The Free Press Is Slavery

Every high school student has to remember what “yellow journalism” was. Better students would remember that a bunch of newspapers goaded America into a war with Spain for transparently imperial purposes.

And we’re all so relieved to know that such a thing wouldn’t happen in this enlightened age.

As with many of the aspects of American life in the post-WWII years, it’s an exception that proves the rule: the mass media in this country is the bluntest instrument of the establishment. This is not to say that suppressing the genuine flow of information is in the interest of a democratic society; it’s not. But as with our latter-day concept of “free speech” our concept of the “free press” is tied only in name to the image of a valiant pamphleteer with the printing-press equivalent of three chords and the truth bringing about the revolution.

Time was, the RF spectrum was managed as a public trust for the public. Now it is managed as a private trust for giant corporations that can purchase the bandwidth at auction. Time was, no matter who won such auctions, they had to provide a number of public services, such as independent news departments.

It was in that time of exceptions that that journalists brought down a corrupt president aided by a centrist Supreme Court. But the people who were brought down by the media have waged a multi-pronged war against it ever since. First, any kind of meaningful requirement of public service was eliminated. Second, a cynical and relentless PR campaign to brand the establishment media “liberal” has cowed journalism into abandoning truth for truth’s sake for balance for balance’s sake.

There is no more important virtue for a journalist today than “balance.” In a recent report on the “birther” phenomenon, this Mother Jones (a strongly liberal publication) the author felt that he had to find a liberal equivalent of the non-reality based community: vaccine paranoiacs.

I suppose those people fit the definition of “liberal” in most people’s minds. Maybe most are. But there is absolutely zero action by any politician–even a quote–above the level of Homeowners’ Association about this. There are no pending laws.

Birtherism, on the other hand, has spawned a number of laws forcing presidential candidates to disclose their birth certificates and almost all GOP candidates for 2012 at least pretend they believe Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii.

So, it’s equivalent. See?

And with news divisions forced to find profits, subscriptions, making their audience feel what they want to feel–whether it’s the enlightened fair milquetoast make-your-own-babyfood liberals of NPR, the pudgy white rage mobs of Fox News, the still-in-the-McGovern-campaign-headquarters deadenders at The Nation, or the button-down establishment in crowd of The New York times–these outlets know their audiences and cater to them.

They don’t cater to simple reporting. For that, we have to rely, for the most part, on a distillation of many sources, including foreign ones. It’s a lot of work, and most people aren’t up to it.

And the ability of the moneyed interests–everyone from Big Tobacco on–to outwit and (if you will) outfox the journalists and with them the American public has led this country into huge exercises of tail-chasing self-destruction like the Iraq war, abandoning any meaningful action on global warming, or real health care reform.

The Internet has helped and hurt to some extent. It has helped because the careful selection of what to report can’t stand, and no report goes without criticism. It has hurt because no one has to step away from their ideological brethren for even a minute.

A free press is a great idea, but one with the outward appearance of freedom and reliability dancing to the tune called by the Money Power is even worse.