The Failure of Our “Free” Press

For all the talk of a “free” press that has the guts to tackle the powerful, the truth is our press is mainly a for-profit operation that is largely owned by the powerful. We get a lapdog press instead of a watchdog; we certainly don’t get an attack dog. I wrote about this in January of 2012; what I didn’t foresee is how that press would facilitate the rise of a petty demagogue like Donald Trump, mainly because he’s good for ratings and serves the needs of the powerful, but also because so many Americans have lost faith in the media, so much so that they buy the lies of a con man and serial liar like Trump. In short, if you’re tired of the corporate-friendly lies at CNN, why not turn to the entertaining conspiracy theories and lies of a manipulator like Trump?

If America truly had a watchdog press that protected the people, a serial liar like Trump should never have gained such a powerful purchase on our national narrative. Even now, as Trump continues to endanger our national health during a pandemic, the press largely treats him as a “normal” president.

The Failure of Our “Free” Press

01/13/2012

W,J. Astore

Do we have a truly free press, one that is willing to challenge the powerful and to serve the people?

A recent editorial by Arthur S. Brisbane at the New York Times suggests that our press is more lapdog than watchdog.

A truly free press needs guts. It needs to be willing to say, “I accuse.” Yet as Glenn Greenwald points out, our mainstream media today willingly acts as “stenographers” to the high and mighty, as if established elites need more support and more privileges.

The other day I ran across a passage in Arthur Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms that has much to say about freedom of the press as well as the perils of source anonymity. In full it reads:

“Freedom of the press is to the machinery of the state what the safety-valve is to the steam engine: every discontent is by means of it immediately relieved in words—indeed, unless this discontent is very considerable, it exhausts itself in this way. If, however, it is very considerable, it is as well to know of it in time, so as to redress it. — On the other hand, however, freedom of the press must be regarded as a permit to sell poison: poison of the mind and poison of the heart. For what cannot be put into the heads of the ignorant and credulous masses? — especially if you hold before them the prospect of gain and advantages. And of what misdeeds is man not capable once something has been put into his head? I very much fear, therefore, that the dangers of press freedom outweigh its usefulness, especially where there are legal remedies available for all grievances. In any event, however, freedom of the press should be conditional upon the strictest prohibition of any kind of anonymity.”

That last statement is the kicker. The media’s stenographer-types market the “poison” of the elites, whether governmental or corporate, and they often do so under the cover of source anonymity. As a result, the “credulous” masses have no way to track the poisoners, and few avenues to find an antidote.

Schopenhauer’s statement also condemns our press for its failure to serve as a “safety-valve” for democracy. Indeed, because our mainstream press is so sycophantic, it fails in its democratic duty to relieve the people’s discontent, notably in its failure to empower the people to redress the abuses of power by established elites.

When our “free” press agonizes over whether it should challenge the “facts” of societal elites, is it any wonder why so many people have lost faith in it?

Hence the rise of the various “occupy” movements. They know that the mainstream press is in thrall to power and is therefore compromised, thus they’re seeking a new path to redress their grievances — and new antidotes to the poison spread by the powerful to intoxicate the minds and hearts of the powerless.

Our press, as Schopenhauer notes, has much power to spread poison, but it also has the ability to serve as an antidote to the poison spread by others.

The ideal of freedom of the press, so crucial to democracy, is upheld only when its practitioners willingly challenge the so-called “facts” of the powerful.

Give us a watchdog press willing to bite the hand that feeds it, not a lapdog that snaps up all the little treats fed to it by its masters.

Professor Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.

Trump and the Media

He’s everywhere.  Trump as Agent Smith in “The Matrix” movies

W.J. Astore

Donald Trump is exploiting a weakness in our media — its quest for eyeballs at any cost. Trump is best at gluing eyeballs to the screen — he inflames his supporters and infuriates his detractors. Meanwhile, he oversees a train wreck of an administration that dominates headlines. “If it bleeds, it leads” — and our country is bleeding under his leadership.

Media owners seem to see synergy here: empower Trump with free and sweeping coverage and watch ratings and profits soar. But Trump is a parasite. He’s drawing strength from the media even as he sucks its power and influence dry. But the biggest loser is democracy, since the Trump-media nexus is degrading (and perhaps destroying) fact-based decision-making.

These thoughts came to mind as I read Tom Engelhardt’s latest article at TomDispatch.com. Trump, Engelhardt notes, has the unique and ultimately pernicious ability to drive — and often to dominate — discourse:

Never, not ever, has a single human being been so inescapable. You can’t turn on the TV news, read a newspaper, listen to the radio, wander on social media, or do much of anything else without almost instantly bumping into or tripping over… him, attacking them, praising himself, telling you how wonderful or terrible he feels and how much he loves or loathes… well, whatever happens to be ever so briefly on his mind that very moment.

Engelhardt highlights an important truth later in his piece: Trump’s true “base” is the very “fake news” media he’s so happy to attack.

Of course, Trump has always been a relentless, even ruthless, self-promoter.  Now that he’s president, the media can’t exactly ignore him (or can they?).  But what’s truly shocking is how the mainstream media is so  supinely subservient to him.  How unwilling they are to call him a liar when he lies; and how unwilling they are to critique their own obsequious coverage in a way that would lead to meaningful changes.

The media can’t get enough of Trump.  Knowing this dependency, Trump exploits it, relentlessly.  He reminds me of Agent Smith in “The Matrix” movies. He’s a rapidly-replicating virus that, if left unchecked, will destroy the matrix of American democracy . The question is: How is Trump to be neutralized, or at least contained, when the media keeps feeding him?

Breaking News: Jim Acosta got his press pass back.  Big deal.  Now Trump can score more points off of CNN and its “fake news” machine.

The Right Approach to Terrorism

A replica of the Manneken-Pis statue, a major Brussels tourist attraction, is seen among flowers at a memorial for the victims of bomb attacks in Brussels metro and Brussels international airport of Zaventem, in Brussels
Replica of the Manneken-Pis statue, a major Brussels attraction, among flowers at a memorial for the victims of bomb attacks in Brussels. REUTERS/Yves Herman

W.J. Astore

I grew up during the Cold War when America’s rivalry with the Soviet Union posed a clear and present danger to our country’s very existence.  Since the collapse of the USSR, or in other words the last 25 years, the U.S. has not faced an existential threat.  Of course, the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were shocking and devastating, as were recent attacks in Paris and Brussels.  But terrorism was and is nothing new.  We faced it in the 1970s and 1980s, and indeed we will probably always face it.  The question is how best to face it.

Stoking fear among the people is the wrong way to face it.  Restricting liberty is the wrong way.  An overly kinetic approach (i.e. lots of bombs and bullets) is the wrong way.  Invading the Middle East (yet again) is the wrong way.  Most of counter-terrorism, it seems to me, is an exercise in intelligence and policing (national and international).  Yet we seem always to turn to our military to solve problems.  The emphasis is relentlessly tactical/operational, stressing how many terrorists we kill in drone strikes and special ops raids (a version of the old “body count” from the Vietnam War era).

Military strikes and raids generate collateral damage and blowback, arguably creating more enemies than they kill.  We’re helping to sustain a perpetual killing machine, a feedback loop.  The more we “hit” various enemies while playing up the dangers of terrorism, especially in the media, the more they prosper in regards to attention (and recruits) they garner.

One of the first Rand primers I read as young Air Force lieutenant was “International Terrorism: The Other World War,” written by Brian M. Jenkins in 1985.  Jenkins made many excellent points: that terrorists seek to instill fear, that their acts are mainly “aimed at the people watching,” that terrorism can’t be defeated like traditional (uniformed) enemies, that terrorists commit crimes for a larger political purpose (“causing widespread disorder, demoralizing society, and breaking down existing social and political order”), that terrorism is a form of political theater.  As Jenkins notes:

“Terrorism attracts intense interest but produces little understanding.  News coverage focuses on action not words.  Terrorist incidents attract the media because they are genuine human dramas, different from ordinary murder and therefore newsworthy. “

Furthermore, “terrorists provide few lucrative targets for conventional military attack,” though this may be less true of state-sponsored terrorism.

What can we learn from Jenkins’s primer on terrorism?  Three big lessons:

  1. Deny the terrorists their victory by refusing to succumb to fear. In short, don’t panic.  And don’t exaggerate the threat.
  2. Don’t sensationalize the feats of terrorists in 24/7 media coverage of their attacks. That’s what the terrorists want.  They want extensive media coverage, not only to shift public opinion and to spread fear, but also to recruit new members.
  3. Finally, don’t change your way of life, your political system, your liberties, in response to terrorism. Abridging freedoms or marginalizing people (e.g. American Muslims) in the name of attacking terrorism is exactly what the terrorists want.  They want to turn people against one another.  To divide is to conquer.

The question is, when will Americans recognize the complexity of the terrorist threat while minimizing fear and over-reaction?

Terrorists need to be stopped, and that requires robust intelligence gathering, strong policing, and selective military action.  But threat inflation, media hysteria, and militarized over-reaction simply play into the terrorists’ hands.  Fear is the mind-killer, as Frank Herbert wrote.  Let us always remember this as we face the terrorist threat with firmness and resolve.