March 21, 2000
Is Media a Danger to Democracy?
By Robert Parry
Shortly before New Year's 2000, writer Robert D. Kaplan penned a New York Times commentary about the world's future.
He blithely predicted that "political systems in 2100 will be elegantly varied, unconstrained by the sanctimony of the late 20th century, with its simple call for 'democracy.'" Kaplan added that his vision of this post-democratic world included a breakdown of national sovereignty and a resurrection of the ancient structure of autocratic city-states.
"The next century will be the age of high-tech feudalism," maintained Kaplan, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation which prides itself in "thinking outside the box." [NYT, Dec. 27, 1999]
While Kaplan certainly has the right to his opinion and there is some logic behind his prediction, what was striking was the casual way that The New York Times presented the argument, as if the end of "simple" democracy was a foregone conclusion, nothing much to worry about.
This cavalier attitude offered a rare glimpse at what is a growing -- though usually unstated -- notion along the Washington-New York power corridor: that free-market forces increasingly control everything and should control everything.
From this perspective, democracy -- the will of the people -- becomes more a "sanctimony" than a noble ideal, more an impediment to progress than the fairest way to bestow power on leaders.
This growing view -- what one might call a new-age capitalistic determinism -- has gained adherence among many influential journalists and thinkers. Yet, since democracy remains a popular notion with many Americans and since the media retains a self-image as the plucky defender of the U.S. Constitutional system, the term democracy has been less jettisoned than redefined. Within this new body of thought, "democracy" has come to mean the freedom of business to operate with minimal government constraints.
This evolving concept also helps explain, to some degree, the media’s decline in covering significant affairs of state. More and more, news is debased into “content,” as the out-dated need for a well-informed public fades away. Except for the stock prices and business news, information slides into entertainment.
But how did this happen? What transformed the Watergate press corps of the mid-1970s, which asked grand questions about serious government misconduct, into today's media which can be alternately frivolous, petulant and obsequious?
Three books offer an intriguing panorama of the crucial changes in the media over the past quarter century and the media’s growing threat to democracy.
The first, published in 1996, is Kathryn S. Olmsted's Challenging the Secret Government. It examines the awakening of skepticism within the U.S. news media and the Congress in the mid-1970s.
The second is Edward Herman's The Myth of the Liberal Media, which reviews the media's acquiescence to the Reagan administration's implausible propaganda during the 1980s. The third is Robert W. McChesney's Rich Media, Poor Democracy, a study of the rapid concentration of media power during the 1990s.
Olmsted starts her story by pointing to the secret compromises that the Cold War brought to the ethics of the U.S. government. She quotes World War II Gen. James Doolittle explaining in a secret 1954 report to President Eisenhower why CIA covert operations were needed and what they entailed.
"Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply," Doolittle wrote. "If the United States is to survive, long-standing American concepts of 'fair play' must be reconsidered. We must develop effective espionage and counterespionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated, and more effective methods than those used against us. It may become necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy."
While Eisenhower and later presidents did implement the first part of Doolittle's recommendation -- ordering covert actions around the world -- they finessed the latter. Rather than explain the choices to the American people, U.S. leaders dropped a cloak of state secrecy around "this fundamentally repugnant philosophy."
That cloak was lifted slightly in the mid-1970s. The Vietnam War had cracked the Cold War consensus and Watergate had exposed a parallel challenge to the democratic process.
Into that breach stepped an energized press corps represented by investigative journalists, such as The New York Times' Seymour Hersh and CBS News' Daniel Schorr, and a more assertive Congress personified by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, and Rep. Otis Pike, D-N.Y.
The press and Congress exposed some of the secret government's worst abuses -- from spying on U.S. citizens and disrupting their constitutionally protected rights to mounting assassination plots against foreign leaders and conducting drug tests on unsuspecting subjects.
Among the American people, there was shock. Olmsted quotes a letter that one woman wrote to Sen. Church. "Perhaps at 57 I should know better, but I really want our country to behave honorably. I never thought the ideals they taught us were just public relations."
But, as Olmsted describes, the counterattacks from allies of the secret government were fierce and effective. Its defenders questioned the patriotism of the critics. Key news executives, such as The Washington Post's publisher Katharine Graham and The New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal, proved particularly amenable to CIA overtures for restraint and self-censorship.
Even senior government officials didn't want to know too much. At one point, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, who was heading up a White House-ordered investigation, told CIA director William Colby, "Bill, do you really have to present all this material to us?"
Though the congressional investigations managed to document an array of CIA and FBI abuses, Church and Pike faced unrelenting pressure. With the White House exploiting the murder of a CIA officer in Greece, the counterattack gained strength, eventually limiting what Church and Pike could accomplish. The House voted to suppress Pike's report and hauled Schorr before a hearing when he arranged for the publication of its leaked contents.
After Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, the national media and the Congress were brought to heel even more. Olmsted ends her book by quoting comments from senior editors about what one called the media’s “new age of deference.” In 1982, another declared that "we should make peace with the government. ... We should cure ourselves of the adversarial mindset."
In a sense, Herman's book picks up the story from there, though he also delves back into the modern media's evolution. But Herman's central point is the overriding fact of the media's self-censorship during the 1980s and early 1990s.
Herman details, for instance, the stunning contrast between the media's handling of a fugitive Cuban-American terrorist, Luis Posada, and the anti-Western terrorist, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, known as Carlos the Jackal.
"For the Western media and Western experts, Carlos is the model terrorist and is portrayed without qualification as evil incarnate," Herman wrote. By contrast, the U.S. news media largely averted its eyes from Posada, a Cuban-American who worked for the CIA. Posada was implicated in the bombing of a civilian Cubana airliner in 1976, escaped from a Venezuelan jail and ended up handling logistics for Oliver North's Nicaraguan contra supply network in 1986.
"The mainstream media's treatment of this disclosure was extremely muted," Herman continued. "I believe that if Carlos had turned up as a literal employee of Bulgaria or the Soviet Union in some military-terrorist function, the media would have expressed outrage, and would have cited this as definitive evidence of a Soviet terror network. … But as [Posada] was our terrorist, the media were virtually silent."
McChesney's book, published in 1999, focuses on the economics of modern journalism and the concentration of both money and power in the hands of a few media conglomerates.
His argument is that the big media has, in many ways, become the power structure and is positioned to exploit its enormous influence to advance both its own agenda and those of its government-business allies.
"Media fare is ever more closely linked to the needs and concerns of a handful of enormous and powerful corporations, with annual revenues approaching the GDP of a small nation," McChesney argues. "These firms are run by wealthy managers and billionaires with clear stakes in the outcome of the most fundamental political issues, and their interests are often distinct from those of the vast majority of humanity.
“By any known theory of democracy, such a concentration of economic, cultural, and political power into so few hands -- and mostly unaccountable hands at that -- is absurd and unacceptable."
McChesney also found little to cheer about at the prospect of the Internet significantly broadening the parameters of political debate. "Despite its much-ballyhooed 'openness,' to the extent that it becomes a viable mass medium, it will likely be dominated by the usual corporate suspects," McChesney wrote.
"Certainly a few new commercial content players will emerge, but the evidence suggests that the content of the digital communication world will appear quite similar to the content of the pre-digital commercial media world."
The announcement of the AOL-Time Warner merger on Jan. 10 only underscored McChesney's observations.
On the broader issue of democracy, McChesney sees the news media dumbing down, rather than informing, the public debate.
"In many respects, we now live in a society that is only formally democratic, as the great mass of citizens have minimal say on the major public issues of the day, and such issues are scarcely debated at all in any meaningful sense in the electoral arena,” McChesney wrote.
“In our society, corporations and the wealthy enjoy a power every bit as immense as that assumed to have been enjoyed by the lords and royalty of feudal times."
So, McChesney, like Kaplan, sees the parallels between the feudalism of the old Middle Ages and this new age of "high-tech feudalism." If that analysis turns out to be correct, then tomorrow’s relationship between the rulers and the ruled will have been driven, in large part, by limitations that the modern media has placed on the knowledge of the common people.
In the old Middle Ages, the process was more straightforward. The serfs were kept illiterate and the secrets were kept by a small circle of courtiers.
Today, the methods must be more subtle. Real information must be degraded by mixing in propaganda and disinformation, so many people have no idea who to trust and what to believe.
More than two centuries ago, the Founding Fathers addressed the need for an informed electorate by enacting the First Amendment's guarantee of press freedom. Today, however, another debate is overdue: whether the public should -- and can -- demand a new commitment to openness not just by the government, but the corporate media as well.
Editor Robert Parry has written extensively about propaganda in the modern age. His last book is Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth.’