In the weeks following the election, David Frum made waves by explaining the shock in conservative circles over Romney’s loss with a bit of interesting media criticism: “Republicans have been fleeced and exploited and lied to by a conservative entertainment complex.”
Of course, those of us with a historical memory longer than five minutes found it amusing to hear this from Frum, the author of George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech. Indeed, Frum was one of the central ideologues promulgating lies aboutIraqand demonizing dissent as unpatriotic. I guess it takes one to know one.
Still, despite the bitter irony of Frum playing the role of truth-teller, he is on to something. The trouble with his analysis is that it stops at the obvious. The truth is that the problem with the media is not limited to the universe of Fox News and right wing radio pundits. The American media landscape distorts the truth not because it is liberal or conservative but because it is corporate.
The corporate media can easily accept a range of opinions from Rachel Maddow to Sean Hannity and create a whole menu of self-selected ideological niche markets. What it will never systematically do is challenge the basis of economic power, the unquestioned centrality of our military industrial complex, or American global hegemony in any way that moves beyond the superficial.
Thus we will have a thorough airing of the “fiscal cliff” debate between Republican social Darwinist austerity and Democratic austerity lite, but not much discussion at all about whether this austerity debate is off the mark entirely.
The corporate media will comfortably report on the “Tea Party” take over of the Republican party, but rarely even hint at the far more insidious corporate infiltration of the Democratic party. The corporate media is perfectly happy to pit revanchist white conservatism against multicultural corporate liberalism, but it will never air a sustained critique of the gospel of the free market.
Neoliberal ideology is a bipartisan affair everywhere but in the most obscure corners of our “marketplace” of ideas. Thus the frame is set and anything that doesn’t fit into a narrow set of parameters is either systematically marginalized or totally invisible.
Years ago, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman delineated precisely how the corporate media serve to manufacture consent for an elite agenda. Their model outlines five filters that “news” has to sift through before it makes it to your newspaper, radio, or television set: the concentration and profit orientation of media ownership; advertising as the primary source of income; sourcing reliant on governmental and business “experts” frequently funded by or linked to powerful interests; flak as a means of disciplining the media; and anti-communism (or more recently “anti-terrorism”) as an ideological litmus test.
Since Chomsky and Herman originally published Manufacturing Consent in 1988, their model has only become more relevant with the number of media giants controlling almost everything we read, watch, and listen to shrinking from around twenty to a mere handful. As Ben Bagdikian notes in the most recent edition of his seminal study, The Media Monopoly, “five huge corporations — Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany, and Viacom (formerly CBS) — own most of the newspapers, magazines, books, radio and TV stations, and movie studios of the United States.” And as much as we’d like to think that the proliferation of Internet sources gives us an alternative to this, at present the blogosphere doesn’t come close to offering a counter narrative nearly as powerful. What was once thought of as a quasi-utopian cyber space has shown itself to be just as vulnerable to commercial penetration and cooptation as much of the traditional media.
This dangerous concentration of ownership only magnifies the power of the second filter as the lords of the global village have every reason to ensure that media does all it can to encourage the “buying mood” in every way possible. It’s all about selling audiences of affluent consumers to advertisers. Hence national news has been demoted to a kind of least objectionable programming while local news has become so pathetically devoid of content that it is little more than a “a soap opera,” to borrow Elayne Rapping’s term, punctuated by news and sports.
When it comes to sourcing, the revolving door of official experts like Frum is spinning even more quickly today than it was in the eighties. Indeed, seemingly no scandal, colossally brazen lie, or display of intellectual incompetence disqualifies them. Just ask Dick Morris, Eliot Spitzer, or Paul Wolfowitz, et al. And when the big names aren’t available, there is a deep bench of talking heads from corporate funded think tanks.
The same forces that advertise and provide sources are equally adept at disciplining critics that slip their way into the media landscape. Indeed, there is an entire industry of paid attack dogs willing to assail the anti-war critics, demonize Occupy, and/or attack defenders of public education against the onslaught of corporate “reform.” The list goes on and on.
As for the final filter, while the cold war is over, the war on terror has been a more than sufficient supplement to media McCarthyism for those who would assail any thorough-going critique of the “war on terror,” our obscene level of defense spending, or the mere suggestion that there might be areas of our public and private lives that are not well-served by market-based solutions.
As bad as this national landscape is, our local media menu is even more skewed, dominated as it is by the House of Manchester, horrible TV news, and weeklies and online publications subject to the same ownership and advertising pressures along with similar sourcing and ideological filters. A thorough analysis of the local scene is a matter for another column but suffice it to say you are reading the only progressive source of news and analysis that is not subject to the pressures that Chomsky and Herman discuss. Hence, San Diego is home to a local Conservative Entertainment Complex on steroids, with some outlets doing very little to conceal that they are mere auxiliaries of the Republican Party and the Chamber of Commerce. What this means for our incoming progressive mayor is that he will have to continually negotiate a media minefield, ready to pounce on every misstep, real or perceived, or evidence of his nefarious alliance with labor or local progressive groups. Remember, business is never a “special interest.” Good luck Bob!
Moving back to the national level, the liberals who are crowing about Frum’s sniping at his fellow conservatives and enjoying a month of gloating should take a moment to stop and wonder why the first big argument the triumphant Democrat in the White House is having is around “debt relief” and what kind of austerity plan would be preferable. If we had a better, even slightly diverse media landscape, more voices than just Paul Krugman’s and a handful of other lonely souls would be asking that question. Instead, we’re stuck with the Gospel of Simpson-Bowles.
For a good yearly catalogue of the “underreported” stories that get filtered out of most of the news media at all levels, see Project Censored out of Sonoma State University. There you will learn that the number one underreported story of 2012 was not that General Petraeus and company engaged in covert activities unauthorized by their wives, but that more American service people died by suicide than in combat for the second year in a row. But who cares about that?