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JOHN CHUCKMAN COMMENT: OUR APPROACHING BRAVE NEW WORLD – OLD CLICHES ABOUT THE PRESS AS TRIBUNE FOR THE PEOPLE OR FOURTH ESTATE – THE PRESS’S EXAGGERATED IMPORTANCE TO DEMOCRACY AND WESTERN VALUES – ITS ACTUAL HISTORICAL ROLE – WHAT I FEAR THE FUTURE HOLDS FOR THE CONCEPT OF A FREE SOCIETY   Leave a comment

John Chuckman

EXPANSION OF A COMMENT POSTED TO AN ARTICLE BY NEIL MACDONALD IN CBC NEWS

 

“If newspaper health is a measure of democracy, our democracy is in decline: Neil Macdonald

“Newsrooms would mount costly, complex investigations that took teams of reporters out of play for months”

 

The costs of doing the classic newspaper journalistic operations – such investigative reporting and maintaining foreign correspondents – have risen greatly while newspapers’ sources of revenue have declined seriously.

It’s a new set of conditions created in large part by the Internet, where new kinds of businesses have taken the revenue that once belonged to newspapers – the best example being classified advertising.

And I really don’t think there’s any going back. Changing technology is always like that. It destroys old ways of doing things, forever. It’s Joseph Schumpeter’s principle of the “creative destruction of capitalism” writ large.

Technological advance always brings change to economic, social, and political conditions in any society – e.g., the original invention of the printing press itself went on to create books accessible to everyone (not a favorable development to authorities of the time), to become a force for public education, and to create newspapers plus a whole lot more.

I think it fair to say that the traditional newspaper represents now a kind of dead-end business model. It is likely to disappear as the existing generation of devoted users passes.

I do not necessarily agree with the statement about the press and its meaning for democracy. Journalists and editors have always had a somewhat exaggerated notion of their central importance. And newspapers, on the whole, for a couple of centuries, have no record of serving as genuine tribunes of the people against power.

Listening to people who are out to earn a living pat themselves on the back with distinctions such as serving as the nation’s “fourth estate” does sometimes reach vomit-inducing levels.

Newspapers have instead supported power, remembering corporations need to keep on the good side of government as well as on the good side of other powerful private establishment interests, and they have often misrepresented the reality of events to people. Just as in wartime, when we know newspapers typically become blatant propaganda outlets for the cause. It’s only somewhat less the case in peaceful times.

And who is it that has been at the very center of the explosive controversy over “fake news” in recent years, if not traditional newspapers and broadcasters? A lot of that controversy is artificially ginned up and reflects the power of the Internet to communicate even paranoia, but a lot of it is genuine and reflects the long history of the traditional press serving power while pretending to serve the people.

Of course, the same charges can be made against many, or most, of the people making charges against the traditional press. New “news” sources on the Internet are just as likely to be biased in their own fashion and to be catering to various moneyed or special interests as the old ones. There are very few heroic Assange or Manning figures out there. Almost none. Careers are not made that way.

Yes, a democracy, in theory, needs to be informed, however, first, I think it important to acknowledge that we, in fact, have no actual democracies in the West. And second, newspapers, generally have not played much of a role in trying to keep people informed.

Our “democracies” are all variations on a theme of making citizens believe they are central and important, when, in fact, we are still ruled by the power of wealth, much as France was in 1780. It’s all subtly diffused and disguised now. Realities are not so crudely obvious as they once were.

We have an entertaining Theater of Democracy with continuous-run performances in the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Canada, and other places.

Only big sources of money and special interest lobbies in the West support all significant political parties, not ordinary people, and they want and receive a return on their investment.

Second, newspapers have never really performed the pure function of keeping citizens informed. Never. Oh, yes, they have with sports scores or stock prices or travel information but not with the intimate workings of government and its agencies or in international affairs. The sports, weather, and travel stuff builds newspaper credibility in readers, but readers mostly have no way to judge what they are being given on the important topics. At least, not until many years later when the information becomes useless, being degraded almost as by entropy.

There are likely few newspapers in America today which do not agree about what a “tragedy” the Vietnam War was, but that is not what any of them said fifty-five years ago, when it counted, when three million Vietnamese faced extermination in a crusade against communism just as intense and bloody as the battle between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries. In effect, newspapers are able to publish elaborate retractions of all the fraudulent stories of years ago and go on pretending they are on the side of the angels

The New York Times, for example, which enjoys a better, if truly undeserved, reputation than most, plays that game endlessly. It is a sickening exercise if you observe it over time. Indeed, the years-later stories on terrible, avoidable events, such as the Vietnam War or CIA coups, enable The Times to titillate readers with “revelations,” in effect, bolstering a reputation for investigation and truth that it never deserved. It’s called, by an earlier generation, having your cake and eating it, too.

Newspapers and broadcasters have always served as servants for the powerful and wealthy and as mouthpieces for various power-establishment factions, including government itself.

The entire reason we had all those newspaper empires and barons, people such as Conrad Black or Rupert Murdoch or William Randolph Hearst in the past, was because they were men who wanted to wield power without being elected, to influence opinion, both among citizens and inside government. That has been the aim of every single large news empire, without exception.

Also, the whole concept of freedom of the press has always been a bit of an illusion. It was best summed by the wag who said, “If you want a free press, you must own one.”

Not only is the old newspaper model almost dead, so is the model for our Western “free societies.” The term is starting to sound very dated and stale. The amount of repressive legislation, government spying, secrecy, false official investigations, and ignoring of what we regarded as basic rights has grown at an alarming rate, as have the number of, and resources for, secret agencies and police forces of every description.

Technology greatly assists spying and police effort, just as it’s destroying traditional newspapers. The Stasi never dreamed of such information systems as we have now in the West. Every time you order something from Amazon or do something on Facebook or look something up in Wikipedia or use Google to find something, you are automatically feeding government and huge private corporations information about yourself, quite intimate information.

Our governments, for the most part, have not prevented this with legislation, for obvious reasons.

It’s the same thing if you order your blood or your DNA analyzed for health purposes or for some information about your genetic origins or have your family history traced from a service. All the security services receive anything worth having. Do an on-line financial transaction? The same thing.

The public seems content with this form of voluntary confession to the authorities and corporations, even though it is intrusive and revealing beyond all precedents. It actually resembles the model of the Catholic Church with weekly confession, except that now the confessions are recorded and correlated by supercomputers. The Church was undoubtedly on to something important about human psychology ages ago, but then, at that time, it, in fact, represented the kind of power and privilege we are talking about.

Big Brother no longer needs Room 101 or the Thought Police in jackboots with truncheons, for the most part, although in special cases of urgency, these are very much still used, as at Guantanamo or the other CIA “black sites” in the international torture gulag.

I believe that this trend is only going to continue. The needs of a powerful world empire such as that of the United States drive us in that direction, absolutely. Remember, abroad, the United States doesn’t even pretend to the niceties of rights or basic principles like rule of law. We have CIA torture gulags, we have assassinations in wholesale numbers, we have threats and pressures against every government and international agency that even moderately opposes American policy. We have coups and wars and bombings. Why would anyone expect that such measures will not become incorporated into domestic society by the people so used to them?

The government of the United States does things weekly that it has no interest in most people ever knowing anything about. And it has become almost paranoid about opponents to its policies, seeking them out and even hunting them down.

We are, I believe, entering a kind of brave new world which few of us could have anticipated, something immensely more sophisticated and impersonal and efficient than Orwell’s 1984, a story actually intended to satirize Stalin’s Soviet Union.

All the traditional views and understandings of society, developed over the past couple of centuries, are likely going to pass. I’m sure, eventually, so are such traditional and basic things as the decision about having children. It will no longer be up to the individuals at some point in the not too distant future in Western countries.

I’m not sure what’s going to be put in place of traditional views, but it will be far cry from things like Bills or Charters of Rights, Freedom of Information, the importance of individuals (at least, ones who are not wealthy), and an informed electorate.

It is not a bright outlook, but I think there is no avoiding the direction of things, short of such cataclysms as great war or economic collapse, but even such fabric-of-society-destroying events would only put things off for a while. The forces have been set loose on the world. Pandora’s box has been opened.

 

 

 

 

Posted May 8, 2019 by JOHN CHUCKMAN in Uncategorized

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