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Why the Press Sucks So Bad, Part 2: Take Me to the Bridge

Alright, a few weeks ago, I published a piece (admittedly, broad in scope) about the evolution of the press in the U.S.  I wanted to lay down some foundational information as a way of getting to a discussion about TV news as the main purveyor of press suckitude. I’m getting there, I really am. In my very next post, I promise. But there’s a kind of a bridge period between print/radio journalism (which coexisted in tandem quite nicely for a few decades) and TV journalism — which is a term I do hesitate to use at this stage of the game — that has additional, significant and ongoing impact on the ability and willingness of the press to do its supposed job.

But, first, to recap:

In that earlier discussion, I highlighted three main things that cropped up early on in our existence as a country to undermine our ability to have a press that functions as a true check on power as well as an educator of the public.

For those without instant recall, those three things were:

· Capital. That is, the influx of big capital — and the power-seeking oligarchs that come with it — into the news game, making it a business enterprise that had to turn a profit and please investors.

· Sensationalism, emotional hyperbole, lies and fear-mongering as editorial strategies to drive sales.

· Advertising as a revenue source, making private advertisers an additional constituency to please.

I’m sure you’ve noticed how each of these three things goes back to money.

On to the radio age

These three issues remain fairly fundamental as we get into the age of radio in the early 20th century.

For instance, as a part of business growth, radio stations steadily consolidated into networks, which, just like newspapers, became major profit-driven corporations. NBC and CBS were radio network corporations first (they used profits from their radio businesses to become the first major TV networks). These corporations were and continue to be run by oligarchs of one sort or another. That’s the capital part.

Then you had sensationalism, evidenced in the blaring, alarmist, headline-driven quality of radio news writing, as well as the weird, antiseptic yet strangely hyperbolic cadences of many (though certainly not all) radio announcers.

Finally, you had advertisers who sponsored specific radio programs across the dial and exerted certain pressures on news and political content, particularly the need for news to reflect an uncritical patriotism during the U.S. involvement in both WWI and WWII.

Essentially, a similar set of limiting factors as developed in the newspaper/magazine business during the preceding century.

Okay, so what happened then? What’s this bridge period?

The bridge, I think, involves another set of issues that enter the mix and compromise the press even further. In a sense, it’s about the time in history (the end of WWII) that TV and TV news begins to enter the scene. Here’s the set of issues I’m talking about:

1. The U.S. becomes a major world power. This is a BFD because world powers do the obvious thing: they exert power and influence over other countries in the world. That doesn’t happen naturally. They have to force the issue economically, politically, socially, militarily. But world powers aren’t all-powerful. To have their way, they need help. They must find people within the countries they seek to control to assist them in exerting and maintaining (lest it slip) that power. Collaborators, basically.

To get things done the way a world power wants, those collaborators will eventually start suppressing, hurting and humiliating their fellow countrymen and women. That causes trauma. It causes animosity, fosters conflict and — oh yes, here’s the connection to the press — that conflict generates news events. The American press is obliged to cover those events. But to do so with a measure of thoroughness, impartiality and integrity, the press would have to spend at least a little time tracing these conflicts back to their origins. Some of those origins (there’s always more than one) will rest with the world power and its collaborators.

This is a problem for the world power. Too much daylight on the history and details of the grievances within the country being controlled will hamper the world power’s ability to achieve its goals. Naturally, the world power will want to make sure the press doesn’t dig too deep, cause undue embarrassment or create fuel for wider resistance. Pressure must be applied, or influence at the very least.

The next few issues during this bridge period I’m attempting to describe are about how the U.S., as a world power government, began to apply that pressure.

2. World powers need to distract their citizens. In the specific case of the U.S., our Constitution, even with all the flaws and injustices embedded within it, simply isn’t well-designed for a country focused on being a major world power. U.S. citizens have never been all that into it, either. But there we were in 1945, victorious over the Nazis, the Italian fascists and the Japanese empire; and our political elites and oligarchs felt it was time for the U.S. to be the predominant nation on earth. To keep a decidedly provincial population from actively opposing this goal, large-scale distractions became more important than they had ever been before.

Here are a couple of forms these distractions took in the 1950s:

— Increased fear of communism — leaders in government, civic and religious groups were called upon (once again) to spend time articulating a terrifying narrative about the Soviet Union, most recently a frenemy in WWII, as the worst threat to humanity ever seen on the planet before, making all of the world power activities the U.S. was engaged in totally necessary to protect every country on earth from the red menace. Never mind that the threat the Soviet Union posed to the U.S., as crushing and murderous as it was for its own citizens under Stalin, was not nearly as powerful as was being hyped.

The climate of fear the government helped to foster, both wittingly and unwittingly, melded quite well with the sensationalistic sales needs of newspapers, magazines, radio stations and newly formed TV networks. This move killed many birds with one stone. It created an overarching narrative of fear advanced by local leaders across the U.S. It distracted citizens from critical thinking about world events. It ensnared the press, making anti-communism and de-facto support for U.S. intrusions into the sovereignty of other countries a litmus test for journalistic legitimacy.

— Embrace of consumerism — especially for the older generation that came up during the Great Depression, fought the war and desperately wanted to enjoy our post-WWII prosperity, the determination by U.S. elites to get citizens to reimagine themselves as consumers was key. The media and the press proved instrumental in normalizing this shift, in part due to their hunger for consumer product advertising dollars. The big benefit, though, was that by focusing the population on cars and washing machines and hamburgers and wood paneling, masters of industry ensured a more apolitical atmosphere where citizens were too busy with material pursuits to be terribly inclined to scrutinize the news or engage in widespread political study or debate.

3. The creation of the National Security State. This is the elephant in the room that casts its bulky shadow across the press as a whole, not just the piece of it that operates on TV. Just after the end of WWII, as elites in the government saw their opportunity to be a serious world power, the Truman administration and Congress made the fateful decision to keep the U.S. on a permanent war footing by passing the National Security Act of 1947. A key outgrowth of that decision was the creation of the National Security Council (NSC), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Pentagon (of which the NSA is a part) and the expansion of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as a tool for monitoring and clamping down on domestic dissent (often openly justified by the Cold War fear of communism).

Having learned from the work they did with supportive journalists in Europe during WWII, the CIA got to work quickly on one of their objectives, which was (and remains to this day) to influence domestic public opinion, a program many now know as Operation Mockingbird. As Nicholas Schou lays out in his meticulously researched book Spooked, the CIA did this by creating its own media organizations and foundations (through front groups), and by cultivating relationships with journalists at major newspapers, radio stations, TV networks and film studios to advance stories that reinforced preferred points of view of the National Security State.

The FBI got into the media manipulation act as well, directed by their leader J. Edgar Hoover and passed on down the line through their various field offices across the country. For a glimpse into just a sliver of this activity, check out Seth Rosenfeld’s book Subversives which, among many other things, looks at how the FBI routinely used friendly reporters to plant stories geared towards misrepresenting and undermining the nascent free speech movement centered around the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s.

All of this stuff cascades down through the decades into our present day reality, where we see the use of increasingly credulous print, radio and TV news reporters and editors as recipients for “inside information” (from CIA, NSA and other Pentagon-connected officials) that fits the interests of the National Security State.

Some relatively recent examples:

– Judith Miller of the New York times using her column to advance the fact-free assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in the lead up to the invasion of that country in 2003. Much of it based on un-scrutinized “inside info” given to her by Pentagon-vetted Iraqi expatriot Ahmed Chalabi.

– In 2010–2011, the CIA, with support from Hilary Clinton’s State Department, planting untrue stories in the western media that Libyan president Momar Gaddaffi was hiring mercenaries from Africa to put down rebel groups within the country. This caused rebel groups and regular citizens within Libya to attack and murder previously unremarked upon African guest workers. The ensuing violence and controversy over African mercenaries became one of the pillar rationales for a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone over Libya and, eventually, the destruction of Libya as a functioning nation.

– Most recently, the straight-up hiring of former CIA and Pentagon officials by the corporate news media, all of whom espouse the perspective of the National Security State. Talk about taking it to the next level!

So, now to recap: As we made the transition from radio mass culture to TV mass culture, we added three new major influences on our ability to have an independent and critical press:

1. The U.S. becomes a major world power

2. Propaganda/distractions become an even bigger force in American social and political life

3. The National Security State is formed and starts to exert influence on journalism across newspapers, magazines, radio and TV

And, of course, we have our previous three, which embroil themselves with the three issues above:

1. Capital-driven, oligarchy-controlled news networks

2. Sensationalism to drive sales

3. Advertising to increase revenue

That’s six significant impediments to having a decent press! You almost want to forgive our journalistic institutions for not being able to overcome them. Actually, nah.

Thanks for your patience as we work our way through this stuff at an admittedly high level. In my upcoming installment, I’ll deliver on a discussion of how the context and aesthetic of TV as a medium for journalism, combined with the six issues above, helps our news media reach the most amazing levels of suckitude and mendacity.

Stay tuned and thanks for reading.

Stephen Boni
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Stephen Boni

Stephen Boni is both Ghion Journal's current editor and a contributing writer. His main interest is in analyzing the workings of empire and exploring ways to dismantle and replace systems of oppression. A conflicted New Englander with an affinity for people, music and avoiding isms, he lives in Oakland, California with his wife and young daughter.
Stephen Boni
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