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Out of the mainstream

By George Ricker

(Author’s note: I first wrote this piece in 2001, just after the inauguration of George W. Bush and well before the tragic attacks of September 11th. Although it was never published in any national forum, I did distribute it to a few people via a modest newsletter called “One Voice” that I was writing at the time. This version is edited somewhat, and I have included a few parenthetical remarks where I thought they might help the narrative. For the most part, however, the essay stands as written eight years ago. In spite of wars, elections and a deepening recession, nothing much has changed about the manner in which the corporate or “dominant” media goes about its business.)

Lately I have stopped referring to the “mainstream media.” I now use the phrases “major media” or “dominant media” to identify the large electronic and print organizations in the United States who prepare the daily ration of information that is regarded as “the news” by the people who assemble their broadcasts and their publications and is consequently accepted as “the news” by the vast majority of Americans when it is presented to them. I have changed the reference because my own experience—the people I talk to, the publications and information sources I read that are not part of the corporate information oligopoly—has convinced me that what I used to refer to as the “mainstream media” no longer represents the mainstream, if it ever did. It does not represent the mainstream of what is actually going on in the world, and it does not represent the mainstream of what the people who occupy this planet actually think about what is going on in the world.

In popular conception the “mainstream” is broad and deep. It contains within itself all the major currents that influence the course of events, all the important movements that affect the societies and the world in which we live and the range of opinions that are relevant to those events and those movements. That which falls outside the mainstream is, by definition, peripheral and, in many cases, may be dismissed as belonging to that class of people, events and opinions that are called—sometimes generously—“the lunatic fringe.”

Knowing what belongs in the mainstream and what does not can be useful in sorting through the glut of information that assaults us every day. However, such discrimination becomes harmful, in fact downright dangerous, when what is presented as the “mainstream” really is not. This is true for several reasons. First, because it distorts our view of our society, the rest of the world and the relationships between those entities. Second, because it frames the debate artificially, leaving out of its consideration points of view that are uncomfortable or inconvenient for the dominant elites who, after all is said and done, are in charge of the media. Finally, because it helps to maintain the status quo and to feed the myths (see my essay “Mythic lies” for examples) that make the status quo sustainable, even when the status quo is demonstrably not the best arrangement for most of the people living in it.

When we assume that the “mainstream” is being fairly reported by the dominant media or, at least, by most elements of it, then we feel we, as private citizens, have the information we need to make the decisions we must make about how to live our lives and how to control our government. For obvious reasons, it is critical in a democracy for the people to have the information they need in order to make those decisions. And for reasons that should be just as obvious, it is to the advantage of those whose interests are best served by skewing that information to be sure it is skewed skillfully.

Now I do not claim—or believe—that there is a conscious conspiracy to keep the dominant media in line. I do not think such a conspiracy exists, nor do I think it is necessary. As Noam Chomsky and many other media critics have noted, when the people in charge of making the decisions about what will be covered and how it will be reported all share a common mythology about the sort of society we are, then it is to be expected their decisions will conform to that mythology. And by the time anyone gets to a position of influence in one of the organizations that make up the dominant media, it is a fairly safe bet that he or she will have internalized that mythology to such an extent that they will not have to be told what to do. They will do it automatically and with fervor. In fact, if you suggest they are not fairly representing and reporting on the real world, they will become indignant. The dominant media in the United States has bought into its own mythology of a free and independent Fourth Estate to such an extent that it cannot see how it fails to serve that role. “All the news that’s fit to print” has become—to a very large extent—“All the news that fits the preconceptions and preferences of America Inc.”

(If you doubt any of this is true, consider the performance of the overwhelming majority of the dominant media in the run up to the war in Iraq and in its reporting on that war during the first few years. Although there were voices calling out for a more thorough vetting of the information being aired and printed, they were either ignored or dismissed. Those who challenged the administration’s version of events had a hard time getting any kind of hearing at all, let alone a fair one. Yet, some of the same folks who own the media also have large holdings in the defense industry. Should we be at all surprised that their news organizations quickly began to resemble nothing so much as house organs for an administration whose version of events was totally at odds with the real world and apparently oblivious to the real world consequences of its actions? It was only when the evidence against the Bush administration’s alternate reality had become so blatantly obvious to all but the willfully ignorant that the dominant media began to admit, for the most part grudgingly, it might have been mistaken to follow the administration’s lead to such an extent. Those recantations were rarely made above the fold—to use newspaper parlance—and were usually sotto voce.)

Of course, there is a sense in which that always has been true. It has long been recognized that our guarantee of a free press has the greatest relevance for those who actually own the presses. They determine what gets printed and what does not. That situation is mitigated today by the existence of the Internet and the World Wide Web. But such technological fixes only work where people have ready access to computers and possess the skills necessary to set up and utilize web pages and the like. Those limitations having been noted, however, the fact remains that the opportunities for sharing all sorts of opinions and factual information have never been greater or cheaper than they are right now. I submit that is one reason so many corporations are piling on to gain access to these new media. The corporations are after additional profits to be sure. But the more important issues—I believe—are who will control the new media and how will it be used to disseminate information. Right now the Internet is wide open—albeit to a limited audience. Unless those who use it pay close attention, however, that situation will change dramatically over the next few years. Using a variety of rationales, the government will attempt to regulate and control the Internet, and as regulation drives the cost of doing business on the Internet higher it also will drive out the small entrepreneurs and open the door for increased dominance by the major corporations. That will be especially true of the dominant media, who will either gobble up or further marginalize those who are not members of the club.

(Fortunately, Internet users have remained fairly vigilant and have defeated efforts to control content and access. New initiatives aimed at expanding that access may help ensure that the information superhighway will remain open and, largely, unrestricted. However, continued freedom will demand, as it always does, continued vigilance.)

At a time when the ownership of America Inc. is increasingly being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, control of the dominant media is becoming more and more important. The ownership of the entertainment and information industries and the persistent blurring of the lines between the two serves the interests of those who own the nation in a number of ways. First, it continually muddies the distinction between fact and fiction, thus making it easier to manipulate public opinion when needed. Second, it makes it possible to disguise the true nature of the society we live in and to perpetuate, instead, the mythology of a free, democratic society in which individual citizens own and control their own lives. Third, it distracts and diverts the attention of the public from important issues into matters which are essentially trivial. Finally, it makes it impossible to focus attention on real alternatives to the status quo by ignoring the alternatives and marginalizing those who offer them.

And as the consolidation of the dominant media continues, as fewer and fewer corporations control both the information and the entertainment industries, it becomes easier and easier to divert the public’s attention from the real world and more and more difficult to combat the mythic lies by which the dominant media persuades us that we live in the best of all possible nations in the best of all possible worlds and that, while we may be able to do a few things to ameliorate some of the hardships we see around us, we the people are quite powerless to cause any substantive change in the status quo and there really isn’t any pressing need for us to do so anyway.

(In many cases, what gets served up, especially in the electronic media is neither news nor information but “infotainment.” Material designed to titillate and divert us from matters of consequence.)

For example, the picture of the American economy painted by an objective review of the facts vis-à-vis the average working man and woman is far different than the one suggested by breathless reports of the latest stock market indices. But it is a picture you probably will not see painted in most of the major media because it does not serve the interests of the dominant elites who control those media.

Thus, for most of the 1990s when reporters hinted at anything negative in the economy it was usually the threat of a new round of inflation that might be set off by higher wages caused by a tight labor market. Get that? At a time when corporate fat-cats were getting fatter than ever, the real danger to the U.S. economy—according to the dominant media—did not come from the unbridled greed of the billionaires who own the country but from the danger that working Americans might begin demanding things from their employers like: a living wage, affordable health care, safer working conditions and so on. The other negative, more familiar lately with the current economic slowdown, is the possibility of a recession that, we are told, is the result of a “loss of confidence” on the part of the American people and which can be remedied, we are told, with an increase in consumption.

(The economic downturn at the beginning of the Bush administration’s tenure was masked for a time by hundreds of billions of dollars in deficits to pay for two wars and the run up in real estate prices caused by unconscionable lending practices, irresponsible borrowing and corporate greed. Now that all those chickens have finally come home to roost, it is nothing short of remarkable to me that so many people are so surprised by it. Here is what I had to say eight years ago.)

Thus, the answer for an ailing economy is for American consumers, who typically spend far in excess of their means already, to consume even more. Apparently, greed and gluttony are the two most important “traditional” American values. The idea that the vaunted standard of living that is enjoyed in this nation is purchased at the cost of an incredible amount of misery in the rest of the world; the idea that the far more sensible course for American consumers would be to live within their means and to moderate a lifestyle that is, when all is said and done, tremendously wasteful and inimical to their own best interests; the idea that the true beneficiaries of the current arrangement are the wealthiest five percent in our society: none of these ideas are likely to receive much attention in the dominant media’s analysis of our economy.

Let me repeat. I am not suggesting that none of this information makes it into the dominant media at all. What I am saying is that the version of economic reality that is overwhelmingly being reported there is grossly at odds with the realities of the economy as experienced by the average worker.

We were told—by the dominant media—that the 1990s were a period of tremendous economic growth and prosperity, and so they were for those who occupied the upper levels of the economy. Major stockholders, board members and top executives of large corporations did quite well. But the people who directly manufacture the products and provide the services which create the great wealth of the American economy were not doing so well. Many of them were not doing well at all. There is a world of difference between enjoying the benefits of one’s labor and laboring to tread water in a sea of debt. Apparently the former privilege is reserved only for the upper echelons in our society. Obviously, it is in the interest of those who occupy that level to keep the rest of us content with the illusion that we live in the best of all possible arrangements and there are no real alternatives to the status quo.

It is the role of the dominant media to help maintain that illusion.

And nowhere is that role more obvious than in the coverage of political campaigns, especially presidential elections. It is no coincidence, in my view, that the caliber of presidential candidates has diminished as the consolidation of the information oligopoly has increased.

(It should be lost on no one that one of the things that made it possible for President Barack Obama to successfully campaign against formidable primary competition during the election cycle just completed was an unprecedented use of the new media (i.e. the Internet and the networking it makes possible, email, etc.) both for getting his message out and raising huge amounts of money. At the beginning of the primary season, the major media had essentially crowned Senator Hillary Clinton as the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party. Obama was regarded as a long shot at best. Whether or not the new president truly represents a return of ability to the White House remains to be seen. That the existence of the Internet played a large part in his success, however, cannot be denied. Look for the stalwarts of the corporate state to attempt to reign it in before the next presidential election.)

Consider the presidential campaign of 2000. According to the dominant media in our society, the most important issues involving the two major party candidates were, apparently, whether Democrat Al Gore exaggerated his role in the establishment of the Internet and whether Republican George W. Bush was less than forthcoming about his possible drug use decades earlier. There was some coverage of the issues the major party candidates wanted to talk about. There was very little analysis of what they said about those issues and how what they said squared with reality. The coverage mostly focused on the campaign as a horse race and repeatedly told us who was ahead in the polls and, possibly most important of all, who had raised the most money.

Independent and third-party candidates existed—as far as the major media was concerned—only as quadrennial reminders of the futility of such candidacies. Most of the stories that covered them at all focused on (a) why they couldn’t possibly win and (b) how their campaigns would affect the two major party candidates. There was virtually no discussion of the issues raised in their campaigns or of the dynamics of those campaigns.

As there is less and less room for independent media outlets and journalists—except on the periphery of the media establishment—so there is less and less room for independent voices in our political system.

And when it all was over, including the debacle in Florida, there was the media, patting us on our collective heads and telling us that, once again, the system worked. Of course, the question we ought to be asking ourselves is not whether the system works but for whom. It works quite well for the corporations who own the country and the major media who tell us what they think we ought to hear.

But how well does it work for the average American?

And who is reporting that story?

(A last word: Obviously, phrases like “the dominant media” and so on only serve with limitations. The media, even the dominant media, is never completely monolithic. There are always variations induced, to some extent, by the competition between news-gathering organizations. However, I do think it is fair to say that, in spite of that competition, the corporations who control the major electronic and print media have created a culture that ensures the protection of their interests over those of the citizens who depend upon the media for information and understanding. It’s also worth noting that, while I see some possibility of positive change during the administration of President Obama, I am not at all convinced it it is a given such change will occur. One of the most hopeful signs coming out of the Obama campaign was that the American electorate seemed more engaged than it has been in some time. Whether that will continue and whether it will translate into a demand for more responsible reporting by the organizations who make up the dominant media remains to be seen. A democratic society depends upon a free and independent media in order to sustain itself. It’s not enough that various news organizations are free to print what they want. It’s also necessary that those news organizations exist independently of one another and of the corrosive effects of corporations. Today with the blossoming of cable TV and 24-hour newscasts, we have the illusion of a vast array of news channels, but in truth, the bulk of that array is concentrated in a few hands and the on-air product is mostly a mishmash of sensationalized stories, celebrity gossip and talking heads who parrot one another endlessly. At a time when the noise generated by the broadcast media has reached unprecedented levels, it has become harder and harder to find anything of value in all the chatter.)

©2001 by George A. Ricker
Revised version @ 2009

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