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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.