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Jan 13 2011

A model for how the oligarchy works

To understand who constitutes the new national and transglobal oligarchies and how they work, it is helpful to examine a subsystem of the oligarchy that has been studied extensively and provides a good model or template for understanding it. One fact that quickly emerges is that the best propaganda systems are those that operate seemingly transparently.

Those countries that have tightly controlled state media have a much less effective propaganda system than countries like the US. Not only are people in those countries aware that the media is a propaganda organ, which makes them skeptical of what it says, there is always the danger that somebody in the media is going to blurt out things that contradict the party line.

It is much more effective to have a structure in which the people in the media share common values with the ruling classes so that they sincerely spout the desired message. This is far more effective than forcing them to toe the party line against their will because the people in the media are truly saying what they think and thus the public thinks that they are being told the truth. And they would be correct in a narrow sense. You will almost never find outright lying by mainstream US journalists. What the media does is three things: they will not cover certain kinds of stories, the stories they do cover will be viewed through a particular prism that is advantageous to establishment interests, and the range of analyses will be restricted to a narrow spectrum. Everything that falls within these limits will be called ‘moderate’, ‘centrist’, ‘reasonable’, ‘mainstream’, and other favorable labels and gain easy access to media outlets to repeatedly propound their message while anything outside will be labeled ‘radical’, ‘extreme’ and be rarely heard.

How is this remarkable consensus achieved? By creating a media structure that has filters built into it that, as you rise in the ranks, steadily weed out those whose values and ideology do not conform. In the US this is achieved by raising the cost of admission to the media world. In the beginning days of newspapers and radio, there was a wide diversity of voices because it did not cost that much to start up a new operation. Reporters were often from working class backgrounds with no college degree who started at the very bottom and worked their way up as they learned the their craft.

Nowadays no one who is not a wealthy person can start a newspaper or radio or TV station. Furthermore, they depend on advertising for a large chunk of their revenues. As a result of the ownership and revenue filters, they need to target businesses and the maximum number of individuals who will buy those goods, which means skewing coverage that is favorable to business and towards the more affluent. Furthermore, journalism has become a profession that requires a college degree (though there are exceptions), which means that a narrower spectrum of people (mostly from the middle and professional classes) with more establishment views enter the profession.

As a result of these structural constraints, a whole set of unseen filters get put into place and only certain types of reporters will pass through them. Those who are the best at internalizing those values are the ones who ‘fit’ the media and will pass through the filters and rise up the ranks to become editors and opinion makers. And the views they express will almost always be sincere ones. They would be shocked to be told that they are part of a propaganda system. They will insist, quite rightly, that no one orders them to say or write anything.

The system at Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News where top executives send daily memos to their news reporters telling them what to cover and how to cover it (as revealed in Robert Greenwald’s documentary Outfoxed) is quite unusual in its crudeness. This series of Doonesbury cartoon strips about the documentary is amusing. But holding up Fox News as an example of shoddy journalism (which is absolutely true) implies that the non-Murdoch media are not part of the propaganda system when in fact they are but do not need to be so crude.

The members of the mainstream media do not meet in secret and plot. They have no need to. They meet in public, at professional and social gatherings and conferences and the like, to share ideas and strategies. And since they all pretty much share the same values and goals, they arrive at conclusions that advance the interests of the US oligarchy without having to be explicitly told to do so by their oligarchic bosses.

What I have described is just a sketch of the US media system. For a much more comprehensive treatment of how the media in the US works as an effective propaganda system because of the various filters incorporated within it, read Manufacturing Consent, the classic analysis of the US media by Noam Chomsky and Edward R. Herman, and The Problem of the Media by Robert W. McChesney.

The oligarchy is created and functions pretty much the same way, as will be discussed later.

7 comments

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  1. 1
    Henry

    I’m not sure I agree with your second paragraph Mano.

    I lived in China for some time and the vast majority of the citizens there believe what is printed in the state run newspapers. Even college educated Chinese students can’t believe things when they are presented to them if those things run counter to the ‘official’ story.

    For example, even to this day many Chinese people will not believe what actually occurred at Tienanmen Square. Most college students do not believe that China is intentionally stealing away Tibetan culture. And there are many more examples.

    While living in China many of the educated Chinese I met did not even believe the gov’t was censoring the web. They often would say that a particular web site was having problems.

  2. 2
    jpmeyer

    From what I’ve read, China is a bit of a different case because non-Chinese news is able to get through but people often want to/choose to ignore it because it’s usually anti-Chinese. In fact, you could probably say a similar thing about American news.

    On the flip side, everything in the second paragraph jibes pretty cleanly with what my in-laws say that they experienced in Soviet Russia.

  3. 3
    Jared A

    I agree with your points about how a relatively homogenous ruling class can grow organically. The important point to make though is an issue I have with 3rd to last paragraph: “…they arrive at conclusions that advance the interests of the US oligarchy without having to be explicitly told to do so by their oligarchic bosses.”

    It’s important to not that there does not need to be “oligarchic bosses”. The system can function just fine as it is. This is all the more reason why these affluent media people can feel like they aren’t part of a propaganda machine.

    I’m sure you have more to say about this and “bosses” so I’ll wait to comment further until later in your series. I just wanted to point out that if a part of a model is superfluous then you can just throw it out until it is needed.

  4. 4
    Tim

    I would respectfully disagree with Jared A. Systems function “for” something, for some purpose. If there were no oligarchic bosses (a phrase I read in the broad sense of a class/group of people who have enormous amounts of power and want to see things done their way; not in the specific sense that of individual plots made in the backroom.), then there would be no support for the current US media system to function as it does.

    Mano … another excellent post. I would be curious to hear your thoughts on Internet guerilla journalism (in the sense that anyone with a video camera and computer can create news stories) in light of your observations.

  5. 5
    henry

    Along with Tim’s question – what worries me about guerrilla journalism is how police forces are arresting and harassing citizen journalists for only having a camera and recording arrests.

  6. 6
    Mano Singham

    Henry,

    I will defer to your first hand information on China and am curious as to why that country might differ from (say) the Russian experience that jpmeyer highlights.

    Jared A,

    You are right. I should not have used the idea of ‘bosses’ as it undercuts my message that this body is not an organized group

    Tim,

    I am in general in favor of guerilla journalism. The one thing that concerns me is that such people, being amateurs, may not distinguish carefully enough between public and private people and public and private settings. The differences can be subtle so people should exercise caution.

    It is one thing to record public people in public settings. That is fair game. Private people in private settings are clearly off limits. The other two combinations are the tricky ones. What is private and what is public is also problematic.

  7. 7
    Jared A

    Tim, I see where you’re coming from, but you should think about the idea of a lock-in phenomenon. Evolution and other natural selection processes are lock-in phenomena. To explain what I mean: Wolves do not exist for “the benefit” of something. Wolves exist because they already do and the result of them existing is more wolves. As long as the system is stable this will continue without serving any specific purpose except the continued existence of animals that are something like wolves. None of the actors in wolfdom don’t need to think about wolf survival in general to keep the system going and they don’t need a director making sure they are acting as needed.

    I’m not saying that the system under question (the corporatized media) does not function “for” something, just that it is not a necessary condition for its existence as it is to the first approximation.

    best,
    Jared

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