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Jan 17 2011

The media as a model of how a modern oligarchy operates

A well-functioning oligarchic system usually operates smoothly and largely openly and without a hierarchical structure. It achieves its goals by setting up filters that weed out those who do not support its agenda and rarely requires overt intervention to achieve its goals.

I discussed earlier how the major filter was the high cost of entry in the modern media world that meant only rich people or organizations could create a big megaphone for their views. Only someone like Rupert Murdoch, for example, could create a new major network like Fox News. The high cost of entry came into being over a century ago and was a result of market forces and technological advances and the adoption of a business plan that depended largely on advertising for revenues.

Governments were happy to let that process proceed though in the early days some had concerns. It is not well known now until the mid-19th century the US government subsidized the printing and mailing of newspapers in order to enable a wide diversity of voices to be heard. While there are obvious dangers to be faced with government funding, it is possible to construct buffers to insulate the government from having too much influence over editorial content. The BBC and CBC are models that, while flawed, show what can be done. The abandonment of government subsidies to newspapers set in motion a propaganda system that works without any further outside intervention.

A case study of how the media filters work to weed out undesirable elements is the process of embedding mainstream journalists with US troops that was introduced by the US government. Once the news executives agreed to this practice, it further consolidated the links between government and the media. Those journalists who felt that embedding was wrong and undermined their impartiality left the mainstream media and went elsewhere. Only those who did not find it objectionable stayed and they are the ones who report the news and will rise up and become heads of news divisions.

When people like John Burns of the New York Times and Lara Logan of CBS News criticized Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone magazine for publishing the piece that got General Stanley McChrystal fired as head of the Afghanistan war effort, they perfectly symbolized the process at work. What they did by criticizing Hastings was a good career move for them. Whether they were speaking what they really thought or were more cynical and calculating does not matter. If the latter, they will rationalize their actions, create justifications, and internalize the reasons that caused them to act this way and thus become even more dutiful servants of the oligarchy. Meanwhile Hastings, who used to work for Newsweek, left and became an independent journalist because he couldn’t stand the role that establishment reporters played within that system.

This example shows how the oligarchy operates in the media. It is not that reporters write stories that are then censored by their bosses who are acting on the orders of politicians, as a crude propaganda model would suggest. It is that the system weeds out the reporters who would write such stories in the first place and only keeps those who would not even consider filing such a story, making overt censorship unnecessary.

It is only under extreme conditions that the commonality of interests between the government and the media breaks down and this is usually due to a split in oligarchic interests. One example in the US was during the later stages in the Vietnam war when the costs of the war became seen as a serious threat to some sections of the US economy and the draft was resulting in the conscription of even people from the ruling classes. This division in the oligarchy allowed much more vocal criticism of the war even in the mainstream media and resulted in the government trying to directly influence them in the form of trying to suppress publication of the Pentagon Papers and exerting direct pressure on major newspapers and network news division executives to limit negative coverage of the war. When the hand of the oligarchy becomes visible this way, you know the system has developed cracks.

But the near unanimous support by the US media for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan showed that those earlier cracks have been now sealed because the government did not even need to tell the news organizations to act as cheerleaders. The news executives and reporters by and large agreed with the government’s goals because those who might have disagreed had long ago left and gone elsewhere because they just did not ‘fit’.

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