Do we have free journalism in our country?
From the beginning, the USA has paid homage to freedom of the press. It is one of the most profound ideals we project and pride ourselves in; because a free press keeps the government in check, and without a free press we are subject to brainwashing by totalitarian propaganda.
The role of the “fourth branch of government,” however, has been problematic for a very long time. From the “Yellow Journalism” of yesteryear to the “fake news” of today, we have had to contend with misleading and biased, sensationalist misinformation. As Mark Twain said, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed.”
Perhaps the best way to examine the state of freedom of the press is through a lens that paints our entire system as an example of “Inverted Totalitarianism.”
Where classical totalitarianism might rely on a tyrannical ruler (like the Wicked Witch of the West), Inverted Totalitarianism is more about “the man behind the curtain” who is supposed to remain anonymous and unseen. Inverted Totalitarianism pays lip service to and creates the illusion of loyalty to the Constitution, elections, and free media; but that patriotic facade is merely the curtain hiding a corporate power structure that quite literally manages our democracy.
One of the most effective ways of managing our democracy is through the Press. With a managed Press we are subject to brainwashing by Totalitarian propaganda – whether that Totalitarianism is classical or inverted. Hence the question: Do we, in fact, have a free press, or is the Press managed by a Corporatist “man behind the curtain?”
The first and most obvious point to consider is media ownership. As recently as 1983, ninety percent of media in the USA was controlled by 50 companies. With corporate consolidation and acquisitions, that number is now down to six. Ninety percent of our media is controlled by Viacom, Disney, NewsCorp, GE, Time Warner, and CBS. The implications are pretty clear: almost every bit of the media we consume is ultimately curated, sanitized, and approved by a corporate executive who is driven by the capitalistic impulse to expand their money first, and journalistic integrity second (if at all). The very structure of this system does not bode well for real freedom.
Is there any evidence that this is a problem? Certainly. As Noam Chomsky said, “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.” With the profit motive of media companies in mind (media gets its money from advertisers), for instance, when was the last time you saw a program that spoke out against acquisitive materialism? Instead, “the spectrum of acceptable opinion” spans the width and breadth of conventional wisdom as dictated by establishment elites: hot-button issues involving conflicts between Christians and LGBTQ and “horse-race” election coverage, etc. Instead of an examination of the military-industrial complex, “the spectrum of acceptable opinion” spans from Democratic military worship to Republican military worship. Instead of an examination of the prison-industrial complex, we are given debates on “taking a knee” at football games. The examples truly are endless.
“The government does not need to stamp out dissent,” Chomsky says. “The uniformity of imposed public opinion through the corporate media does a very effective job.”
Of course, there are those that examine these issues – from Progressives like Tim Black and Jimmy Dore, to Libertarians like Ron Paul’s acolytes – but these are not mainstream and their audiences are niche.
Can the Press keep a government in check if the government is keeping the Press in check? Obviously, this too is a problem. Whistleblowing is protected by the First Amendment, but if the information is suppressed and divulging it is punished, we have lost the integrity of the First Amendment, all for the sake of perpetuating a form of totalitarianism.
That’s a pretty big deal.
Moving away from the power structure of Inverted Totalitarianism, though, we do see a type of freedom exploding within the information we consume: conspiracy theories, “fake news” stories and sites, and the like. To some in the upper echelons of power in this country, this is a sign that we have too much freedom in media. To some in the ever-suspicious-of-power community, this is a victory against the real “Fake News” – also known as “the mainstream media.”
The explosion of news and commentary on the Internet is a paradigm shift, and it is important to remember that while these sources can be called “media, “ most cannot be accurately called “Press” in the traditional sense. What it does highlight, though, is that the credibility of the mainstream media is crumbling; and as their narratives are crumbling, the power structure status quo is directly threatened. While economic debate has created a war for the soul of America, the chaos in the media has created a war for its mind.
This challenge to the status quo is inevitable, given how pathetic mainstream narratives and deafening silences have become.
The Powers That Be (Inc) have begun to react to this paradigm shift, but – predictably – they are not doing it in a healthy way.
Remedies we’ve seen thus far – manipulation of search results, demonetizing YouTube videos, etc – put controls into the hands of corporate gatekeepers, who have a profit motive to limit that “spectrum of acceptable opinion” and protect both sensationalism and status quo politics.
Is there freedom of the Press in this country? No, but there is absolute freedom of Press executives. And it shows.
As with so many things, it is the profit motive that is the problem. The spectrum of acceptable debate should be widened further than profit motives at media conglomerates allows it to be. A profit motive in media has had an “inverted totalitarian” effect. This is a huge problem, but let us never be tempted to un-invert that totalitarianism in response.
There is always a better way.