The Fourth Estate
THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA
The vast, profitable, citadel-backed industry of content creation for the absorption of public excess attention (and time). Mainstream is as crowded with content as it is limited on free ideological expression. Mainstream media guides the rump of public opinion, day to day, to entertain and indoctrinate and ensure the citadel orthodoxy defines the general public's Overton window; a simple but effective algorithm for a passive, ideologically compliant population.
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Media operate through five filters: ownership, advertising, the media elite, flak and the common enemy.
- The first has to do with ownership. Mass media firms are big corporations. Often, they are part of even bigger conglomerates. Their end game? Profit. And so it’s in their interests to push for whatever guarantees that profit. Naturally, critical journalism must take second place to the needs and interests of the corporation.
- The second filter exposes the real role of advertising. Media costs a lot more than consumers will ever pay. So who fills the gap? Advertisers. And what are the advertisers paying for? Audiences. And so it isn’t so much that the media are selling you a product — their output. They are also selling advertisers a product — YOU.”
- THE MEDIA ELITE
- The establishment manages the media through the third filter. Journalism cannot be a check on power because the very system encourages complicity. Governments, corporations, big institutions know how to play the media game. They know how to influence the news narrative. They feed media scoops, official accounts, interviews with the ‘experts’. They make themselves crucial to the process of journalism. So, those in power and those who report on them are in bed with each other.
- If you want to challenge power, you’ll be pushed to the margins. When the media – journalists, whistleblowers, sources – stray away from the consensus, they get ‘flak’. This is the fourth filter. When the story is inconvenient for the powers that be, you’ll see the flak machine in action discrediting sources, trashing stories and diverting the conversation.
- THE COMMON ENEMY
- To manufacture consent, you need an enemy — a target. That common enemy is the fifth filter. Communism. Terrorists. Immigrants. A common enemy, a bogeyman to fear, helps corral public opinion.
CASE STUDY: MAINSTREAM MEDIA CHOOSING PRESIDENT
Out of nearly 25,000 words spoken during the Democratic debate last Thursday night, the word “oligarchy” was heard once. “We are living in a nation increasingly becoming an oligarchy,” Bernie Sanders said, “where you have a handful of billionaires who spend hundreds of millions of dollars buying elections and politicians.”
Sanders gets so much flak from corporate media because his campaign is upsetting the dominant apple cart. He relentlessly exposes a basic contradiction: A society ruled by an oligarchy — defined as “a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes” — can’t really be a democracy.
The super-wealthy individuals and huge corporations that own the biggest U.S. media outlets don’t want actual democracy. It would curb their profits and their power.
Over the weekend, the Washington Post editorialized that the agendas of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren “probably would fail at the polls and, if not, would carry extreme risks if they tried to implement them.” The editorial went on to praise “the relative moderates in the race” — Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar — for “offering a more positive future.”
But “a more positive future” for whom? Those “moderates” are certainly offering a more positive future for the newspaper’s owner, Jeff Bezos, who usually ranks as the richest person in the world. He wants to acquire even more extreme personal wealth beyond his current $108 billion.
The Washington Post‘s routinely negative treatment of Sanders, which became notorious during his 2016 presidential run, remains symptomatic of what afflicts mass-media coverage of his current campaign — from editorial pages and front pages to commercial TV news and “public” outlets like the “PBS NewsHour” and NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition.”
The essence of a propaganda system is repetition. To be effective, it doesn’t require complete uniformity — only dominant messaging, worldviews and assumptions.
Prevailing in news media’s political content is the central, tacit assumption that oligarchy isn’t a reality in the United States. So, there’s scant interest in the fact that the richest three people in the USA “now have as much wealth as the bottom half of the U.S. population combined.” As for the damaging impacts on democracy, they get less attention than Melania Trump’s wardrobe.
Now, as Sanders surges in Iowa and elsewhere, there’s a renewed pattern of mass-media outlets notably ignoring or denigrating his campaign’s progress. Like many other Sanders supporters, I find that disgusting yet not surprising.
In fortresses of high finance and vast opulence — with no ceiling on the often-pathological quests for ever-greater wealth — defenders of oligarchy see democratic potential as an ominous weapon in the hands of advancing hordes. Media outlets provide a wide (and shallow) moat.
For mass media owned by oligarchs and their corporate entities, affinity with the “moderate” orientations of Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar is clear. Any one of them would be welcomed by corporate elites as protection against what they see as a hazardous upsurge of progressive populism.
While Buttigieg has emerged as a sharp corporate tool for the maintenance of oligarchy, Joe Biden is an old hand at such tasks. Meanwhile, ready to preempt the politician-intermediaries for plutocracy, Michael Bloomberg is offering a blunt instrument for direct wealthy rule. Estimated to be the eighth-richest person in the United States, he was urged to run for president this year by Bezos.
During the next few months, Bloomberg will continue to use his massive class-war chest to fund an advertising onslaught of unprecedented size. In just weeks, he has spent upwards of $80 million on TV ads, dwarfing all such spending by his opponents combined. And, with little fanfare, he has already hired upwards of 200 paid staffers, who’ll be deployed in 21 states.
If Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar or Bloomberg win the Democratic presidential nomination, that would be a triumph for oligarchy in the midst of rising grassroots opposition.
Right now, two corporate Democrats are the leading contenders to maintain corrupted business-as-usual at the top of the party. As the executive director of Our Revolution, Joseph Geevarghese, aptly put it days ago, “Almost every problem facing our country — from runaway greed on Wall Street, to high prescription drug prices, to locking kids in private detention facilities, to our failure to act against the climate crisis — can be traced back to the influence of the kind of donors fueling Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden’s campaigns for president.”
While uttering standard platitudes along the lines of making the rich and corporations “pay their fair share,” you won’t hear Buttigieg or Biden use the word “oligarchy.” That’s because, to serve the oligarchy, they must pretend it doesn’t exist.
Mainstream media, aside from the disgusting Faux News, has been exposing tRump’s lies for some time, and that’s just responsible journalism. But lest we be naive, we need to recognize their own lies: when it comes to nation-states such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Nicaragua, to the extent that they pursue a vision that challenges global capitalism with a more benign alternative; when it comes to “allied” nation-states that violate the rights of their own citizens or subjects or neighbors but serve U.S. Interests (read, interests of the U.S. 1%) such as former South Africa and currently Israel, Egypt, the Philippines, Honduras, Columbia… and with the recent elections in Great Britain, a virulent strain of reaction seems to be seizing power in far too many locales. Gerrymandering, voter suppression, and foreign interference certainly seem to be rampant in the U.S., and probably abroad, unless we are to believe that a “landslide” of British subjects have suddenly embraced fascism. And, as Chomsky has pointed out, interference by the 1% in elections dwarfs foreign interference.
Their lies? Take the issue of media spin on countries pursuing alternatives to global capitalism. Venezuela has frequently been described as a dictatorship despite its elected government, whether Chavez or current leaders. A coup against a democratically elected president in Honduras was quickly accepted by the U.S. under Obama the "communist Muslim", with Hillary Clinton as Secretary of state. Obama did attempt a lightening up on Cuba but tRump put an end to that. When the U.S., under Reagan, was violently attacking Nicaragua in ways, that if conducted against the U.S. would clearly be denounced as terrorism (in fact the world court convicted the U.S. Of terrorism for its mining of Nicaraguan harbors in 1985). I remember watching mainstream television reporters standing in Honduras, at the border, pointing behind themselves with their thumb to the Sandinista-led “Marxist” dictatorship, despite, again, being an elected government far more respectful of general liberties than the brutal fake democracies the U.S. Supported in El Salvador and Guatemala. U.S. rhetoric sings high praise to freedom and democracy but as just that, rhetoric. It claimed in the bad old days of the cold war that Russia was a repressive gulag but it turns out that it wasn’t the brutality “we” objected to, but the anti-capitalism. In favored regimes, Guatemala and El Salvador, anyone advocating for a free press, unions, or questioning of 1% rule soon were carted off to gruesome meetup with a death squad. Never a major problem for the caretakers of democracy in administration after administration.
Take the other issue, allies who routinely violate human rights. Recently Representative Ilhan Ohmar was vilified, attacked by democrats and republicans alike, for mildly criticizing Israel’s policies of land theft and oppression of Palestinians. According to Noam Chomsky, Israel’s intent is to make life so miserable for Palestinians in the occupied territories that they will leave. This is increasingly applied also to Palestinian/Israeli citizens. Justification for this blind support is neatly summed up by Chomsky’s statement that Israel, from the U.S. point of view, is “our” mid-eastern aircraft carrier, conveniently located near oil riches.
The U.S. was very slow to recognize the loss of its chief enemy, and justification for bloated but highly profitable, military spending when the Soviet Union collapsed. At the first opportunity, our democracy-loving leaders supported the Yeltsin coup, shuttling aside Gorbachev who wanted a Swedish-style social democracy. Thus the arising of today’s Russian gangster oligarchy. The “democratic spring” in Egypt caught our great leaders by surprise and they did what they could to support the ruling elite over those upstarts. And at home, did the police pepper-spray the bankers and stockbrokers pilfering the housing market and stock market or the uppity protesters?
Well, these two categories of lies certainly lay out part of what those who actually prefer democracy are up against. And it is the anomie generated by these dominant forces that account for some of the attraction to Trump but it is clear that he is hardly a threat to but rather an amplification of elite rule, in a loose-cannon kind of anti-democratic caricature of populism. It is a quandary that we depend for information on 1%-owned media, a gradient true, from Faux news on the hysterical right to CNN, etc; supposedly liberal but actually may be “moderate” to MSNBC which asks some great questions but in the end, simply marks the left-most respectable position which DOES NOT question global capitalism. The New York Times and Washington Post might despise Trump but they do not pursue questions that discomfort their owners. A useful tool is fair.org which studies how the media is spinning things, the Intercept for a radical (read sensible) take. Speaking of that maligned term, who is radical? The politician calling for an assault rifle ban or the smarmy second amendment/NRA apologist? The advocate for nuclear disarmament or the proposal for trillion-dollar expansion of those doomsday arsenals? The idea of non-violent conflict resolution or military hegemony?
The term "Gonzo journalism" was coined to describe the style and writings of Hunter S. Thompson, a novelist and journalist who used unconventional methods and techniques to relate the American experience throughout his career. Thompson began to build a reputation as a journalist by covering subterranean, counter-culture fragments of society in America during the 1960s and 70s. Thompson - a reckless personality in his own right - gravitated towards sects that rejected and challenged traditional thought and a status quo turned stale.
Walk into any journalism school or class and there will be fundamental principles that are held sacrosanct in the business. Objectivity sets the tone and facts flesh out the story of a piece considered ‘hard news.' Items within the human-interest, entertainment arena are considered ‘soft news' and tend to allow more flexibility in tone. However, truth acts as the key to the kingdom and journalists bear the responsibility to communicate and relay important information to an unaware audience. Hunter S. Thompson perverted these standards with great effect and success.
His first book followed the lives of the motorcycle gang outfit, the Hell's Angels. The research and insight gathered in Hell's Angels: A Strange And Terrible Saga is unquestionably valuable in its detail and a firsthand account of an enigmatic collection of outlaws. Thompson, in fact, inserts himself and becomes a character to the story, which is considered a violation of the traditional journalistic approach. Rather than take an unbiased and omniscient voice, Thompson reports from the front lines with an unfiltered point-of-view that's often compelling, hilarious, and full of angst. Indeed, Thompson manages to dispel rumors and urban legends about the feared motorcycle gang – a fact-checking skill found in any laudable journalist – while ultimately confirming the ruthless and dangerous nature of its members that mainstream America feared in the first place.
Thompson flirted with fact and fiction in a number of his contributions to the written word. As a correspondent for Rolling Stone magazine, Thompson would occasionally fabricate stories or anecdotes for his own amusement. Paradoxically, Thompson often combated the sensationalism of mainstream media with his own versions of hyperbole and fantasy. Journalists typically kept their opinions in the dark for the sake of integrity and impartiality. To sever the trust of the reader was considered the ultimate betrayal and a total defeat in the purpose of journalistic endeavors. Thompson scoffed at this sacrilege by creating content that served to relate his experience and worldview, often with comedic results. In fact, during the 1972 U.S. Presidential campaign, Thompson wrote an article that detailed presidential candidate Ed Muskie's addiction to the drug Ibogaine, a bald-faced lie that was subsequently published. By developing a persona and reputation as an unreliable narrator, readers could easily become familiar with idiosyncratic characteristics inherent in Thompson's articles, making his voice stand-out among the herd. Despite being a pain to his editors, Thompson's own drug use and fantastical inventions endeared him to readers. Consequentially, Thompson's cache rose and garnered a cult following.
As someone who believed objectivity to be innately impossible and boring, Thompson championed a voice of resistance. America was experiencing a transformation during the late 1960s, and people like Thompson had their fingers to the pulse of change. The attitude captured in the early writings of Hunter S. Thompson is still revered and imitated today. However, the current standard of journalistic practice still maintains the basic tenets that Thompson circumvented and challenged. Still, there are many renegade journalists re-wiring the conventions and carrying the torch that Hunter S. Thompson ignited in the late 20th Century. Some may consider Matt Taibbi as the successor of the Gonzo journalist mantle. Taibbi, also a contributor to Rolling Stone, writes in a similar vein – unapologetic, hilarious, invective – but more traditional in aim. Whereas Thompson was an innovator and trailblazer, Taibbi has tendencies akin of old-school reporting. Still, the stamp of Gonzo journalism is evident in Taibbi's fight against a status quo riddled with complacency and corruption.
Journalism is constantly evolving and often under self-examination by those in the business. Much criticism is directed at outlets that show favoritism or bias in their coverage because facts are believed to be defined in black and white ink. Disseminating information and truth to a society-at-large comes with great responsibility, but it need not silence the voice of the correspondent. Gonzo journalism makes no mistake about its leanings because freedom of expression is essential to the human experience. Thompson understood this and his influence on journalism and pop-culture is cemented in history.