As we approach the historically prophetic and now mass media-hyped “End of Times” year of 2012, hysterical speculation abounds. The failed prediction of a preacher in Oakland, California, who claimed the Rapture was upon us come May 21, 2011, was quite metaphoric as it exposed, yet again, how someone in American society is always able to captivate the corporate media by spinning doomsday yarns, whether it be Y2K or the upcoming 2012 end of the Mayan calendar (further manifest in the outpouring of Hollywood apocalypse films).
Though, to be clear, it is not merely the entertainment media that succumb to this lowest common denominator (fear sells), it is the news media as well, in the forms of Junk Food News and News Abuse (see chapter 3) and relentless power elite propaganda (see the Truth Emergency section of this volume).
In the realm of the “serious” traditional institutional news media in the US, increasingly, speculation masquerades as fact, gossip, and tripe stand in for analysis, and the titillating and inane trump the sober and sane. The ongoing corporate media feeding frenzy at the trough of the factually groundless and absurd has only intensified over the past decade, whether promulgating faux fears—from killer bee attacks to various flu viruses—or pushing nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and the Orwellian, nebulously defined yet unending War on Terror. Fear and innuendo rule the headlines of the day while tele- vision news programs are dominated by opinion journalism, empty technological displays, and elaborate computer graphics (perhaps casting the shadows in Plato’s cave). In short, for establishment “news” as we have known it in the last quarter of the twentieth cen- tury, it really is the “end of times,” and no amount of “reform” attenuating the current commercially dominated system from the top down will likely resuscitate it, at least in journalistic terms.
That there is a crisis in journalism seems to be understood by many scholars and independent journalists, while many in the corporate media don’t seem to notice, or at least don’t mention it much. Further, they do not divulge much in terms of the challenges we face in the twenty-first century as the corporate media flood the airwaves with celebrity tales and misinformation. The overall so-called “mainstream” reporting in the United States is the equivalent to fiddling while Rome burns. And make no mistake, the US is an empire, and we are in decay. We the People of these United States already stand at a very real precipice—the potential end of what has been deemed the Great American Experiment, the institutional embodiment of human freedom protected by government of, by, and for the people. Meanwhile, the corporate media fill so-called news time with faux-angst, Astroturf platforms, cult-of-personality disorders, and one manufactured irrelevant crisis after another in what appears to be a Herculean effort to avoid telling the public what is really going on at home and abroad—with the economy, with the environment, in Afghanistan, Libya, or in Fukushima, Japan. In short, the establishment press in America is not telling people what is really going wrong and how, and what we can start doing about it as a society. The Fourth Estate is dead to the people.
America in the first decade of the twenty-first century is experiencing a decline of epic proportions in terms of the performance and accessibility of its economy, the efficacy of its civil institutions under constitutional law, and the ability to deliver the promise of what was known as the American Dream to all that strove for it in earnest. But, perhaps this is not so surprising given the recent past, at least for those that know it in spite of the fact that the so-called mainstream media in America has done a good deal to not report on what is really going on in the world, and at home. The late comic and critic George Carlin once said, “It’s called the ‘American Dream’ because you have to be asleep to believe it.” Based on our current circumstances, Carlin’s quip seems sage.
Of course, for many, the promises of equality and democracy that lie within the American Dream ethos never existed in the history of the United States. Certainly, racism, sexism, classism, and imperialism, have all played the role of antagonist to said promises. However, America’s founding documents were particularly rife with rhetorical flourishes that were supportive of liberty, freedom of expression, the pursuit of happiness—all of which actually sprouted many social and political movements that changed American culture by striving toward those founding principles, achieving them in varying degrees. In this regard, America has succeeded in realizing the essence of some of its promises. But in reality, the US, in historical terms, has fallen short in myriad ways across the demographic spectrum and that trend is not abating. This is in large part due to Americans’ reliance on institutional reform over implementation of revolutionary ideals and actions as tools for change. We are in need of such radical action now.
Arguably, the root of these aforementioned problems within democracy, beyond exclusion or manipulation of the franchise, chiefly resides in the controlling of public information and education, and access to it. Thomas Jefferson once offered a possible solution to these issues when he wrote, “The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.” The focus then is to achieve a truly free press and a literate citizenry in maintenance of democratic government.
More recently, this was purportedly the focus of the organizers and A-list participants of the National Conference on Media Reform this past spring in the historic (once revolutionary?) city of Boston. Certainly groups like Free Press and the Media Consortium, among many others, have pursued laudable media democracy causes. However, and most respectfully stated, some of the reformers and key participants of the event are also part of the establishment media and political system (Federal Communications Commission [FCC], Congress). These people have fallen short of achieving reform goals, noble as they may be, by working through the current system.
We the People should go straight to the root of our problems with media, which means taking a radical approach in dealing with the cur- rent problems of our supposed free press, to ensure that all are, as Jefferson put it, safe. For starters, we should move well beyond reformist calls for attenuating institutional dials, changing a few metaphorical channels, or appointing new FCC commissioners. This has not worked. The root of democracy is with the people, in education, in media literacy, in civic awareness. The path to change comes from the people, not the president. That we move beyond a reform ethos concentrated on elite media control must be agreed upon by all those aware of the problem in order for real change to take place. And while moving beyond reform, we cannot succumb to a top-down- initiated “hope and change we can believe in,” which was promised yet never delivered after the 2008 election, on which many reformers focused great efforts to no avail. These eventual outcomes of reform serve to create a subculture of acceptance in defeat, living to fight again . . . in another four years.
That is a cyclical game. And we have played it for a long time. It is true that reforms play a role in radical changes, though they are merely steps to paradigmatic shifts. The time to unite, face reality, and act to rebuild a new and relevant democracy on the foundation of a truly free press is upon us as we are now in dire straits as a country, as a world, from economic collapse to environmental destruction. A People’s Media Revolution is the vehicle for such a change—and it is, in some parts of the world, indeed in America, at the tips of our fingers.
Like falling empires of old, the US today is mired in multi-front, unilateral wars and is engaging in new ones that are ongoing, all while living well beyond its means at home, ignoring domestic affairs when not outright waging internal wars against those who actually expect elected and appointed officials to live up to our founding Enlighten- ment principles. These current so-called “wars on terror” have cost over $3 trillion to date and occupy a great deal of time of political leaders. All the while, the US boasts record declines in middle- and working-class incomes and opportunities; a jobless “recovery” in the wake of the economic collapse of 2008 (caused in large part by the biggest banks on Wall Street, which subsequently were not held accountable and instead bailed out at taxpayer expense); a crumbling infrastructure; failing schools (including public and private charter schools); abysmal records on access and quality of health care given the overall wealth and technological prowess of the country; rising infant mortality rates; increasing homelessness; skyrocketing foreclo- sures; collapse of community development and nonprofit support systems; faulty elections procedures; the use of torture abroad and at home; an encroaching police state and erosion of the rule of law; an increasing lack of transparency with more attacks on whistle- blowers . . . the list goes on and on. Though don’t expect to hear this on the ever-consolidating, oligopoly-owned “news” media.
Last but not least, we suffer a hyperreal condition as a society, spurred on by fearful, factless, and feckless news programming by the nation’s supposed leading journalistic outlets. This is why most people in America do not seem to notice the inevitable descent. America is so disconnected that, even while individuals may suffer in large numbers, they lack a collective adhesive in a modern media landscape. They erroneously believe they suffer alone, and thanks to corporate media propaganda, are often afraid of the wrong things. Yet, a truly free press should help build and protect democracy for the people, not destroy it.
All this is taking place in what appears to be absolute decline across the board for most Americans as the upper few percent of the population control most of the nation’s wealth. A real free press would tell us to forget the gross domestic product (GDP) and focus on community building, local banking, and public works programs, not abstract market fluctuations and foreign exchange rates. America is a debtor nation within its population and has not made much outside of weapons and related technologies accompanied by military-industrial- media complex propaganda/advertising for years—all masquerading as official foreign policy and the “news.” The US government, along with this massive military-industrial-media complex, has now armed the world to the teeth to justify a permanent warfare state. As I write this, we are involved in six wars . . . and counting. (According to the Nation Institute’s Tom Engelhardt, these include Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and what used to be called the Global War on Terror, which may mark a record for simultaneous wars in US his- tory—unbeknownst to the public.) However, the Obama administration and its media lapdogs are careful not to refer to any of these as “wars,” even if that is exactly what they are, and they are bankrupting the empire.
America, its government of and by corporations over the people (especially after the Citizens United case), is now locked in a self-created, last-ditch effort to occupy the nether regions of oil, industrial capitalism’s dwindling lifeblood. The US forces the rest of the world to trade on the dollar to maintain global hegemony, funding its expansion of over a thousand military bases in over 130 countries. Meanwhile, China, Russia, and several South American countries are already operating outside this monetary imposition, which, as the late scholar and author of the Blowback trilogy Chalmers Johnson argued, is what would spell the end of American empire: fiscal bankruptcy. The collapse of the dollar would hasten that, as was reported in last year’s most censored story in Censored 2011. Indeed, that time draws nigh. The cry for austerity from ostentatious leaders rings hollow across the land as US leaders spend billions (and now trillions) on the wars for empire. But at home, it’s all “tightening of the belts,” belts that are slowly becoming tourniquets for democracy.
Don’t expect the so-called mainstream media to explain all this to the public. After all, according to the mainstream media in the US, there are teachers to blame and public workers to vilify, and there is an ever-ready supply of immigrant populations to enslave or deport as well as invasions to carry out on exotic lands Americans can’t find on a map in efforts to rout evildoers who supposedly cause our current calami- ties. (And let’s not forget that in actuality, it is the corporate media, but the term “mainstream” is used so often people tend to forget it is not at all mainstream.) And when this “news” gets too heavy, big media in the US can intersperse a steady diet of Junk Food News on which Americans can vicariously feast—celebrity gossip and sport spectacles ranging from Charlie Sheen’s Tiger Blood meltdown and Bristol Palin’s Dancing with the Stars scandal to the next Super Bowl and more March Madness, all in hopes that the problems we all face in the real world will simply just go away. But they won’t. They only get bigger.
These are the same issues many in the media reform movement also decry, and rightfully so. Reform efforts have been laudable, and there are many that continue to work toward creating better, more truthful, and democratic media (see chapter 5). But the solutions many reformers offer mostly seem to involve “fixing the system,” by focusing on the influence of advertisers or regulating ownership, which to date have not achieved reformer objectives. Other reformers want the government to step in to “fix the system” by creating a public media, without noting that government has played a big role in the current problem; even while public media is under attack by Congress, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) have hardly stood out in major ways to challenge the plutocracy in the name of the people. A publicly subsidized free press is a good idea, but get- ting there is another story, one that likely does not involve the current, or a future, Congress or the FCC, at least if the past is prologue.
These reform notions do not go to the root of the problem, they do not map out a radical solution. And, despite reformers’ benevolent instincts and intentions, don’t always expect reformers that criticize the big media messengers’ behaviors to realize that the system they spend so much time trying to repair is now defunct—not that it ever existed in a democratically utopian means in the first place. This is why we, the media-literate citizens of this dying republic, must now move beyond reform to create a new way.
We need to Be the Media in word and deed (as David Mathison has said), not lobby those in power to reform their own current establishment megaphones for their own power elite agendas, as that will not happen, and indeed, has not, for the most part, in the past. In order to achieve real change, we need not have elaborate conferences that rely on power elite voices, their foundation monies, and their apologetic reformist rhetoric. We need to embody the true change channeled by nineteenth-century American activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton when she said, “Reformers who are always compromising have not yet grasped the idea that truth is the only safe ground to stand upon.” Indeed.
The time to speak truth to power—to media power elites, their political allies, and their funders—is now. Media Reform is an important movement, but it should not be seen as the only path to creating a more just and democratic media system. More radical approaches are needed at this point. So just say “no” to reform-driven agendas delivered as so much managed news propaganda, and instead embrace the possibilities of a radical media democracy in action, of, by, and for the people. Show it with actions through citizen journalism and through support of local and independent, non-corporate, community media. Real change only begins with radical action on the local level. That’s the only way a truly free press can be created, preserved, and nurtured to be a tool of the people and not the reformers with their unrequited overtures to the media power elite. The time to act is now. As Robert McChesney said, “Let’s have a real communication revolution.” We may not have time enough for the next reform conference to save us, despite all the best intentions. We are the media revolution of tomorrow. But we must act today.
Copyright ©2011 by Mickey Huff
A Seven Stories Press First Edition
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