The US media and the new garrison state
Tonight President Bush was on television, speaking from China. He told an attentive Chinese audience that they had made progress towards democracy over the last 15 years. After all, as he pointed out, nowadays the Chinese don’t all wear the same clothes: as part of the global marketplace, they now have free choice in terms of what they can wear.
I suppose this is good news for the fashion and apparel industry’s free trade advocates. Today President Bush can make a fool of himself on national television and not be criticised. The terrorist attacks of September 11 – that cruel sabre wound across the cheekbones of history – have given Bush a cloak of Teflon; public criticism cannot stick. Once the brunt of jokes for his dyslexic “Bushisms”, he is now shielded from scathing criticism. After all, he is the newly anointed Hero of the Homeland.
Many of my friends and colleagues find it staggering that Bush and his administration can get away with turning the country into a garrison state in such a short time, and with the seeming consent of such a large segment of the US public. But when you begin to comprehend the enormous power and global reach of the US media, it becomes all the more understandable.
The media cartel of AOL Time Warner, Disney, General Electric, News Corporation, Viacom, Vivendi, Sony, Bertelsmann, AT&T, and Liberty Media do their best to ensure that the news media continue in their role as the lapdogs of the Bush administration and the military industrial complex. Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric (NBC’s corporate parent) is an arch conservative; Michael Jordan, the head of CBS (Westinghouse) is a staunch conservative set against government regulation; Michael Eisner of Disney is a Democrat, but a political centrist; and Rupert Murdoch, who heads News Corporation (and owns Fox Television) is a right-winger.
In fact, right-wing conservatives dominate the three major opinion-shaping forms in the US: TV, talk radio, and syndicated columns. That, and the fact that the majority of public broadcasting outlets in the US rely on large corporate-backed think tanks to offer “expert” opinions to their audiences, are just a few of the reasons why the United States population has been so willing to give up its long-cherished democratic freedoms for promises of security from bin Laden and his chthonic warriors.
According to Mark Crispin Miller: "The cartel’s favourite audience... is that stratum of the population most desirable to advertisers – which has meant the media’s complete abandonment of working people and the poor. And while the press must help protect us against those who would abuse the powers of government, the oligopoly is far too cosy with the White House and the Pentagon, whose faults, and crimes, it is unwilling to expose. The media’s big bosses want big favours from the state, while the reporters are afraid to risk annoying their best sources….In short, the news divisions of the media cartel appear to work against the public interest – and for their parent companies, their advertisers and the Bush administration. The situation is completely un-American. It is the purpose of the press to help us run the state, and not the other way around. As citizens of a democracy, we have the right and obligation to be well aware of what is happening, both in “the homeland” and the wider world. Without such knowledge we cannot be both secure and free. We therefore must take steps to liberate the media from oligopoly, so as to make the government our own."
One of the primary ideological vehicles of the new garrison state is Fox News. Fox News Channel and 26 television stations are owned outright by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Fox News is rapidly gaining a wide and committed audience on the basis of its appeal to right-wing male viewers. Its political catechism is spiked with testosterone and rage and gives ballast to the logic of transnational capitalism and US militarism.
James Wolcott aptly describes this gang as the “Viagra posse”: "Relatively subdued in the first weeks after September 11, Chris Matthews, Geraldo Rivera, and the Viagra posse of Fox News refilled their gasbags and began taking turns on Mussolini’s balcony to exhort the mob, their frog glands swelling like Dizzy Gillespie’s cheeks. Agitating for the insertion of ground troops, hothead hosts and like-minded guests (many of them retired military officers now getting a chance to coach from the sidelines) scoffed at the over reliance on airpower before doing a nimble back flip and complaining that we weren’t bombing enough, or in the right spots. Frustrated, indignant, and irate over the patty-cake pace of the Afghan campaign (talk shows serve strong coffee in the greenrooms), these masters of Stratego escalated their rhetorical heat as if hoping the bombing campaign would follow their lead, sounding riled enough to storm the fighter cockpit and get the job done themselves if these gutless wonders wouldn’t."
Watching Fox News, one is reminded of remarks made by Harold Lasswell in 1941, when he defined the garrison state as one in which “the specialists on violence are the most powerful group in society”. The corporate media have driven out any hope for even left-liberal news coverage or commentary. Labelled as “leftist” pundits, the likes of Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts, George Stephanopoulos, Bill Press, Michael Kinsley, Beckel, Margaret Carlson, Al Hunt, Mark Shields, David Broder, Juan Williams, and Susan Estrich are paraded before the American public as an attempt to balance right-wingers such as Limbaugh, Buckley, Novak, McLaughlin, Buchanan, Robertson, Liddy, and North. The truth is that the so-called “leftists” are, at their most extreme, centrists and more often than not tilt politically to the right. With virtually no leftist representation in the media, the US public are being ideologically massaged by opinions and positions that serve the interests of the ruling class. The myth of the liberal media talked about so much by right-wing pundits is simply a lie.
Take as one example, popular Fox Television commentator Bill O’Reilly. His mind rarely burdened by a dialectical thought, O’Reilly frequently berates with autocratic homilies those few guests he invites on his show who dare offer an explanation for the events of September 11. He enjoys sparing his audiences insight, and lifting from them the burden of comprehension, preferring instead a spectacle of self-congratulatory belligerence and Stygian anger. The majesty of O’Reilly’s self-regard is propped up by a stubborn conviction that unsupported opinions presented in a mean-spirited fashion are preferable to complex analysis. Proud of his simple patriotic (i.e., warmongering) advice to kill the enemy because the enemy is evil, he admonishes anyone offering critical analysis as giving evil credibility and as comforting our enemies. On a September 17 segment of his show, O’Reilly Factor, our “no-spin” host Bill put forth a plan for action if the Taliban did not hand over bin Laden: If they don’t, the US. should bomb the Afghan infrastructure to rubble – the airport, the power plants, their water facilities and the roads. This is a very primitive country. And taking out their ability to exist day to day will not be hard. Remember, the people of any country are ultimately responsible for the government they have. The Germans were responsible for Hitler. The Afghans are responsible for the Taliban. We should not target civilians. But if they don’t rise up against this criminal government, they starve, period.
O’Reilly also went on to say that the infrastructure of Iraq “must be destroyed and the population made to endure yet another round of intense pain”. He also disembarrassed himself from any humanitarian sentiments by calling for the destruction of Libya’s airports and the mining of its harbours, crying: “Let them eat sand”. There is no spectacle of suddenly vanishing competence here, for his reasoning is as inexorably puerile as it is predictable. He is effectively asking for millions more Iraqi children and civilians to die at the hands of the United States (as if the US imposed sanctions have not killed enough), not to mention the millions of civilian casualties that would result from the kind of utter destruction of the infrastructure that he so perversely calls for.
So savage was O’Reilly’s call for acts of terror to be reigned down on Afghan civilians by the US military, one wonders if he received his political education in the caves of Lascaux. We have heard this kind of advice before. It’s underwritten by the same logic that spikes the Taliban’s advice to their own followers. It is the logic of fascism, only this time it is our fascism sweetened and made more palatable by the nationalist arrogance and righteous indignation betrayed by O’Reilly and those of his stamp.
It is not as if the flat-footed storm troopers have already arrived. It is more as if shimmerings of fascism have crossed our political landscape. Ghostly coruscations of negative energy are slowly crystallising into holograms of Joe McCarthy hovering ominously over the White House. We are living in the moist flaps of Richard Nixon’s jowls, drowning in the yellow ink of Steve Dunleavy’s pen, sleepwalking on a Pirandello stage, discovering ourselves as Ionesco characters in a Rod Sterling nightmare. Unlike The Twilight Zone, the horror of the human condition won’t disappear when we turn off our television sets. Bill O’Reilly’s kerosene tongue will always be there, wagging obscenely on our television sets, or disguised in the mouths of everyday God-fearing folk.
But the worst offenders in the media are not always the drooling reactionary pundits such as O’Reilly. They are also organisations like National Public Radio. On January 10, FAIR [Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting] put out an Action Alert asking people to write to National Public Radio about the politics of its Middle East reporting. NPR had been referring to the situation in Israel and Palestine around the New Year as a period of “relative calm” or “comparative quiet”. NPR went on to clarify this description by noting that “only one Israeli has been killed in those three weeks”. What NPR failed to acknowledge was that during this “quiet” period, an average of one Palestinian per day was being killed by Israeli occupation forces. (See http://www.fair.org/activism/npr-israel-quiet.html). Despite protests organized by FAIR, this distortion continues to be repeated.
The media is certainly part of the living infrastructure that is helping to promote the current transition of the United States into a garrison state – we have the USA Patriot Act; we have the military tribunals; we have the Office of Homeland Security; we have the necessary scapegoats; we have the Office of Strategic Influence working hand-in-hand with the US Army’s Psychological Operations Command (PSYOPS) operating domestically (actually, it’s operating domestically is against the law, but we know that during the Reagan administration that PSYOPS staffed the Office of Public Diplomacy and planted stories in the media supporting the Contras, a move made possible by Otto Reich, now the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs and we know that a few years ago PSYOPS interns were discovered working as interns in the news division of CNN’s Atlanta headquarters); we have the strongest military in the world; we have the military hawks in control of the Pentagon; we have pummelled an evil nation into pre-history, identified new evil and quasi-evil empires; turned Central Asia into a zone of military containment, and shown that we can kill mercilessly and control the media reporting in the theatre of operations, as major newspapers regularly buried stories of US air strikes on civilians, such as in the case of Niazi Kala (sometimes called Qalaye Niaze), where the United Nations reported that 52 civilians were killed by the US attack, including 25 children. According to the UN report, unarmed women and children were pursued and killed by American helicopters, even as they fled to shelter or tried to rescue survivors.
And we have a leader who is little more than a glorified servant of the military industrial complex. And one who is able to admit this publicly and arouse little opposition. In fact, such an admission wins him the glowing admiration of the American people. The Bush administration’s scheduled release of documents under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which includes Ronald Reagan’s papers, have successfully been placed on lockdown. So far Cheney’s much publicised legal stonewalling has prevented full disclosure of the extent of Enron-National Energy Policy Development Group contacts. Government secrecy and the withholding of information available to the public by law has become a guiding axiom of government practice.
The struggle for media reform is an essential part of the struggle for democracy. McChesney and Nichols argue that media reform proposals need to apply existing anti-monopoly laws to the media; restrict ownership of radio stations to one or two per owner; fight the monopolisation of TV-station ownership, break the lock of newspaper chains on entire regions, create reasonable media ownership regulations, establish a full range of low-power, non-commercial radio and television stations across the United States; invest in public broadcasting so as to eliminate commercial pressures and to serve low-income communities; allow tax credits to any non-profit medium; lower mailing costs for non-profit and significantly non-commercial publications; eliminate political candidate advertising as a condition of a broadcast licence; require that stations who run paid political broadcasts by politicians run free ads of similar length from all the other candidates on the ballots immediately afterward; reduce or eliminate TV advertising directed at children under 12; and decommercialise local TV news with regulations that require stations to grant journalists an hour daily of commercial-free news times; and set budget guidelines for those newscasts based on a percentage of the station’s revenues.
In his magisterial
work, Rich Media, Poor Democracy, Robert McChesney writes that
media reform cannot be successful if isolated from other struggles for
democracy. He writes:
Wherever and whenever possible, radical educators have been implementing critical media literacy classes in high school and university classrooms. Examining the politics surrounding media policy and practices from a historical materialist perspective (i.e. looking at the media in the context of the creation of a transnational capitalist class), critical media literacy educators employ a critical semiotics to analyse the media as a form of popular culture that carries a lot of unexamined ideological freight; it investigates the form and content of commercial broadcasting; and it examines representations of race, class, gender, and sexual relations as a form of ideological production.
Of course, examining the media critically – especially the Bush administration’s war on terrorism – at this particular historical juncture in the United States risks charges of anti-patriotism. Yet, from a critical perspective one could argue that patriotism that is not at the same time conjugated with introspection, sustained critical self-reflexivity, and the possibility of transcending the reified knowledge and social relations of the corporate capitalist state, is a patriotism that does an injustice to the meaning of the word. One of the best features of a democracy lies in its provisions for the ability to be self-critical, to challenge, or affirm, as the case may be, what has been presented by the dominant capitalist media as common sense. That feature has been effectively eroded by increasing corporate control of the media. Democracy cannot exist in a society whose media are owned and run by the transnational capitalist elite. The socialist alternative is the only possibility for democracy to be secured.
Peter McLaren's website is at: http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/~mclaren/