This is not a definition that implies a conspiracy; it is a structural analysis of how our media system works in the real world with all the economic, political, and legal pressures that shape the process of delivering the infotainment we call news.
In last week’s column, I discussed Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s propaganda model and noted how it was even more relevant today than it was when they first published Manufacturing Consent in 1988 as the concentration of media ownership they decried in the eighties has only continued to increase dramatically. I ended that column by referring to Project Censored, an organization that has been monitoring the news media and putting out a list of the top 25 “censored” stories of the year since 1976.
Recently when I mentioned this project to a former journalist friend of mine he objected to the use of the word “censorship” because he didn’t think it applied to the news media, a group of people who, in his estimation, are far more driven by market forces than by the desire to monitor ideas. With that objection in mind, let’s consider Project Censored’s definition of the term “censorship”
We define Modern Censorship as the subtle yet constant and sophisticated manipulation of reality in our mass media outlets. On a daily basis, censorship refers to the intentional non-inclusion of a news story – or piece of a news story – based on anything other than a desire to tell the truth. Such manipulation can take the form of political pressure (from government officials and powerful individuals), economic pressure (from advertisers and funders), and legal pressure (the threat of lawsuits from deep-pocket individuals, corporations, and institutions).
In sum, the folks at Project Censored argue, along with Chomsky and Herman, that all the information we consume in our market driven system has to go through a series of “filters” before a story makes it (or doesn’t make it) to our eyes and ears. This is not a definition that implies a conspiracy; it is a structural analysis of how our media system works in the real world with all the economic, political, and legal pressures that shape the process of delivering the infotainment we call news.
Consequently, it’s not that a few guys in a room sit around and censor our news as might happen in a totalitarian dictatorship, but that our system of corporate media is structurally designed in a way that inclines it to narrow the frame. The news media are not controlled by corporate interests; they are corporate interests. Thus it should come as no surprise to us that such a profit driven industry is far more concerned with its economic interests than with the public interest.
In the case of Fox News or San Diego’s House of Manchester, the ownership manipulation and ideological filters are plain to see.
In the case of Fox News or San Diego’s House of Manchester, the ownership manipulation and ideological filters are plain to see. However, in other more ideologically diverse, intellectually sophisticated outlets, the filters may be harder to discern, but a systematic examination of our media landscape reveals their presence and negative effect nonetheless.
The result is not, according to our friends at Project Censored, that some information is totally stopped from coming out, but rather that many extremely important stories are woefully underreported. Hence we may frequently lose sight of crucial events and trends in our society as we drown in a glut of compelling live action shots, tabloid trivia, and sound bytes devoid of context.
So perhaps, if we take my friend’s point, much important news is not totally censored in the market system, but underreported to the point of invisibility. Put another way, in a dictatorship dissidents are tortured or shot—here we just ignore them in the process of amusing ourselves to death.
Perhaps Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was more prescient than George Orwell’s 1984 in predicting our means of social control, but the subtle nature of our system of market censorship makes it a far more effective tool for maintaining ideological hegemony. After all, the best systems of social control maintain power not by playing the role of a boot stamping on a human face forever, but by seducing the majority of people into adopting an ideology that serves the interests of the powerful over their own.
Thus the naïve surfer of the global information network is apt to get crushed by wave after wave of bullshit. Indeed, this ocean of misinformation makes the job of being a critical consumer of “news” and an active citizen in our democracy much harder, though not impossible.
Despite all the filters information goes through in our “open society,” the power of plutocracy is not total. Just as our imperfect democratic system is thoroughly polluted by corporate money but not yet totally subject to it, our media system also has cracks, fissures, and seams that allow the uncomfortable truth to occasionally slip through. The key to navigating our information landscape is a kind of informed skepticism rather than resigned cynicism.
Once you accept the fact that that the myth of objectivity is precisely that, a myth, you can begin to view all information as the product of interested sources.
Once you accept the fact that that the myth of objectivity is precisely that, a myth, you can begin to view all information as the product of interested sources. Arguing about bias is a useless sideshow. The point is not that there are some sources with ideology and others without it, but that every piece of information you consume comes from a particular perspective with an inherent ideology that supports a set of interests. The trouble isn’t being biased; it’s pretending that you aren’t. And the issue with our information landscape isn’t that there are biased sources, it is that there is no real diversity of sources and that the media monopoly can effectively mask their interests.
So the real work of the critical consumer of information is to try to discern what baggage the information they are consuming comes with. Some of the key questions are: who owns this source? What are their interests? What influences the frame that the information comes from in terms of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, region, etc? What kinds of “experts” or organizations does this source rely on for evidence? What conscious or unconscious ideology is present in sources that proclaim their neutrality or independence? How does the focus of the corporate media compare to that of the alternative media? How “alternative” is the so-called alternative media in terms of ownership, advertising, and other filters? The list goes on. It’s hard work, but not beyond the ability of the average Jill or Joe given the proper toolkit.
On that note, frequently, the big stories we don’t hear about come from obscure sources with fewer filters and less to lose by reporting inconvenient facts. How different would our social, political, and cultural reality be if this sort of reporting drove the national and local discussion? Take a look at Project Censored’s most recent list of underreported stories and see what you think. Note: the 2013 list is a retrospective list of 2012 stories.
Top Censored Stories of 2013
For more on all of these stories see the Project Censored website: http://www.projectcensored.org/