As a strong believer in the Trump administration's ability to do great harm to our democracy, I was naturally left with an ominous feeling when, during a press conference three days ago, the president demonized the media for more than a little often portraying him negatively. When I witnessed the reactions that this incident typically received from the representatives of the media establishment itself, though, I started to get a similarly uneasy feeling.
The narrative that the major media and its fans have consistently and slyly tried to promote following Trump's remarks is one which has left little room for nuance. Outlets like CNN and The New York Times, we've been told in ways subtle and not almost every time we've been exposed to talk of Trump's comments, are obviously very reliable sources if Trump attacks them. How dare he call organizations like these fake news, the aghast TV pundits have said, earnestly frowning at this egregious offense while conversing on split screens (I'm talking about something I actually saw, by the way). Perhaps to protest the injustice of it, they'll organize a "National Freedom of the Press Day" where everyone tries to constantly read and watch the information that they provide.
If you're someone from my target audience, you no doubt know why I'm refusing to defend the major media. And if not, you can read Caitlin Johnstone's brilliant and righteous explanation for why she isn't defending these organizations either. But whether or not you insofar agree with me, I think we ought to revisit some of the things the major media outlets have done to lose the respect of me and more than two-thirds of the rest of the American public.
Again, I'd like to make it clear that not all of what these media outlets produce can't be trusted, or that the way Trump attacked them isn't petty and hyperbolic. But the fact remains that in spite of all the hand-wringing about the freedom of the press being endangered, we already have a mainstream media that's been manipulated towards being a tool for narrow, power-serving interests. By this I of course mean that virtually all of the major American news organizations are controlled by powerful corporations.
It hasn't always been like this. Before corporations and the super rich pulled off their coup within the U.S. government around forty years ago, more than 50 companies controlled the majority of American media sources. But by the time Bill Clinton signed the infamous Telecommunications Act, that number had been cut into a fifth of what it had once been, with Clinton's 1996 deregulation law acting only as an extra push to the rolling snowball of media consolidation that had been happening for decades. So it was no surprise that by the early 2000's (when 5 corporations controlled the majority of the media), these news organizations famously showed a staggering amount of bias towards the interests of the corporate state, with the major media having made no effort to question the Bush administration's WMD claims prior to the Iraq War, purposely taken down the campaign of Howard Dean, and generally acted as propaganda outlets for the White House and its agenda.
Since then, the concentration of media ownership has gotten even worse if that's possible, with 5 companies controlling 90% of U.S. media outlets. This has naturally made it so that the mainstream media's behavior during this last election cycle, which I'll mainly be focusing on in this article, has been stunningly power-serving.
I'll of course start with big media's coverage of the early months of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Sanders himself has found it worthwhile to review the way he was treated by the corporate media in his book Our Revolution, wherein he rightfully complained about the media blackout which surrounded him during that time. Just as the major media goes out of its way to cover things like sports and celebrity gossip rather than things like climate change and economic injustice, wrote Sanders, it predictably went out of its way to cover things like Donald Trump and trivial political gossip rather than Sanders and the issues he was trying to bring to the table. He recounted his experiences with the major news networks wherein the interviewers, reporters or debate moderators tried to steer clear of focusing on Sanders' message and instead asked him questions like "Do you think it’s fair that Hillary’s hair gets a lot more scrutiny than yours does?" (he was really asked that, by the way). He cited the incredible statistics about just how much effort the major media put into avoiding giving him exposure, such as the fact that as of December 2015, Jeb Bush had received 56 minutes of combined network news coverage compared to Sanders' 10 minutes.
The media blackout of the Sanders campaign was undeniably prevalent, and it greatly tipped the scales against him. However, what I find the most notable about the media's treatment of Sanders is not the instances where it ignored him and his ideas, but the instances where it directly attacked his anti-corporate agenda. As Thomas Frank assessed in his essay Swat Team about how the people who run outlets like the Washington Post viewed Sanders' goals, "As we shall see, for the sort of people who write and edit the opinion pages of the Post, there was something deeply threatening about Sanders and his political views. He seems to have represented something horrifying, something that could not be spoken of directly but that clearly needed to be suppressed."
And so in a great deal of cases, the corporate media decided to skip the step of simply pretending like Sanders' ideas weren't relevant to the political scene and go straight to attacking them. This may have first been apparent in December 2015, when The New Yorker published an article titled What Hillary Clinton Gets (and Bernie Sanders doesn't) About Wall Street. The piece's author, who revealingly says that they work in the financial sector, attempts to distract from the fact that a new financial crisis is now inevitable because the economy has been largely turned over to a handful of mega-banks whose business model is based on debt accumulation and fraud by discussing the relative decline of profits on Wall Street in recent years, while not addressing the now greater-than-ever financialization of the economy. "So why is Sanders so obsessed with Glass-Steagall and the big banks?" they wrote after making this evasive counter-argument. "It seems to be a matter of personal style and historical tradition: as a socialist, Sanders is echoing political ancestors who railed against Big Banks, Big Oil, Big Everything. He also appears to be fighting the last war, of the 2008 financial crisis, out of a conviction that the 'too big to fail' banks still pose a systemic risk to the economy."
And as the campaign went on, the efforts from the Big Media (does my use of that term make me a "socialist" too?) to paint Sanders' agenda as something absurd continued. Also in December of 2015, recounts Frank in Swat Team, the New York Times published an article that criticized Sanders' focus on the hollowing out of the middle class by declaring that "Americans are more anxious about terrorism than income inequality." You can stop with the class rhetoric now, Senator, most of the 7 in 10 Americans who have less than $1000 in savings just don't have money on their minds anymore. This condescending presumption about the beliefs of Americans, along with the slander that Sanders is a socialist, were both echoed, as Swat Team said, with a January Post article titled Nominating Sanders Would Be Insane which stated that Sanders couldn't win because "socialists don’t win national elections in the United States." Indeed, socialists probably don't. But non-socialists whose views are shared by the vast majority of Americans most certainly do.
And on and on went the barrage of neoliberal propaganda. Stop Reviling TARP, Frank recounts one Post editorial read regarding Sanders' opposition to the disastrous Wall Street bailouts before giving a simplistic and inaccurate history of the cause and aftermath of the financial crisis. Level With Us, Mr. Sanders, Frank says a headline piece in the Post blared indignantly before denouncing Sanders with the familiar charge of his ideas not being practical. And in some cases, as Frank wrote, the Post's attacks on Sanders got so nakedly pro-corporate that they were one step away from a literal endorsement of an oligarchic model for society:
The paper’s piling-up of the senator’s faults grew increasingly long and complicated. Soon after Sanders won the New Hampshire primary, the editorial board denounced him and Trump both as “unacceptable leaders” who proposed “simple-sounding” solutions. Sanders used the plutocracy as a “convenient scapegoat.” He was hostile to nuclear power. He didn’t have a specific recipe for breaking up the big banks. He attacked trade deals with “bogus numbers that defy the overwhelming consensus among economists.” This last charge was a particular favorite of Post pundits: David Ignatius and Charles Lane both scolded the candidate for putting prosperity at risk by threatening our trade deals. Meanwhile, Charles Krauthammer grew so despondent over the meager 2016 options that he actually pined for the lost days of the Bill Clinton presidency, when America was tough on crime, when welfare was being reformed, and when free trade was accorded its proper respect.Hostility towards real Wall Street reform and a defense of the bailouts. The assertion that economic inequality isn't much of a problem. The lie that anyone who doesn't subscribe to the corporate ideology is on the political fringe. The implication that there isn't a plutocracy right now in America. The endorsement of neoliberal trade deals, mass incarceration, and neglecting the needs of the poor. When you pay close attention to the nature of the corporate media's attacks on Sanders throughout the campaign, it becomes clear that the oligarchs who control outlets like the Times and the Post aren't shy to use them as tools to promote their self-serving views.
And the media's offensive towards the Sandersist political brand has continued beyond the day that the media itself helped get Sanders out of race by declaring Clinton had clinched the nomination right before the California primary. To make extra sure that a non-corporate candidate wouldn't win in 2016, the corporate media started a smear campaign against the Green Party's Jill Stein after the convention, prompting Counterpunch's Peter Lavenia to write regarding the motivations behind this decision: "Marx once opined that 'the ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class,' and in an era of (potential) mass political upheaval, the media plays an active role in silencing dissent to those ideas. Indeed, they are linked to the continued profits generated by the political order." To assure themselves that a non-corporate candidate couldn't have won in 2016 in any case, neoliberal columnists have been writing op-eds saying Sanders wouldn't have beaten Trump. And to make sure a non-corporate candidate doesn't win the next time around, the Washington Post has lately been slandering Tulsi Gabbard.
"Keep in mind," writes Caitlin Johnstone in another piece telling the corporate media to get over being called fake news, "this is the mainstream media crying victim right now. These people wear suits that cost more than I make in a year, and right now, they’re mopping up their crocodile tears with a sleeve that would feed both our families for a month. Somewhere along the line they’ve taken up the Taylor Swift challenge of loudly playing the victim card while quietly stealing the spoils, which is pretty much the whitest thing a person can do. Remember that these people were responsible for relentlessly broadcasting the WMD story, a fake news invention that sent the world in a war-driven death spiral from which we have not recovered. They’ve published so many pernicious lies as truth over the years that those reporting a great deal of trust in the mainstream media is now below ten percent. They invented the pejorative specifically to destroy alternative media, but now they’re all Scarlett O’Hara 'Hand me the smelling salts!' about it being used anywhere in their vicinity? Yeah, I’m not buying it."
When you see Trump and these news organizations dramatically clashing, you are witnessing a side show designed to keep you unaware that both of them depend on the other to keep their respective charades going. Trump needs the Democratic Party establishment that the corporate media represents to keep up his easy job of having a weak political opposition, and even Trump is smart enough to know it seeing as he preferred to be running against Hillary Clinton rather than Bernie Sanders. And the establishment Democrats need Trump's utter awfulness to keep up their role in the public eye as the "not exactly perfect" but necessary lesser evil.
It's time for the American people to stop buying into the kinds of manipulative, power-serving political theatrics that we're seeing with this outrage over the corporate media being accurately called fake news. And to include yet another article from Johnstone, that's exactly what they're doing.