McChesney, author of The Problem of the Media and other books.

Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman (published in 1988) remains a powerful read in describing how the media, both wittingly and unwittingly, colludes with powerful interests in creating a public consensus that actually goes against the interests of the people they supposedly represent. If they updated their book, they would undoubtedly use as one of their examples how the media effectively aided the administration to persuade the American public to go along with the disastrous policy of invading Iraq and linking that hapless country to the events of September 11, 2001, even though there was no evidence linking those two events and there was no justifiable case for attacking Iraq at all.

All these authors present sophisticated analyses and it is not my intention to summarize them because I would surely do them an injustice. So what follows is my own informal gleaning of the key messages.

One key point to understand is the one Bagdikian’s book title indicates, and that is that there is a major qualitative shift how the media operates when it becomes a monopoly in a market. It is undoubtedly true that in almost all American cities, there is only one major daily newspaper. And this results in a different type of journalism from the early days when many competing newspapers existed in each major market.

Any business needs to produce a product that the consumer wants to buy. So the basic model assumes a product and a target market. In the newspaper business, we tend to think of the news and features in the paper as the product and the newspaper reader as the market that is being targeted. In this model, it makes sense that the newspapers would try and produce the best product so as to attract the most readers and thus make the most money. If one has this model in mind, then it really should not matter if there is only one paper or more than one in any given market. Each newspaper will strive to produce the most useful and desirable paper for its readers.

But that is not the model that best reflects reality. A better model is that we (the readers) are the product and advertisers are the market that is being targeted. In other words, newspapers seek to ‘sell’ the readers to the advertisers. American papers depend more for their revenue on advertising that on subscriber sales. Subscriber sales figures are important in selling advertising space. The news becomes the lure by which we, the readers, are drawn in.

In this model, just like in the other model, the more readers a newspaper has, the better, especially those in the desirable demographic groups sought by the advertisers. So newspapers broaden their appeal with sports, features, comics, lifestyle and entertainment pages, all in an effort to draw more readers. And in fact, American newspapers are pretty good in this regard when compared to other countries. The ‘soft’ feature coverage is usually a lot more comprehensive and occupies a greater percentage of the papers in the US than I have seen in any other country I have visited.

The difference between the two models becomes important when it comes to ‘hard’ news coverage, which is essentially political.

Take a simple situation in a city in which the population is roughly split between two political viewpoints. We can label the splits ‘liberal/conservative’ or ‘Democratic/Republican’ or whatever, it does not matter. If you have two newspapers, each can hope to maximize its readership to half the population by tailoring its news emphasis to appeal one side of the spectrum while the other newspaper will do the same for the other, and thus one has the kind of partisan journalism I wrote about earlier that is common in other countries.

But as soon as you are down to just one newspaper in a market, that paper now has the potential to double its readership (and thus be much more attractive to advertisers) by trying to appeal to the entire population. This means that they have to make sure they do not offend anyone. Thus one ends up with monopoly newspapers carefully cultivating this ‘neutrality’ which essentially means treating all major stories as ‘he said/she said.’ To aggressively investigate stories that might go against the interests of one political segment might result in antagonizing half the paper’s potential readership. But of course newspapers cannot say that they are not publishing their conclusions because of fear that they might lose readers and the corresponding advertising revenue. So they have developed the cloak of ‘objectivity’ to avoid the charge of ‘pushing an agenda’ that favors one side or the other.

Those reporters who want to pursue a major story that adversely affects one segment can usually only do so if a major public figure consistently speaks out about it, because then the reporter can report that person’s words and not be accused of pushing an agenda.

For example, I feel sure that there must have been reporters who doubted the case being made for invading Iraq. But they were hindered by the fact that the craven leadership of the Democratic Party largely went along with the fictions of the administration about Iraq being a threat to the US. If those leaders had spoken out more strongly, that would have provided cover for those journalists to dig deeper into the facts since there would have been a controversy that required attention. But when political leaders don’t vociferously raise an issue, the media finds it hard to do so because they run the risk, in the US at least, of being accused of ‘pushing an agenda’ being ‘partisan’ and so forth, and that has come to be seen as a big no-no.

We see the same thing with science reporting on (say) global warming or evolution. The scientific consensus on both these issues is clear. But reporters cannot say so without fear of antagonizing the sizeable segment of the general public who question that consensus. In order to keep them as readers, reporters will do their ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ soft-shoe routine.

So the real question that needs to be examined is, that given the economic driving forces of monopoly media in the US, why there was not greater political skepticism that can provide the window for journalists to truly investigate and report. And this illustrates an interesting, but disturbing, parallelism between monopoly journalism and monopolistic political systems.

Next in this series: Monopoly media and monopoly politics.