The recent outburst of criticism of Donald Trump for his manipulation of the media has got me thinking about some of the conclusions I drew from my experience as a worker in the journalistic trade.
I began in 1945 in small newspapers in New Zealand, three of them, all privately owned by wealthy families, followed it up by working for a similar newspaper in northern Queensland, Australia, I then took some time off to work as a social worker (ineffectively, I have to say, in all honesty) in India three years after millions of people had been displaced and/or murdered by the British-mandated division of India into Hindu and Muslim nations (an idea super-charged for disaster), then went on to Britain where I worked for more than a year successfully in another small local newspaper in the much-damaged (by the war),but politically radical city of Coventry, continued my small-newspaper experience after emigration to Canada in a Thomson newspaper in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, before migrating for the first time into a largish newspaper in Winnipeg, and finally to The Montreal Star, the first (and last) big-city newspaper of my experience.
That is quite a mouthful of experience, and I am slightly proud that I have been able to reduce it all into one sentence of 162 words --- almost certainly the longest I have ever written in my life ---- by applying the journalistic tricks I have learned along the way.
However, back to my conclusions: I emerged from my experience of the beast with very much the same conclusions that I accepted soon after joining the trade in 1945. Frankly, I never had any real reason to complain of how I was treated, but that was because from the first I always knew exactly what sort of thing I could write that would be acceptable to the rich people who owned the newspapers I worked for, and the army of editors, sub-editors and the like who loyally carried out their royal wishes.
In other words I have to confess that throughout hte experience I exercised a subtle form of self-censorship, without which I always knew my tenure would be brief: if I stepped over the line, just once, out I would go, no doubt about it.
Now, this experience has to be measured, as it always has been in my mind, against the persistent claims of the privately-owned newspaper business that they are the guardians of democracy, a formulation that the loyal employee-journalists --- among whom I never counted myself --- effortlessly accepted.
The refutation of this propagandistic ethic simply lies in the facts: in every country I have worked in, an overwhelming preponderance of newspapers politically supported the conservative forces in society, forces that they conceived to be the prop holding up and making possible the operations of the entire capitalist system.
All right, on to the present: I was shocked to read the other day that 250 medias outlets have closed in Canada in the last 10 years, in 190 separate communities. In the United States one-fifth of all newspapers, 1800 in all, 500 in rural areas, and nearly 1300 in metropolitan areas, have folded since 2004, leaving just over 7,000 weeklies and dailies remaining in print.
These are large numbers, and the reason for tem seems to be that the wealthy corporate advertisers whose money has always supported the media outlets, have transferred their support to the internet, which seems nowadays to claim more readership, at a fraction of the cost of running a newspaper, or even a privately-owned, or community-owned radio station.
To me, if these figures are sending us any message, it is that democracy --- the free exercise of differing opinions --- is unsafe in the hands of its self-promoted guardians, the wealthy people who own media outlets. The burden of my argument against news outlets as the guardians of our freedoms as always been that these outlets are more interested in making money than in providing information, free, unfettered, and balanced: I have always criticized media outlets, but particularly the ones of which I have personal experience, the printed outlets, on their lack of a comprehensive attitude to all of life’s happenings. The obvious example is the disparity between the media’s fascination with stock shares and bond prices and the Wall street activity, of interest primarily to the super-wealthy, compared with the virtual absence of news about the union movement, the condition of workers, or any concern about the freedom of workers to choose their own future, or of their unions to guarantee defence of their inalienable rights.
These declines in unionism are more pronounced in the United States, where the overall rate has fallen to 11 per cent of unionized workers, but even in Canada the rate has fallen from 38 per cent in the early 1980s, to 28.6 per cent now, a figure which has been rescued from more drastic decline by the strong unionization of public service workers in Canada. To be sure, the media hostility to unions has played its part in these declines. And it is no surprise that unions membership and the protection it offers workers is regarded as hostile by most media outlets. That is in the nature of capitalism, and of the acquisition of capital in a few hands. Far from pursuing those objective of unions, the media have encouraged the lavishly-funded industry that has grown around professional agitators whose job is to destroy or damage the union movement. Again, this “industry”, the hostility-to-unions industry
is consonant with a bias built into the capitalist system.
I have to say that in the days I was making my criticisms along those lines, I had never heard the expression “fake news”. Only since the accession to power of Donald Trump, one of nature’s born liars, has this expression gained currency, and I am surprised --- if I were more dramatic, I might say, shocked --- by how easily the general public have embraced the expression, and begun to apply it to the news provided to them every day by the media in general.
Of course, as usual, Donald Trump, while trumpeting his concern about fake news, is the worst man for anyone to follow: for he considers any outlet that has ever criticized him to be peddling fake news, and he is also able to mock the failing economic status of the major news outlets. It seem to me perfectly logical that these problems should have arisen in a media environment that has been invaded by major corporations that made their money at other pursuits, and have no interest in news or information, except to the extent that it must support their corporate interests.
At the moment it is hard to see what is likely to settle down from all of this. Although the internet is providing a huge increase in radical critical examinations of society, none of it really reaches a mass audience. It is left to what is now called “the social media”, namely platforms like Google, Facebook and Amazon, on which every person can turn himself or herself into his own journalist, to really undermine the whole concept of truth in information. Encouraged by Trump, the King Tweeter, as it were, apparently the most vile lies and scurrilous accusations have become everyday happenings, a level to which even the capitalist-owned press seldom sank. .Governments have begun to ponder how this awful stuff can be restrained, but governments are now suffering from the anti-government bias entrenched over the decades of Reagan/Thatcherism by the privately-owned media moguls themselves.
Governments, according to the conservative mantra, are not to be trusted with the information system. I have said it before, as a person who has worked for both government-owned and privately-owned media, there is no significant advantage to the private media so far as its claim to be the guardian of our rights is concerned.
It is a long time now since Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman wrote the ground-breaking book Manufacturing Consent, published in 1988, which once and for all established the built-in tendency towards conservative values of the mass media, and which has given rise to a veritable industry of examination through books, films, lectures, symposia, and academic follow-up that attest to its immense value as a tool of education, and a guide to the future
It seems to me that the old argument between publicly- and privately-owned media is now démodé: surely it is now proven, except to the most dyed-in-the-wool capitalist, that the privately-owned media have failed in their mission to distribute information in an unbiased, honest and straightforward way. They have been, as it were, hoist with their own petard, the financial collapse of privately-owned media, caused by the many new technologies that have overcome us in recent years, having created a huge vacuum in the production and distribution of news.
Ironically, as we have more information than ever before in history, and are faced with the urgent need to decide how to handle this information to the best advantage of humankind, other creatures and the planet, the private media system has almost collapsed, or seems in danger of doing so. Another irony is that the United States, in this perilous time for the future stability of the Earth, has come under the control of an ignorant, impulsive and compulsive liar who seems to have no moral centre fitting him for his office.
I think it is going to be a question of, “hang on to your hats, lads,” unless this idiot can somehow be dislodged at the next election—something that seems confusingly both more likely and less likely as every day follows another --- so that the serious business of distributing information can be stabilized.
And it is obvious that this can only happen with the help of governments. It is time to move on to more permanent solutions, including government funded solutions, to the economic problems media face.