The Media is a Joke: American Democracy and Alternatives

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Introduction: Visions of a virtuous media

The Grand Canyon is too small to contain all the pearls clutched recently in discussions regarding the importance of press freedom. Faced with a charlatan entertainer disguised as a President, or vice versa, many in the media have been compelled to return to their dusty Media Studies textbooks and remind themselves and others of the role of the Fourth Estate in a robust democracy. Throughout history, countless scholarly and enlightened renditions of this role have been proposed. As journalism scholar S. Coronel put it in The Role of The Media in Deepening Democracy, “Democracy requires the active participation of citizens. Ideally, the media should keep citizens engaged in the business of governance by informing, educating and mobilizing the public.” She continues, “The media can promote democracy by among other things, educating voters, protecting human rights, promoting tolerance among various social groups, and ensuring that governments are transparent and accountable.”

Thomas Jefferson simplified the exercise significantly by famously proclaiming that, should he be confronted with a choice between a government without newspapers and newspapers without a government, he would not hesitate to choose the latter. The essence of elementary freedoms as that of speech and thought is embedded in open networks of information and communication. In addition, the data that fills these networks — text on a newspaper, or articles on an online publication — must be held to high standards of objectivity and ethics; as the theories go. Yet, despite the theories, lofty ideals and grandiose proclamations, such media remains ever so elusive, with a majority of Americans agreeing that the U.S media does a disservice to democracy.

True purpose: Truth-technicians

To reconcile this paradox, another must be evoked. Eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume described in On the First Principles of Government a perplexing truth:

“Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the ease with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers.”

Hume was kind enough to resolve the paradox:

“When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find that, as force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is, therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the freest and most popular.”

In other words, opinion control is a pre-requisite for any power system, including highly orchestrated oligarchies such as ours. In this context, far from upholding democratic ideals, the valiant and intrepid media mutates into a tool to maintain uniformity and compliance. As Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky describe in Manufacturing Consent, such thought control is even more critical in freer societies such as the U.S, wherein the ruling class cannot simply resort to control by open violence and dictation. As explained in Part I of this series, the ruling elite must exercise control over the political, economic and social spheres by design. The media plays a critical role in enabling this control, routinely minimizing or eliminating ideas and stories that challenge conventional thoughts; hence supporting the state, corporations and other actors such as the euphemistically called Intelligence Community. This is not invariable. To the contrary, a robust democracy can enable a free and substantive media, and the media can return the favor so democracy can sustain itself. On one hand, this seems like a virtuous cycle; yet on the other, it is a chicken-and-egg problem. Today’s media requires deeper analysis to resolve the problem and spring forth action.


Private Ownership of Media

Major media companies in the U.S are first and foremost, private corporations. These companies generate and distribute news, and exist for the primary purpose of increasing market dominance to generate increasing profits. Six corporations owned 90% of all media distribution in the country as of 2012, down from 50 companies in 1983. Critically, such an outcome was enabled by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed by President Clinton. As Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) described it, the act was “essentially bought and paid for by corporate media lobbies, and radically opened the floodgates on mergers.” Defense of the Telecommunications Act was a masterclass in weaseling euphemisms, cowardly claims of fairness and bloated lies about a bright future for telecommunications in the country. As was reported by S. Derek Turner, Research Director of the Free Press, in a 2009 report proposing a national broadband strategy, “the powerful media and telecom giants and their army of overpaid lobbyists went straight to work obstructing and undermining the competition the new law was intended to create.” Interestingly, one of the provisions of the Telecommunication Act was the idea of line-sharing or loop-unbundling. This would require incumbent ISPs and other operators to provide wholesale bandwidth to smaller players, in an effort to expand access to the distribution networks. However, this idea was swiftly crushed by the incumbents looking to maintain their monopolistic control of the market and hence, opinion. Lest sympathies rise for the smaller companies, a reminder that the institutional roles they play are not to fulfill the noble responsibility of the media either. Their highest ambitions are to become the monopolies themselves. In no powerpoint presentation to an investor, or a due-diligence data room is a promise made for preserving democracy through diligent subversion of power. It is a contradiction.

Structurally, media business models are not just deficient to fulfill the responsibility of the media in a democracy, but are diametrically opposed to such a role. The companies sell advertisement space and time to other businesses, while the audience is packaged into a product. Sensation, sleaze and exaggerations that stir fear, anger and carnal desires are utilized to grow the product package; namely the viewers, for the advertisers. In no shape or form does this promote “democracy by, among other things, educating voters, protecting human rights, promoting tolerance among various social groups, and ensuring that governments are transparent and accountable.”

Media’s report card

An additional benefit of the dominance of space and time by advertisements and prepared messages is that there is little left for original viewpoints to emerge; those that challenge accepted notions and ideologies. This concept can be further explored through an indirect exchange between Jeff Greenfield, a television journalist who appeared on the ABC show Nightline, and Noam Chomsky.

Jeff Greenfield, describing the importance of being able to talk on television, explained “This is a standard that is very important to us. If you have a 22-minute show, and a guy takes 5 minutes to warm up[…], he’s out. […] One of the things you have to do when you book a show is know that the person can make the point within the framework of television; and if people don’t like that, they should understand that it is about as sensible to book somebody who will take 8 minutes to give an answer as it is to book somebody who does not speak English.”

Chomsky, in his response, agreed. “So Greenfield hit the nail on the head. The U.S media are alone in that you must meet the condition of concision. You have to say things between two commercials, or in 600 words. And that is a very important fact, because the beauty of concision, you know, saying a couple of sentences between two commercials; the beauty of that is you can only repeat conventional thoughts. Suppose I go on Nightline and I get my two minutes, and I say Gaddafi is a terrorist, Khomeini is a murderer, the Russians invaded Afghanistan, etcetera, etcetera; I don’t need any evidence. Everybody just nods. On the other hand, suppose you say something that just isn’t regurgitating conventional pieties. Suppose you say something that is the least bit unexpected, or controversial. Suppose I say, the biggest terror operations that are known are the ones that are run out of Washington, or suppose I say, the U.S invaded South Vietnam, as it did,[…] or suppose I say, education is a system of imposed ignorance; then people will quite reasonably expect to know what you mean. Why did you say that? I’ve never heard that before. If you said that, you better have some reason, better have some evidence; in fact you better have a lot of evidence, because that’s a pretty startling comment. And you can’t give evidence if you’re stuck with concision. That is the genius of the structural constraint.”

This constraint is imposed by the commercialization of the virtual public square, where space and time are increasingly consumed by advertisements and sensation; hence limiting space for dissent and original thought. Indeed, this is assuming such dissenting opinions are even invited on various shows in the first place, for anything more than to create a spectacle or have a shouting match.


Online News and Social Media

Instinctively, online news (one-to-many networks) that opens itself to immediate public comment and counter-arguments through more news and opinion, and social media (many-to-many networks) that seems to grant audiences far more freedom to cross-pollinate and sharpen ideas, and challenge bad ideas, are an improvement over the one-directional propaganda that define cable, journals and other such dissemination of information. The underlying technologies and techniques are indeed very promising; but, here too, we find that media ideals remain just that for very good reasons. On an economic basis, networks such as Facebook and Twitter are compelled to maximize clicks and user engagement in the pursuit of larger market share and profits. On a political basis, private ownership concentrates tremendous censorship power in the hands of a few owners.

The recent episode that involved the removal of Alex Jones from various social media platforms is a teachable example. The Facebook CEO was personally involved in the decision to slash Jones’ presence from the platform, evidently influenced by Apple CEO’s decision to remove Jones from the iTunes store. The decision by the Facebook CEO, who apparently agonized over complicated moral questions about free speech with his executives over the course of weeks, is being portrayed as a group of more enlightened men deciding how to best navigate the canyons of conflict in their quest for a better society.

To refer to Alex Jones’ lip movements and streams of sounds as ‘speech’ is being charitable. A raging tumbleweed in human form, with complete disregard for the truth, objectivity and coherent sentences, Alex Jones likely did violate the platforms’ Terms of Service. Indeed, he once claimed that the grieving parents of the victims of Sandy Hook were simply actors trying to push an anti-gun agenda. Even according to some conservative free speech advocates, such speech is not protected under libel and defamation law.

Yet to celebrate technology monopolies eliminating off-the-spectrum voices is to be penny wise, pound foolish. Consider Google’s vague standard of acceptable content, where they describe what content is most likely to be scooped up by their more authoritative algorithms: “The most high profile of these issues is the phenomenon of “fake news,” where content on the web has contributed to the spread of blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive or downright false information.” With loose standards such as “low quality” or “misleading”, a drag-net is bound to be knitted in existence at the speed of data. Indeed, a dangerous precedent has already been set. With malleable standards and sweeping terminology, legitimate criticism of the state or of the corporations themselves can be snapped out of existence whenever the rulers choose. Facebook’s recent partnership with the Atlantic Council, a think-tank that serves as a PR agency for the U.S government and NATO, has already led to the suspension of TeleSUR and VenezuelaAnalysis.com, platforms that are critical of U.S imperialism (or as they say in polite society, foreign policy).

Not to be outdone, Google has been quietly developing a modified search engine permissible for the Chinese market, which “would remove content that China’s authoritarian government views as sensitive, such as information about political opponents, free speech, democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest.” As former Google’s Head of Free Expression for Asia, Lokman Tsui put it, “This is just a really bad idea, a stupid, stupid move. I feel compelled to speak out and say that this is not right.” It would not be possible for these companies to make a stronger case for the charge that their priorities lie in profit and control, and not in upholding principles of democratic media if they tried.


Free Speech: The emperor and the pirate

In the City of God, St. Augustine told the story of a pirate captured by Alexander the Great. The King roared and questioned the pirate, “how dare you molest the sea”. “How dare you molest the whole world” the pirate replied. “Because I do it with a little ship only, I am called a thief; you, doing it with a great navy, are called an emperor”.

While Alex Jones’ incitement to violence is abhorrent and in many cases cannot be defended in the court of law as free speech, it is still within reach to drag Jones to court, as the aforementioned parents have done. However, what of the emperors?

When former National Security Advisor Colin Powell lied to the U.N about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, such speech played a key role in generating consensus for the U.S Invasion of Iraq, leading to an ongoing 15-year war causing unspeakable death and misery. Is that protected speech?

When present-day liberal superhero Robert Mueller lied to Congress about the same weapons of mass destruction, is that protected speech?

When former Director of National Intelligence lied to Congress during his testimony regarding NSA surveillance of the country’s own population, later proven to be fact by the Snowden leaks, is that protected speech?

Yet, discussions of these matters have been left in the arena of the law-abiding citizens and the pirates, while the emperors define the rules of discourse — the Terms of Service.


Alternatives: Media Transformations

To emancipate public opinion from engineered constraints, a reorganization of media systems ownership is necessary. The intellectual and information monopolies generated are directly linked to the economic and political monopolies of media systems. Unfurling this system into its constituent layers is a good start.

Constituent layers

The Technology layer consists of the building blocks of media — fiber infrastructure, internet servers, regulated airwaves and so on. As discussed in The Free Market Fraud: Tech Innovation and Alternatives, these technologies are largely developed with state funding and are pushed to private markets to generate enormous profits for a few. Technology councils and national development labs could be examples of democratic structures that develop and house these technologies and distribute bandwidth equitably. Contrast this with the monopolizing effects of incumbent ISPs; a recent example being the repeal of Net Neutrality. As with many large-scale changes, combatting these ill-effects must be tackled through multiple channels, including the spirited and relentless battles fought by activists, fair media advocates and the general public.

The Operator layer consists of institutions that build media operations based on various technologies. For instance, social media companies will develop iterations of search and sorting algorithms, network optimizers and so on. The aforementioned totalitarian power that large media networks possess is contradictory to egalitarian principles. While demanding this layer be classified as public utilities is a start, which prevents absolute control and discrimination based on the whims of a CEO, democratic ownership of such institutions by means of cooperatives is required for a terminal shift to representative workplaces and a democratic media.

Finally, the journalism layer. This layer consists of individuals who investigate events, dissect ideas and deduce objective conclusions. With the reconfiguration of the first and second layers, these individuals will finally be free to operate as independent, free-thinking journalists; not required to conform to institutional boundaries and self-censor their speech, and indeed, thought.

Recently, television actors masquerading as journalists have been forced to repeat catchphrases about the freedom of the press. Finally awakened by a howling swindler leading the executive branch of the government, online journalists too have joined the crusade against a President who attacks the press. Yet, strangely many of these commentators celebrate the removal of disagreeable people from online platforms; somehow tolerant of totalitarian corporations exercising sweeping power to silence people into submission. While temporary resistances should certainly be mounted against state and corporate oppression, it must be acknowledged that only structural shifts will begin producing robust media and democracy. Per Hume, as governments are formed on opinion only, by extension, governments can be changed on opinion as well. A free internet, a co-op social media company and a band of 500 critical and creative thinkers could drastically change the face of the country on a scale that would make the Grand Canyon look like a pothole.

This article series continues in Part III: The Cruel Education Farce


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