With my interlocutor’s express permission, I’m replicating his exchanges with me below the line of my February reads post. It concerns the extent to which media corruption is systemic, and that to which it is driven by the rottenness of the journalists who give us this day our daily news.
I do not absolve those men and women of their role in woefully misinforming us. (More, I think, through lies of omission than commission, though both feature.) Some are proven liars, others cynics and yet others – the most obvious, hence least harmful – steeped in reaction. Moreover, the context for the exchanges set out below is the puerile behaviour, the snarling responses, of journalists incensed that Media Lens has the temerity to challenge them on so flimsy a pretext as that said journalists, being pivotal to the manufacture of mass opinion – most grievously our hideously misinformed ‘consent’ to acts of war – should be held to account.
What a feeble excuse for such “sophomoric” (Gavin Esler) lèse-majesté …
Nevertheless, and sarcasm aside, my view is that media rottenness does not in the last analysis derive from being staffed top to bottom by rotten people. Specifically, I locate the rottenness in two things. One is a political economy – business model if you like – elegantly summarised by Noam Chomsky:
These are large corporations selling privileged audiences to other large corporations. Now the question is, what pictures of the world would a rational person expect from this?
The other is ideology, the ways we make sense of the world. This is a vast subject, its surface barely scratched in my introduction to the Media Lens piece, which spoke of:
… the intricate networks of meaning some call The Matrix. Others prefer an older but much misunderstood term, ideology. We all of us do our bit, as workers in education and entertainment say, or simply as ordinary folk trying to get by, to perpetuate and renew those networks of meaning. And here’s the thing: since the ruling ideas of any age are the ideas of its ruling class, few of us speak of ideology or a ‘matrix’. We speak instead of common sense.
Through ideology we make sense of the world. Its agency is within us all …
In a footnote I attempted to draw the two things, media business model and ideology, together:
The political economy of our media, specifically a 200 year reliance on advertising – two steps removed in the case of state broadcasters 1 – makes it [corrupt]. That this model is now under threat – hence the moves to rein in social media 2 – complicates but does not yet sidestep that stark truth. Since media practitioners are human beings, as steeped in dominant ideology as the rest of us, such systemic bias merges seamlessly, and in dialectical interplay, with wider biases. Slavoj Žižek said it is easier for us to envisage the end of the world than the end of capitalism. For his part Chomsky replied thus to interviewer Andrew Marr’s protest that he does not self censor at the BBC: “I don’t say you are self censoring. I’m sure you believe all you say. But what I’m saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting in that chair.”
My analysis has the advantage of explaining how it is possible for journalists personally known to me to be sincere and decent coves who genuinely believe (albeit with a self serving capacity shared to greater or lesser degree by all of us) that what they do is for the common good. It also stands up more robustly to Occam’s Razor than does the ‘rotten people’ thesis.
It has its downside though. The danger is of moral hazard: that we wind up denying individual agency in positing a perfectly sealed system, self perpetuating, in which resistance is futile. A Hegelian union of the two perspectives – thesis, antithesis, synthesis – is surely in order. And although Marx’s context was far broader, one of his best known observations applies here:
Men make their own history. But they do so under conditions not of their choosing.
In this spirit – rather than one of “I’m right and he’s wrong” – I reproduce that BTL dialogue with my good if virtual friend, the one and only Jams O’Donnell.
- In speaking of state broadcasters as “two steps removed” from the market discipline of advertising dependency, I mean they rely on revenues set by politicians themselves fearful of negative press coverage: a fear most visible in the grotesque spectacle of would be prime ministers paying court to men like Murdoch and Rothermere.
- On moves to rein in social media, a word to the well intended dupes who cheered at Twitter’s banning of Donald Trump. Has it occurred to you that tyranny may come by stealth, starting with the low hanging fruit? First they came for the unlovable …
- The reference here, clear to Jams and me both, is the irony of contrarians in the West. Our rulers are secure enough to allow – even boast of their tolerance of – critics like me and those others named here. The more successful we get, the more dangerous our situation.