In general, the mainstream media all make certain basic assumptions, like the necessity of maintaining a welfare state for the rich. Within that framework, there's some room for differences of opinion, and it's entirely possible that the major media are toward the liberal end of that range. In fact, in a well-designed propaganda system, that's exactly where they should be. The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum—even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate. ~ Noam Chomsky in How the World Works
On September 8, Queen Elizabeth II passed away at the age of 96. Though her death has obviously been anticipated, and not only by her eldest son, Charles, for a few years, still, the actual event was, to a certain extent, newsworthy. But the media was anything but content to report on the passing of a very sweet lady who had already lived for nearly a century. They kept talking about it, 24 hours a day, day after day.
The homage shown by the media could almost make you forget that America fought a bloody Revolutionary War to break free of the Empire and its monarchy. Broadcasters were grasping at straws for something else to say about the queen’s passing, drilling deep down into sordid personal details of the skeletons in the family closet and the sibling conflicts that go on among her grandchildren.
They finally got down to speculating about what would become of her two corgis. Flags flew at half-mast all over the United States, from the day of her death until she was buried, nearly two weeks later. Was there nothing going on in the news during all of this time? Was talking about an admittedly nice lady who had lived her life in the public’s eye, albeit, in unspeakable unearned wealth, but, still, keeping a stiff upper lip in all circumstances even though she did not actually have any governing power or responsibility. . . was this really news?
It was no different 25 years ago when, in a single week, Princess Diana, Viktor Frankl, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta all died. Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor and founder of logo therapy, was undoubtably the most consequential of the three, and Mother Teresa had certainly made a profound mark through her charity work, but Princess Diana took up all of the time in the media. Mother Teresa was mentioned, in passing, but I don’t recall a single news story about Frankl and only those of us who had been profoundly affected by his books spoke to one another in reverential respect about his death.
Diana’s death in a tragic car crash was horrible. I am not being dismissive about that or Queen Elizabeth’s death, I’m just saying that a 24 hour news cycle should be able to tell us about the deaths of prominent, or at least famous people, and still find lots of time to keep us informed about the news. But, they don’t.
The Fairness Doctrine
When TV and radio were in their infancy, the government realized that the airways, the frequencies for broadcasting, had to be regulated and that the airwaves belonged to the people and not to corporations. So they put laws in place that required a certain amount of air time to be devoted to informing the public. There was a “Fairness Doctrine” that required that an honest effort be made to represent both sides of controversial issues. In the 1980’s Ronald Regan had the Fairness Doctrine removed because it impeded him from using the media to spread lies and propaganda. I see no reason to sugar coat that fact. There have been some efforts at restoring the Fairness Doctrine’s values but they have failed in light of how profitable propaganda has become for Fox News and other completely irresponsible and dishonest news outlets.
You might think that the public would not tolerate an irresponsible use of the media to misinform and keep people in the dark about facts but you would be wrong. As Simone de Beauvoir, the French existentialist philosopher and sometimes girlfriend of Jean Paul Satre’ (who was not nearly as smart as de Beauvoir) said, “The oppressor would not be so strong if he did not have accomplices among the oppressed.” Sadly, people generally would rather be entertained than informed.
And what passes for news in social media is even worse. I realize that FaceBook tends to feed you more of what you clicked on last, but I can’t be the only guy whose news feed has a lot more reports on scantily clad movie stars and models than it does on either the war in Ukraine or the current state of our melting polar ice caps. And while it may be more interesting to see Elizabeth Banks in a wet white shirt or Sommer Ray in a see-through black bodysuit, there has been no mention of some of the things I have brought up recently in sermons about current events, like the Supreme Court giving Arizona permission to execute a prisoner even after he was found innocent, or that we kept and tortured prisoners in Guantanamo Bay for 14 years after we knew that they were innocent victims of sloppy arrests made in Afghanistan. Why do you get more news from a 20-minute sermon once a week than you get in a week’s worth of 24/7 news reporting?
I am not alleging some grand “mind control” conspiracy behind the major news networks. But the networks are all owned by corporations that are doing their best to make a profit and so the difference between Fox, MSNBC, or CNN and FaceBook is just a matter of their audience evaluations. There are things they will tell you to keep you entertained, and there are things they will not tell you that might affect their bottom line.
I have a great deal of personal experience with this. For more than 20 years I had a column in our local city newspaper and at least once a year, I got called in for a “come to Jesus” meeting with the publisher and the editor. I was not on their paid staff. I wrote to raise important issues to inform my readers. They were paid and they kept their jobs by selling advertising and subscriptions.
We had entirely different motivations. Gannet moves editors and publishers around pretty often and eventually I had to point out to each one of them that my column was the most read column in their paper, usually ten to twenty times as many readers as any of their full-time staff writers. Of course, I am also sure that they got more complaints from advertisers about me than they did any other writer.
One memorable conflict was when they had asked me to write more columns on matters of local interest. I put a lot of time and energy into a piece about how the board members of our largest regional hospital did millions of dollars of business with the hospital every year on contracts that were never let out for competitive bids.
The Rich and Their Allies
While those board members who were becoming nasty rich off of their hospital contracts returned the favor by giving the administrator bonuses that also added up into the millions of dollars. They could do this by charging patients exorbitant prices and even sending many into bankruptcy, losing their homes and retirement savings to pay inflated medical bills. That’s good investigative reporting, right?
Still, I thought my red-faced editor was going to come across the board room table and choke me. They didn’t publish my article, even though I had copies of the IRS 990 non-profit documents from the hospital to prove what I said was true. But, the hospitals provided about 25% of the advertising dollars paid to the newspaper and the newspaper knew that they didn’t take out that many ads just to get new patients. After all, who among us goes for cancer surgery because we saw an ad in the paper for a local oncology group? The hospitals bought ads to prevent any negative coverage in the media. And it worked.
The universities are the largest employers in the city, the hospitals are second, and even though I served on boards where I saw a lot of the really corrupt dealings of both, I never succeeded in getting an article that was critical of either into print. I could write about national and international events without any problems, but there are sacred cows here locally that I was not allowed to touch.
I did get some very angry phone calls from the Polish embassy after my piece on Nazi sympathizers in Poland but let’s not rehash that now.
The point is, as Noam Chomsky says so clearly in his book, How the World Works, the media will cover certain allowed topics in a very narrow way, but they allow for vigorous debate within that narrow corridor which gives the impression that the public is really being invited to speak to matters of great importance, while the most important issues are never illuminated. I have often observed that MSNBC’s Morning Joe program often invites some of the world’s most intelligent people onto their set every morning and then they don’t let them talk. Strict guidelines are given to the staff and the guests about what they can and what they cannot say. Just ask some of the people they have fired over the past decade.
While we are treated to days of watching lines of slow moving cars carrying the late monarch’s casket, did you know only about 10 corporations own nearly 80% of the food production in our country? That only 15 cents on the dollar spent in the grocery store goes to the people who grow our food? That Pepsi doesn’t just make a soft drink, but they also own almost all of the chips and dips you will consume with it? You don’t read newspaper articles about food additives, preservatives, fillers, or the fact that one of the main ingredients in Taco Bell meat is actually sand, (Taco Bell calls it a “binder” but it is sand) but you do know which members of the royal family like little girls and which ones carry the deepest racial prejudices.
Reporting on Prince Andrew’s sex crimes seems like bold reporting. It seems to have a certain amount of courage even though it is just salacious and attention getting.
They will not tell you why the number of beds for unhoused people in this city has been cut by about 80% over the past decade and even I don’t know why; and I have been trying to find out for years. Somehow, city leaders have been able to reduce our homeless services to a tiny symbol of what we used to do and there has never been an explanation.
The Powerful Control the Message
You virtually never read any investigative reporting about any city’s poverty programs because the poor are powerless and the powerful don’t want you to question what the root causes of poverty are because the root causes of poverty is exactly what makes the rich and powerful so rich and powerful. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky said, “The best way to keep a prisoner from escaping is to make sure he never knows he’s in prison.”
In other western democracies, it is generally illegal to lie to the public with the intent to misinform or mislead. In the United States it is not only legal, it is highly profitable.
While the media looked for something else to say about the late monarch, you did not hear them even bringing up the connection of the British monarchy to a long history of empire and cruel economic colonialism.
How did the monarchy come to own billions in property and the late queen’s personal holdings were worth $20 billion dollars . . . and her heirs pay no inheritance taxes on royal estates? Can we even mention that there is a direct line from poverty in India and Pakistan and Honduras and Belize and Jamaica to the estate of the late queen? Do you even want to know?
I am not opposed to saying a lot of nice things about the queen on the week of her death. But in their endless coverage, can they not find a moment to mention some of the hard reality of the abuses of the British monarchy? I realize that a lot of comfortable white people don’t want to hear anything about the down side of the British monarchy but I have some friends in Central America who would be willing to explain it to you in detail.
And could there be a relationship between the fact that I bring these things up and the fact that I no longer have a local weekly column? I will tell you what I said to my editor in our last heated meeting: journalism happens when you write something that someone doesn’t want you to write. Everything else is advertising and entertainment.
If the news media won’t do it, shouldn’t the church at least try to be a reliable voice of reliable truth? Shouldn’t prophetic preaching speak truth to power? If not, then what’s the church for?
Oh, and just so you won’t worry about them, Prince Andrew has agreed to take the corgis. I hope they bite him.