Why do mainstream media reporters within ostensibly free democracies act just like state media propagandists? Why are they so reliably pro-establishment, all throughout every mainstream outlet? Why do they so consistently marginalize any idea that doesn’t fit within the extremely narrow Overton window of acceptable opinion?Why does anyone who inconveniences western establishment power always find themselves on the losing end of a trial by media? Why are they so dependably adversarial toward anything that could be perceived as a flaw in any nation outside the US-centralized power alliance, and so dependably forgiving of the flaws of the nations within it?
The way I see it there are only two possible explanations for the unanimous consensus in mass media on these issues:
Explanation 1: The consensus exists because the mass media reporters are all telling the truth all the time.
Explanation 2: The consensus exists because there is some kind of system in place which keeps all mass media reporters lying to us and painting a false picture about what’s going on in the world.
Those are the only two possibilities, and only one can be true, since any mixture of the two would result in the loss of consensus.
Most mainstream westerners harbor an unquestioned assumption that Explanation 1 is the only possibility. The things they see on CNN, the BBC and the ABC are all accurate descriptions of what’s really going on in the world, and the consensus in their descriptions exists because they’re all describing the same objective reality.
But what would that mean exactly? Well, for starters if the mainstream media reporters are telling us the truth all the time it would mean that the same power institutions which slaughtered millions in Vietnam and Iraq for no good reason are actually virtuous and honest. It would mean the positive, uncritical picture that is consistently painted of those same institutions which wage nonstop campaigns of bloodshed and oppression to ensure the profit of economic manipulators and war profiteers is due to those institutions possessing merits which are overall so positive that no criticism of them is needed. It would mean that the status quo of climate destruction, steadily growing wealth inequality, an increasingly Orwellian surveillance system, an increasingly militarized police force, increasing internet censorship, and crushing neoliberal austerity measures are all things people voted for using the excellent democratic political system the mainstream media defends, based on the accurate information the mainstream media gave them about what’s in their best interests.
Explanation 1 sounds improbable in that light. We know that the system is spectacularly screwed up, and we know that the political establishment which these mainstream outlets always defend does unforgivably evil things, so we should expect to see a lot more critical reporting and a lot less protecting of the status quo. But we don’t. We see war crimes ignored, oppression justified, the two-headed one-party system normalized, dissident narratives smeared as fake news conspiracy theories, and unproven assertions by government agencies with a known history of lying reported as unquestionable fact.
But that leaves only Explanation 2. How could that be right?
This part of a 1996 interview between Noam Chomsky and the BBC’s Andrew Marr describes a foundational element of Explanation 2: that there is a system in place which ensures that all the reporters in positions of influence are there not to report factually on the news of the day, but to sell a particular narrative that is friendly to the state and the status quo. Chomsky describes a “filtering system” which ensures that only those loyal to power rise to the top within the plutocrat-owned media, to which Marr objects and insists that his peers are brave truth-tellers who hold power to account. Subsequently, the following exchange takes place:
Chomsky: Well, I know some of the best, and best known investigative reporters in the United States, I won’t mention names, whose attitude towards the media is much more cynical than mine. In fact, they regard the media as a sham. And they know, and they consciously talk about how they try to play it like a violin. If they see a little opening, they’ll try to squeeze something in that ordinarily wouldn’t make it through. And it’s perfectly true that the majority — I’m sure you’re speaking for the majority of journalists who are trained, have it driven into their heads, that this is a crusading profession, adversarial, we stand up against power. A very self-serving view. On the other hand, in my opinion, I hate to make a value judgement but, the better journalists and in fact the ones who are often regarded as the best journalists have quite a different picture. And I think a very realistic one.
Marr: How can you know that I’m self-censoring? How can you know that journalists are..
Chomsky: I’m not saying your self censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.
“If you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”
It is an obvious fact that mainstream media outlets are owned by the extremely wealthy, as has been the case for a very long time. Owning media is in and of itself a profitable investment, “like having a license to print your own money” as Canadian television magnate Roy Thomson once put it. So when it comes to the news media outlets which form people’s perceptions of the world, what incentive would a powerful plutocrat have to platform anti-establishment voices on those outlets and help sow ideas which upset the status quo upon which said plutocrat has built his empire? It certainly wouldn’t make him any more money, and if anti-establishment ideas like socialism, anarchism, non-interventionism or skepticism of government agencies gained popular footing in public consciousness, it could upset the foundation of the plutocrat’s dynasty and cause him to lose everything.
Plutocrats have put a lot of energy into influencing government policy in order to create legislation which ensures the continued growth of their wealth and power. A whole lot of maneuvering has had to happen over the course of many years to create a political system wherein government bribery is legal in the form of campaign finance and corporate lobbying, wherein deregulation of corporations is the norm, wherein tax loopholes are abundant and tax burdens are shifted to the middle class, wherein money hemorrhages upward to the wealthiest of the wealthy while ordinary people grow poorer and poorer. What incentive would these powerful oligarchs have to risk upsetting that delicate balancing act by helping to circulate ideas which challenge the very governmental system they’ve worked so hard to manipulate to their extreme advantage? And how many incentives would they have to keep everyone supporting the status quo?
How hard would it be to simply decline to give anti-establishment voices a platform, and platform establishment loyalists instead? How easy would it be for a wealthy media owner or influential investor to ensure that only establishment loyalists are given the job of hiring and promoting editors and reporters in a mainstream media outlet?
If you’ve ever wondered what motivates all those blue-checkmarked corporate media journalists to spend so much time on Twitter defending the powerful and attacking the disempowered, this is your answer. They spend their own free time smearing Jill Stein, calling Jeremy Corbyn an antisemite, attacking Julian Assange, supporting longtime neoconservative war agendas against Russia, Syria and Iran and uncritically reporting intelligence agency assertions as fact not because there’s a CIA officer hovering over their shoulder at all times telling them exactly what to tweet, but because they’re auditioning for a job. They’re creating a public record of their establishment loyalism which current and future employers will look at when weighing hiring and promotion decisions, which is why both journalism schools and journalism employers now encourage journalists to cultivate a social media presence to “build their brand”, i.e. their public resume.
So it’s very easy to fill mass media jobs with minds which are not predisposed toward rocking the boat. A pro-establishment consensus is artificially built, and now you’ve got an environment where someone who stands up and says “Uh, hey, so we still haven’t seen any actual hard evidence that Russia interfered in the US election in any meaningful way” or whatever is instantly greeted by a wall of shunning and shaming (observe Aaron Maté’s interactions with other journalists on social media for a good example of this), which can be psychologically difficult to deal with.
Anyone who’s ever gone to high school can understand how powerful the social pressures to seek peer approval and fit in can be, and anyone who’s ever worked a normal job anywhere can understand the natural incentives that are in place to behave in a way that is pleasing to one’s bosses. In any job with any kind of hierarchy, you quickly learn the written rules, and you pay close attention to social cues to learn the unwritten ones as well. You do this in order to learn how to avoid getting in trouble and how to win the approval of your superiors, to learn which sorts of behaviors can lead to raises and promotions, and which behaviors will lead to a career dead-end. You learn what will earn you a pat on the back from a leader, which can be extremely egoically gratifying and incentivizing in and of itself.
It works exactly the same way in news media. Reporters might not always be consciously aware of all the pro-establishment guidelines they’re expected to follow in order to advance their careers, but they know how the reporters who’ve ascended to the top of the media ladder conduct themselves, and they see how the journalists who win the accolades behave. With the help of editors and peers you quickly learn where all the third rails and sacred cows are, and when to shut your mouth about the elephant in the room. And for those rare times that all these filtration devices fail to adequately filter out dissident ideas, you see the example that gets made of those few who slip between the cracks, like CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill for his defense of Palestinian human rights or Phil Donahue for his opposition to the Iraq invasion.
So plutocrats own the mass media and platform status quo-friendly voices, which creates an environment full of peer pressure to conform and workplace pressure to advance establishment-friendly narratives. Add to this the phenomenon of access journalism, wherein journalists are incentivized to cozy up to power and pitch softball questions to officials in order to gain access to them, and things get even more slanted. It’s easy to understand how all this can create an environment of consensus which has nothing to do with facts or reality, but rather with what narratives favor the US-centralized empire and the plutocrats who control it. But all those dynamics aren’t the only factors going into making sure a consensus worldview is maintained. Remember that hypothetical CIA officer I mentioned earlier who isn’t actively leaning over every journalist’s shoulder and dictating what they tweet? Well, just because he’s not dictating every word produced by the mass media machine doesn’t mean he’s not involved.
Secretive and unaccountable government agencies have an extensive and well-documented record of involving themselves with news media outlets. It is a known and undisputed fact that the Central Intelligence Agency has been intimately involved in America’s news media since the 1950s, and it remains so to this day. In 2014 it was a scandal when reporter Ken Dilanian was caught collaborating with the CIA in his publications, but now veterans of the US intelligence community like John Brennan and James Clapper openly fill out the line-up of talking heads on MSNBC and CNN. Just recently the Guardian published a lie-filled smear piece on Julian Assange which was almost certainly the result of the outlet’s collaboration with one or more intelligence and/or defense agencies, and when that article caused an outcry it was defended as the likely result of Russian disinformation in an evidence-free article by a CIA veteran who was permitted to publish anonymously in Politico. The Washington Post is solely owned by Jeff Bezos, who is a CIA contractor, and who we may be certain did not purchase the Post under the illusion that newspapers were about to make a lucrative comeback. Secretive government agencies are deeply involved in the workings of western news media, in many ways we know about, and in far more ways we don’t know about.
Taking all of these factors into consideration and revisiting Explanation 1 and Explanation 2 from the beginning of this article, it should be obvious to you that the most logical explanation for the uniform consensus of support for pro-establishment narratives in the mass media exists because there is indeed a system in place which keeps all mass media reporters lying to us and painting a false picture about what’s going on in the world.
This doesn’t mean that these news media outlets lie about everything all the time, it means they mostly provide half-truths, distortions and lies by omission whenever it benefits the agendas of the powerful, which is functionally the same as lying all the time. I sometimes get people telling me “Caitlin! The MSM lies all the time, and they say global warming is real! That means it’s false!” But it doesn’t work that way; if the TV tells you a celebrity has died then it’s probably true, and if they say it’s about to rain you should probably roll up your car windows. If they lied about everything all the time they would instantly lose all credibility, and their ability to propagandize effectively would be lost. Instead, they advance evidence-free narratives asserted by opaque government agencies, they avoid highlighting inconvenient truths, they ignore third parties and dissident ideas except to dismiss them, they harshly criticize the misdeeds of governments which oppose the US-centralized empire while sweeping the misdeeds of imperial members under the rug, and when there’s an opportunity to sabotage peace or support war, they seize it. They distort only when they have to, and only as much as they need to.
In this way the powerful have succeeded in controlling the people’s narratives about what’s happening in their country and their world. This is the system of narrative manipulation we are up against when we try to sow dissident ideas into public consciousness, and as the old adage goes, it is easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.
And yet we are gaining ground. The manipulators have been losing control of the narrative, which is why the mass media have been acting so weird and desperate since 2016. The unelected power establishment failed to manufacture support for its would-be Syria invasion, it failed to get the public to buy into the Russia hysteria, trust in the mass media is at an all-time low, and it’s continuing to plummet. More and more people are waking up to the fact that they are being lied to, which is good, because the only thing keeping them from pushing for real change is the fact that there are all these screens in everyone’s lives telling them that real change isn’t needed.
The liars are against the ropes, and they’re starting to look winded. A populist information revolution is looking more winnable than ever.