By Michael Parenti
In a capitalist “democracy” like the United States, the corporate news media faithfully reflect the dominant class ideology both in their reportage and commentary.At the same time, these media leave the impression that they are free and independent, capable of balanced coverage and objective commentary. How they achieve these seemingly contradictory but legitimating goals is a matter worthy of study.
Notables in the media industry claim that occasional inaccuracies do occur in news coverage because of innocent error and everyday production problems such as deadline pressures, budgetary restraints, and the difficulty of reducing a complex story into a concise report. Furthermore, no communication system can hope to report everything, hence selectivity is needed.
Such pressures and problems do exist and honest mistakes are made, but do they really explain the media’s overall performance? True the press must be selective, but what principle of selectivity is involved?
I would argue that media bias usually does not occur in random fashion; rather it moves in more or less consistent directions, favoring management over labor, corporations over corporate critics, affluent whites over low income minorities.
Favoring officialdom over protesters, the two-party monopoly over leftist third parties, privatization and free market “reforms” over public sector development, U.S. dominance of the Third World over revolutionary or populist social change, and conservative commentators and columnists over progressive or radical ones.
Suppression by Omission
Some critics complain that the press is sensationalistic and invasive. In fact, it is more often muted and evasive. More insidious than the sensationalistic hype is the artful avoidance.
Truly sensational stories (as opposed to sensationalistic) are downplayed or avoided outright. Sometimes the suppression includes not just vital details but the entire story itself, even ones of major import.
Reports that might reflect poorly upon the national security state are least likely to see the light of day. Thus we hear about political repression perpetrated by officially designated “rogue” governments.
But information about the brutal murder and torture practiced by U.S.-sponsored surrogate forces in the Developing World, and other crimes committed by the U.S. national security state are denied public airing, being suppressed with a consistency that would be called “totalitarian” were it to occur in some other countries.
Like all propagandists, mainstream media people seek to prefigure our perception of a subject with a positive or negative label. Some positive ones are: “stability,” “the president’s firm leadership,” “a strong defense,” and “a healthy economy.”
Indeed, not many Americans would want instability, wobbly presidential leadership, a weak defense, and a sick economy. The label defines the subject without having to deal with actual particulars that might lead us to a different conclusion.
Some common negative labels are: “leftist guerrillas,” “Islamic terrorists,” “conspiracy theories,” “inner-city gangs,” and “civil disturbances.” These, too, are seldom treated within a larger context of social relations and issues.
Facile and false labels are used, like “the liberal media” by the hundreds of conservative columnists, commentators, and talk-shows hosts who crowd the communication universe while claiming to be shut out from it. Some labels we will never be exposed to are “class power,” “class struggle,” and “U.S. imperialism.”
“Free market” has long been a pet label, evoking images of economic plenitude and democracy. In reality, free-market policies undermine the markets of local producers, provide state subsidies to multinational corporations, destroy public sector services, and create greater gaps between the wealthy few and the underprivileged many.
Another favorite media label is “hardline.” Anyone who resists free-market “reforms” is labeled a “hardliner.”
It is no accident that labels like "hardline" are never subjected to precise definition. The efficacy of a label is that it not have a specific content which can be held up to a test of evidence. Better that it be self-referential, propagating an undefined but evocative image.
Many labels are fabricated not by news media but by officialdom. U.S. governmental and corporate leaders talk about “our global leadership,” “national security,” “free markets,” and “globalization” when what they mean is “All Power to the Transnationals.”
The media uncritically and dutifully accept these official views, transmitting them to the wider public without any noticeable critical comment regarding the actual content of the policy.
Face-value transmission has characterized the media’s performance in almost every area of domestic and foreign policy.
When challenged on this, reporters respond that they cannot inject their own personal views into their reports. Actually, no one is asking them to. My criticism is that they already do, and seldom realize it.
Their conventional ideological perceptions usually coincide with those of their bosses and with officialdom in general, making them face-value purveyors of the prevailing orthodoxy. This uniformity of bias is perceived as “objectivity.”
The most effective propaganda relies on framing rather than on falsehood. By bending the truth rather than breaking it, using emphasis and other auxiliary embellishments, communicators can create a desired impression without resorting to explicit advocacy and without departing too far from the appearance of objectivity.
Framing is achieved in the way the news is packaged, the amount of exposure, the placement (front page or buried within, lead story or last), the tone of presentation (sympathetic or slighting), the headlines and photographs, and, in the case of broadcast media, the accompanying visual and auditory effects.
Newscasters use themselves as auxiliary embellishments. They cultivate a smooth delivery and try to convey an impression of detachment that places them above the rough and tumble of their subject matter.
Television commentators and newspaper editorialists and columnists affect a knowing tone designed to foster credibility and an aura of certitude, or what might be called “authoritative ignorance,” as expressed in remarks like “How will this situation end? Only time will tell.”
Or, “No one can say for sure.” Trite truisms are palmed off as penetrating truths. Newscasters learn to fashion sentences like “Unless the strike is settled soon, the two sides will be in for a long and bitter struggle.”
Many things are reported in the news but few are explained. Little is said about how the social order is organized and for what purposes.
Instead we are left to see the world as do mainstream pundits, as a scatter of events and personalities propelled by happenstance, circumstance, confused intentions, bungled operations, and individual ambition — rarely by powerful class interests.
Passive voice and impersonal subject are essential rhetorical constructs for this mode of evasion. So we read or hear that “fighting broke out in the region,” or “many people were killed in the disturbances,” or "famine is on the increase.”
Recessions apparently just happen like some natural phenomenon ("our economy is in a slump"), having little to do with the constant war of capital against labor and the contradictions between productive power and earning power.
In keeping with the liberal paradigm, the media never asks why things happen the way they do. Social problems are rarely associated with the politico-economic forces that create them.
So we are taught to truncate our own critical thinking. Imagine if we attempted something different. Suppose we report, as is seldom reported, that the harshly exploitative labor conditions existing in so many countries generally has the backing of their respective military forces.
Suppose further that we cross another line and note that these right-wing military forces are fully supported by the U.S. national security state.
Then suppose we cross that most serious line of all and instead of just deploring this fact we also ask why successive U.S. administrations have involved themselves in such unsavory pursuits throughout the world.
Suppose we conclude that the whole phenomenon is consistent with a dedication to making the world safe for free-market corporate capitalism, as measured by the kinds of countries that are helped and the kinds that are attacked.
Such an analysis almost certainly would not be printed anywhere except in a few select radical publications. We crossed too many lines. Because we tried to explain the particular situation (bad labor conditions) in terms of a larger set of social relations (corporate class power), our presentation would be rejected out of hand as “Marxist” — which indeed it is, as is much of reality itself.
In sum, the capitalist media’s daily performance under what is called “democratic capitalism” is not a failure but a skillfully evasive success.
We often hear that the media “got it wrong” or “dropped the ball” on this or that story. In fact, the media do their job remarkably well.
Media people have a trained incapacity for the whole truth. Their job is not to inform but disinform, not to advance democratic discourse but to dilute and mute it.
Their task is to give every appearance of being conscientiously concerned about events of the day, saying so much while meaning so little, offering so many calories with so few nutrients.
When we understand this, we move from a liberal complaint about the press's sloppy performance to a radical analysis of how the media maintain the dominant paradigm with much craft and craftiness.