The Myth of the Free Press
There is more truth about American journalism in the film “Kill the Messenger,” which chronicles the mainstream media’s discrediting of the work of the investigative journalist Gary Webb, than there is in the movie “All the President’s Men,” which celebrates the exploits of the reporters who uncovered the Watergate scandal.
The mass media blindly support the ideology of corporate capitalism. They laud and promote the myth of American democracy—even as we are stripped of civil liberties and money replaces the vote. They pay deference to the leaders on Wall Street and in Washington, no matter how perfidious their crimes. They slavishly venerate the military and law enforcement in the name of patriotism. They select the specialists and experts, almost always drawn from the centers of power, to interpret reality and explain policy. They usually rely on press releases, written by corporations, for their news. And they fill most of their news holes with celebrity gossip, lifestyle stories, sports and trivia. The role of the mass media is to entertain or to parrot official propaganda to the masses. The corporations, which own the press, hire journalists willing to be courtiers to the elites, and they promote them as celebrities. These journalistic courtiers, who can earn millions of dollars, are invited into the inner circles of power. They are, as John Ralston Saul writes, hedonists of power.
When Webb, writing in a 1996 series in the San Jose Mercury News, exposed the Central Intelligence Agency’s complicity in smuggling tons of cocaine for sale into the United States to fund the CIA-backed Contra rebels in Nicaragua, the press turned him into a journalistic leper. And over the generations there is a long list of journalistic lepers, from Ida B. Wells to I.F. Stone to Julian Assange.
The attacks against Webb have been renewed in publications such as The Washington Post since the release of the film earlier this month. These attacks are an act of self-justification. They are an attempt by the mass media to mask the collaboration between themselves and the power elite. The mass media, like the rest of the liberal establishment, seek to wrap themselves in the moral veneer of the fearless pursuit of truth and justice. But to maintain this myth they have to destroy the credibility of journalists such as Webb and Assange who shine a light on the sinister and murderous inner workings of empire, who care more about truth than news.
The country’s major news outlets—including my old employer The New York Times, which wrote that there was “scant proof” of Webb’s contention—functioned as guard dogs for the CIA. Soon after the 1996 exposé appeared, The Washington Post devoted nearly two full pages to attacking Webb’s assertions. The Los Angeles Times ran three separate articles that slammed Webb and his story. It was a seedy, disgusting and shameful chapter in American journalism. But it was hardly unique. Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, in the 2004 article “How the Press and the CIA Killed Gary Webb’s Career,” detailed the dynamics of the nationwide smear campaign.
Webb’s newspaper, after printing a mea culpa about the series, cast him out. He was unable to work again as an investigative journalist and, fearful of losing his house, he committed suicide in 2004. We know, in part because of a Senate investigation led by then-Sen. John Kerry, that Webb was right. But truth was never the issue for those who opposed the journalist. Webb exposed the CIA as a bunch of gunrunning, drug-smuggling thugs. He exposed the mass media, which depend on official sources for most of their news and are therefore hostage to those sources, as craven handmaidens of power. He had crossed the line. And he paid for it.
If the CIA was funneling hundreds of millions of dollars in drugs into inner-city neighborhoods to fund an illegal war in Nicaragua, what did that say about the legitimacy of the vast covert organization? What did it tell us about the so-called war on drugs? What did it tell us about the government’s callousness and indifference to the poor, especially poor people of color at the height of the crack epidemic? What did it say about rogue military operations carried out beyond public scrutiny?
These were questions the power elites, and their courtiers in the press, were determined to silence.
The mass media are plagued by the same mediocrity, corporatism and careerism as the academy, labor unions, the arts, the Democratic Party and religious institutions. They cling to the self-serving mantra of impartiality and objectivity to justify their subservience to power. The press writes and speaks—unlike academics that chatter among themselves in arcane jargon like medieval theologians—to be heard and understood by the public. And for this reason the press is more powerful and more closely controlled by the state. It plays an essential role in the dissemination of official propaganda. But to effectively disseminate state propaganda the press must maintain the fiction of independence and integrity. It must hide its true intentions.
The mass media, as C. Wright Mills pointed out, are essential tools for conformity. They impart to readers and viewers their sense of themselves. They tell them who they are. They tell them what their aspirations should be. They promise to help them achieve these aspirations. They offer a variety of techniques, advice and schemes that promise personal and professional success. The mass media, as Wright wrote, exist primarily to help citizens feel they are successful and that they have met their aspirations even if they have not. They use language and images to manipulate and form opinions, not to foster genuine democratic debate and conversation or to open up public space for free political action and public deliberation. We are transformed into passive spectators of power by the mass media, which decide for us what is true and what is untrue, what is legitimate and what is not. Truth is not something we discover. It is decreed by the organs of mass communication.
“The divorce of truth from discourse and action—the instrumentalization of communication—has not merely increased the incidence of propaganda; it has disrupted the very notion of truth, and therefore the sense by which we take our bearings in the world is destroyed,” James W. Carey wrote in “Communication as Culture.”
Bridging the vast gap between the idealized identities—ones that in a commodity culture revolve around the acquisition of status, money, fame and power, or at least the illusion of it—and actual identities is the primary function of the mass media. And catering to these idealized identities, largely implanted by advertisers and the corporate culture, can be very profitable. We are given not what we need but what we want. The mass media allow us to escape into the enticing world of entertainment and spectacle. News is filtered into the mix, but it is not the primary concern of the mass media. No more than 15 percent of the space in any newspaper is devoted to news; the rest is devoted to a futile quest for self-actualization. The ratio is even more lopsided on the airwaves.
“This,” Mills wrote, “is probably the basic psychological formula of the mass media today. But, as a formula, it is not attuned to the development of the human being. It is a formula of a pseudo-world which the media invent and sustain.”
At the core of this pseudo-world is the myth that our national institutions, including those of government, the military and finance, are efficient and virtuous, that we can trust them and that their intentions are good. These institutions can be criticized for excesses and abuses, but they cannot be assailed as being hostile to democracy and the common good. They cannot be exposed as criminal enterprises, at least if one hopes to retain a voice in the mass media.
Those who work in the mass media, as I did for two decades, are acutely aware of the collaboration with power and the cynical manipulation of the public by the power elites. It does not mean there is never good journalism and that the subservience to corporate power within the academy always precludes good scholarship, but the internal pressures, hidden from public view, make great journalism and great scholarship very, very difficult. Such work, especially if it is sustained, is usually a career killer. Scholars like Norman Finkelstein and journalists like Webb and Assange who step outside the acceptable parameters of debate and challenge the mythic narrative of power, who question the motives and virtues of established institutions and who name the crimes of empire are always cast out.
The press will attack groups within the power elite only when one faction within the circle of power goes to war with another. When Richard Nixon, who had used illegal and clandestine methods to harass and shut down the underground press as well as persecute anti-war activists and radical black dissidents, went after the Democratic Party he became fair game for the press. His sin was not the abuse of power. He had abused power for a long time against people and groups that did not matter in the eyes of the Establishment. Nixon’s sin was to abuse power against a faction within the power elite itself.
The Watergate scandal, mythologized as evidence of a fearless and independent press, is illustrative of how circumscribed the mass media is when it comes to investigating centers of power.
“History has been kind enough to contrive for us a ‘controlled experiment’ to determine just what was at stake during the Watergate period, when the confrontational stance of the media reached its peak. The answer is clear and precise: powerful groups are capable of defending themselves, not surprisingly; and by media standards, it is a scandal when their position and rights are threatened,” Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky wrote in “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.” “By contrast, as long as illegalities and violations of democratic substance are confined to marginal groups or dissident victims of U.S. military attack, or result in a diffused cost imposed on the general population, media opposition is muted and absent altogether. This is why Nixon could go so far, lulled into a false sense of security precisely because the watchdog only barked when he began to threaten the privileged.”
The righteous thunder of the abolitionists and civil rights preachers, the investigative journalists who enraged Standard Oil and the owners of the Chicago stockyards, the radical theater productions, such as “The Cradle Will Rock,” that imploded the myths peddled by the ruling class and gave a voice to ordinary people, the labor unions that permitted African-Americans, immigrants and working men and women to find dignity and hope, the great public universities that offered the children of immigrants a chance for a first-class education, the New Deal Democrats who understood that a democracy is not safe if it does not give its citizens an acceptable standard of living and protect the state from being hijacked by private power, are no longer part of the American landscape. It was Webb’s misfortune to work in an era when the freedom of the press was as empty a cliché as democracy itself.
“The Cradle Will Rock,” like much of the popular work that came out of the Federal Theatre Project, addressed the concerns of the working class rather than the power elite. And it excoriated the folly of war, greed, corruption and the complicity of liberal institutions, especially the press, in protecting the power elite and ignoring the abuses of capitalism. Mister Mister in the play runs the town like a private corporation.
“I believe newspapers are great mental shapers,” Mister Mister says. “My steel industry is dependent on them really.”
“Just you call the News,” Editor Daily responds. “And we’ll print all the news. From coast to coast, and from border to border.”
Editor Daily and Mister Mister sing:
O the press, the press, the freedom of the press.
They’ll never take away the freedom of the press.
We must be free to say whatever’s on our chest—
with a hey-diddle-dee and ho-nanny-no
for whichever side will pay the best.
“I should like a series on young Larry Foreman,” Mister Mister tells Editor Daily. “Who goes around stormin’ and organizin’ unions.”
“Yes, we’ve heard of him,” Editor Daily tells Mister Mister. “In fact, good word of him. He seems quite popular with workingmen.”
“Find out who he drinks with and talks with and sleeps with. And look up his past till at last you’ve got it on him.”
“But the man is so full of fight, he’s simply dynamite, why it would take an army to tame him,” Editor Daily says.
“Then it shouldn’t be too hard to tame him,” Mister Mister says.
“O the press, the press, the freedom of the press,” the two sing. “You’ve only got to hint whatever’s fit to print; if something’s wrong with it, why then we’ll print to fit. With a he-diddly-dee and aho-nonny-no. For whichever side will pay the best.”