Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Media Trap

It's long been a matter of some note how easily Americans -- people in general, but Americans in particular -- can be manipulated, persuaded, and stampeded by propaganda, and how the American mass media serve as high octane conduits for some of the most egregious propaganda campaigns.

The premise that "government" is responsible for nearly all propaganda campaigns is false. This idea derives from Nazi, Soviet and Chinese examples from the 20th century and has never been particularly germane to the United States. Of course there are American government propaganda campaigns, but they are always undertaken in close collaboration with corporate interests and particularly with American mass media outlets. The US government is essentially incapable of mounting a significant propaganda campaign on its own, for it lacks suitable conduits to get the word out. Any propaganda the Government wishes to "catapult" -- to coin a phrase -- must take place in concert with, and be aligned with, the interests of corporate mass media.

Much as it might like to, the Government cannot compel mass media to carry propaganda messages on Government's behalf against the will of the media enterprises. That Americans are immersed in propaganda is the direct result of mass media's delight in propagandizing on its own behalf and on behalf of Government interests that coincide with corporate ones.

On the other hand, corporate mass media is constantly engaged in essentially independent corporate propaganda. It is relentless. It's called "advertising," but there is much more to it than that. They aren't simply promoting and selling product; they are shaping beliefs, controlling behaviors, and directing actions.

I posted recently about some of the anti-communist propaganda and scaremongering I was immersed in when I was in elementary school, propaganda that made a huge impression on me -- even though I came to disbelieve and ridicule it while being continually exposed to it. This propaganda was a universal fact of life that could not be escaped in the 1950's, something that people who weren't exposed to it have a hard time understanding. It wasn't just anti-communist propaganda, it was also the constant scaremongering over The Bomb and our pretty much certain nuclear annihilation when the Soviets launched their inevitable attack.

As much as we look back and would like to believe that this was all a government propaganda campaign, it was not. It was just as surely a corporate campaign, as was the whole Cold War enterprise from start to finish. It wasn't just the military-industrial complex, it was the entire infrastructure of public-private command and control that had been built during WWII which continued -- and continued to grow -- relentlessly during the Cold War and afterwards.

The United States and its allies may have been victorious in WWII, but that victory was hardly a matter of the government alone pursuing military ends. It was just as much a matter of corporate self-interest. After the War, the government shrank while corporate strength grew. And the "enemy" was immediately transformed from the defeated Nazis and Imperial Japan to the victorious Soviets, soon thereafter joined by the Reds in China. This transformation of enemies was accomplished through propaganda.

The major mass media (all privately and mostly corporate controlled) conditioned the public to accept this state of affairs, even celebrate it as patriotic, righteous and good.

The revolt of the 1960's was triggered by recognition that what we had been conditioned to believe was... false. We had been sold a bill of goods about our own country and its conduct abroad, and it had to stop. The way to make it stop was to throw oneself onto the "machine" -- making it impossible for the machine to function.

Much as I maintain that a significant factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union was public disbelief in the propaganda they were fed, so I maintain that the revolt of the 1960's in this country was fed by a similar recognition and disbelief in American propaganda.

This idea has become clearer the deeper I plunge into Seth Rosenfeld's "Subversives." But in the back of my mind, I realize that Rosenfeld himself is a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, a significant part of "major mass media" on the West Coast, and he is weaving a media driven narrative of the events of the revolts of the 1960's, what led up to them and their aftermath. It's interesting, for example, that he "exposes" the propaganda and lies of the San Francisco Examiner during the period, but he has very little to say about the Chronicle's similar reporting during the era. The Examiner may have been somewhat more strident, but the Chronicle was no less negative about the student uprising at Berkeley and soon enough, merely less provocative. The two major regional newspapers were basically in agreement about the rebellions and those responsible, as were nearly all media outlets throughout California and soon enough throughout the country. Rosenfeld touches on this near-unanimity, but he focuses on the Examiner's stridency and lies rather than his own paper's fundamental agreement with them.

Once the rebellion was over, of course, it could be analyzed in a more dispassionate way -- and I really appreciate Rosenfeld's exhaustive examination of the events and players -- but it is still (to me, at any rate) a media construct and narrative, relying on reporting from the era, more recent interviews and media narrative driven interpretations of FBI and other documents Rosenfeld obtained over 30 years of FOIA requests.

The Media Trap is the reliance on major mass media almost exclusively to inform us. The mass media serves a function, to be sure, but it is not to inform us in any comprehensive and objective way. Its primary functions, as stated above, is to shape our beliefs, control our behavior, and direct our actions.

Reliance on news accounts and editorial positions that appear in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the many (surviving) regional newspapers for "objective" news is silly, but it's no worse than relying on media personalities who appear on television or radio, or more and more on the internet. These mass media outlets are propaganda organs. This is a truism, whether or not we agree with the propagandist's point of view and narrative about personalities and events.

Who holds the reins of this propaganda machine is often being contested, but the presumption that changing drivers (to mix a metaphor) will result in "better propaganda" --  or none at all  -- is absurd.

The propaganda machine exists for a particular purpose, and who is in charge of it or driving it doesn't change that mission and purpose.

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