It has been said that ideologies are like accents. Everybody has one, even if they swear they don’t.
This is especially true where the U.S. news media is concerned. Ostensibly, American journalism is a pursuit of the truth. Its purpose is to reflect reality rather than shape it. Reporters pride themselves on a commitment to fairness and accuracy, and they are quick to defend their employers against accusations of bias. In some sense, they regard the objectivity of their profession as self-evident. But no matter how upstanding these individual reporters might be, they are but one part of the corporate media machine. A larger system that is fiercely ideological.
Put in simpler terms, most news outlets uphold the status quo. Call it what you like: orthodoxy, common sense, conventional wisdom. It all boils down to the dominant views held by the ruling class. Namely, the rich and powerful.
The ideology that results from this is pro-war, pro-business, and most importantly, pro-capitalist.
A cursory look at the mainstream media is enough to prove it. James Bennet, the editorial page editor for the New York Times, explicitly stated that the outlet was “pro-capitalism” in a closed-door meeting with staffers. The Wall Street Journal is a mainstay of the free market, with an audience that consists of financial elites. Their editorial board smearing leftists like Bernie Sanders for “siding with a dictator” when he urged against intervention in Venezuela. And FOX News bombards the airwaves with a right-wing, anti-socialist message on a daily basis.
As much as the mainstream news informs and educates, it also distorts and omits. It upholds truisms and tunes out dissident voices—sometimes when those voices are needed the most.
Some of this can be blamed on the nature of these outlets. They are profit-driven businesses, after all. Owned by some of the richest people on the planet. As such, we can reasonably assume that they wouldn’t be used to spread an anti-capitalist message.
But mere self-interest can only explain so much. As noted by Adam H. Johnson, a media analyst at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), there is also an ideological factor at play. The media class, he argues, believes that “capitalism is a non-negotiable good.” And the idea “that there could be another way of looking at things, or that these assumptions should be challenged on a fundamental level, is tantamount to Flat-Eartherism.”
In the news, this outlook manifests in a variety of ways. From the framing of left-wing political candidates to the depiction of the poor — which often lacks context. But it is their portrayal of organized labor that warrants particular discussion.
Not content to be simply pro-capitalist, the corporate media is also overwhelmingly anti-labor.
The academic research on this topic leaves little room for denial. When it comes to labor unions, media coverage is consistently negative. The news focuses on strikes and violent confrontations, often exaggerating their frequency, and pays little attention to successful negotiations or community outreach programs. Providing their audience with a distorted picture of labor activities.
One particularly egregious example concerns the portrayal of Teacher’s Unions during the No Child Left Behind Program. Rebecca Goldstein, an Associate Professor of Secondary and Special Education, concluded that Time Magazine and the NYT both painted an extremely negative image of Teacher’s Unions, framing market reforms and the NCLB program as the only solutions that could fix public education. A shameful campaign against the interests of teachers.
To many, this kind of union-bashing in the media will come as no surprise. Organized labor is often marginalized in the political discourse. It receives very little coverage in the mainstream press (as James Berger wrote in 2015), pushed to the side so that more focus can be paid to the business world. A topic of far greater importance—at least according to conventional wisdom.
And so, what is considered the sensible view in politics is echoed by the media. A full-throated defense of capitalism, the primacy of business over labor, and, of course, unquestioning obedience when it comes to the foreign policy establishment.
Earlier this year, William Arkin, a veteran national security reporter for NBC, resigned from the network. And in a parting email to his colleagues, he criticized the network for its pro-war turn and valorization of the security state.
Specifically, he expresses his disappointment watching NBC and much of the news media “become a defender of Washington and the system”. He talks about the network’s reaction to Donald Trump’s election: how they’ve championed the national security establishment and the FBI, a “historically destructive institution.” And he is incredulous that they have embraced “highly partisan” former officials who “masquerade as analysts”.
As Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept notes, these “analysts” include torture advocates like John Brennan, former intelligence spooks like Frank Figliuzzi and ex-Bush apparatchiks like Juan Zarate. All of whom have a vested interest in defending the institutions they’ve spent so long serving. And CNN is hardly any better with its roster of former FBI agents and security officials.
The welcome paid to Brennan and Zarate, who both played a key role in the disastrous Iraq War, is probably the most galling detail here. To paraphrase Arkin, these are the people largely responsible for the current state of the Middle East: where not one country is safer today than it was 18 years ago.
But then again, the news media has always paid homage to the wisdom of U.S. Foreign Policy. In the build-up to Iraq, networks from Fox NEWS to ABC to CBS all used framing words and phrases that were complementary to the Bush administration’s push for war. The New York Times Editorial Board has not opposed a single U.S. war since Reagan’s invasion of Grenada. And multiple outlets have spread outright lies about American enemies like North Korea and Iran—much to the benefit of the foreign policy establishment.
Part of the problem is that the U.S. media accepts the claims of government officials at face value. During the Vietnam War, the Johnson administration claimed that North Vietnam had launched an “unprovoked attack” in the Gulf of Tonkin. This assertion, later exposed as a falsehood, was repeated uncritically by the Washington Post and NYT. Much like reports of Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction and pro-Maduro forces burning trucks of food and medicine in Venezuela—both untrue—were treated by the media as gospel.
Again, here we have a media reluctant to challenge the orthodoxy of powerful establishments. Credulous when it comes to the testimony of the state and the military-industrial complex. They assume that our officials, with the exception of an “anomaly” like Trump, are forthright and well-intentioned. Even as they wreak havoc on the world with their foreign adventurism.
Today, the news media has a deeply incestuous relationship with government officials and moneyed interests. Yet, they are rarely, if ever, told what they can and can’t say by their corporate owners or the state.
Instead, the media simply reproduces the values of a culture that is pro-war and pro-capitalism. The mainstream views. The views upheld by serious people in high places. Not like those dreamers and radicals who oppose them.
Stephen D. Reese, a Professor of Journalism at the University of Texas, spelled out this process in his 1990 study: “The news paradigm and the ideology of objectivity: A socialist at the Wall Street Journal”. Where he argues that the news media plays an essential role in maintaining the political system.
To wit, he contends that the news media does not depict reality. Instead, they maintain the boundaries of acceptable political discourse. They establish what is normal and deviant by the way they portray people and ideas. They do this because they are interlocked with other powerful institutions, which means protecting the status quo is also in their interests. And while individual journalists may go up against government officials and corporate interests from time to time, it is always a “reformist antagonism”. Never a challenge to the underlying principles of our current political system.
Looking at the evidence presented so far, it is difficult to say that Reese is wrong. Indeed, little else can explain why the U.S. media is so hostile to the idea of an organized working class and so deferential to the military. Why else does their depiction of the world seem so at odds with our own? Why else do they portray a reality where foreign intervention is almost always justified? And big business matters more than the lives and fates of everyday people?
It’s because the U.S. media pushes an ideology. As much as the mainstream news informs and educates, it also distorts and omits. It upholds truisms and tunes out dissident voices—sometimes when those voices are needed the most.
Readers and viewers aren’t necessarily being fed lies. But they’re not exactly getting the truth either.