edited by O Society August 17, 2019
Let’s discuss an issue that gets far too little attention — for obvious reasons.
In our campaign we are taking on Wall Street, the insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, the fossil fuel companies, the military industrial complex, the prison industrial complex and the 1 percent. In other words, we are taking on the corporate elite and the billionaire class who exercise enormous power over the economic and political life of the country.
It is no shock to me the big networks and news organizations, which are owned and controlled by a handful of large corporations, either barely discuss our campaign or write us off when they do.
When we trail in a poll, it gets endless coverage.
When a poll is great for us, it barely gets a mention.
When someone out-raises us in fundraising, it’s non-stop news.
When we have the most donations by far, of any other candidate, here comes the coverage about who has the most “crossover donors,” whatever that means.
We’ve said from the start we will have to take on virtually the entire media establishment in this campaign, and so far this is proven to be true.
Ok. Fine. We are ready.
But even more important than much of the corporate media’s dislike of our campaign is the fact much of the coverage in this country portrays politics as entertainment, and largely ignores the major crises facing our communities.
What I have learned from experience is as a general rule of thumb, the more important the issue is to large numbers of working people, the less interesting it is to the corporate media.
Sadly, for the corporate media, the real issues facing the American people — poverty, the decline of the middle class, income and wealth inequality, trade, health care, climate change, education etc. — are fairly irrelevant.
And sadly, when they do cover issues like Medicare for All, it is almost always about the polling or if the issue makes someone more or less “electable.” Very rarely is there discussion about why we spend twice as much per capita as other industrialized nations for worse outcomes while the health care industry made $100 billion in profits last year.
Or if the conversation does happen with any depth, it is almost always framed in conservative terms and talking points — or the ostensibly Democratic viewpoint shared by moderates from the party.
The discussion is very rarely about what it will do for people’s lives or why 30,000 people a year die in America because they can’t afford to go to a doctor when they should.
And we have to ask ourselves “why?”
Why is it the corporate media see politics as entertainment and largely ignores the major crises facing our country and how candidates address these crises?
And the answer lies with something very rarely discussed, and certainly not in the media: the corporate media is owned by a small number of large media conglomerates.
In 1983 the largest fifty corporations controlled 90 percent of the media. That’s a high level of concentration.
Today, as a result of massive mergers and takeovers, only a few large corporations like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Fox, Disney, Viacom, and CBS control the vast majority of what we see, hear, and read. And there is news Viacom and CBS want to merge next.
This is outrageous, and a real threat to our democracy.
Because in case you haven’t heard, these corporations have an agenda to serve their own bottom line.
Take, for example, Disney:
Disney, the owner of ABC, makes its products in Chinese factories where workers are paid only a few dollars per day under “nightmare conditions.” And in the United States, they utilize guest worker programs to fire Americans and replace them with lower wage foreign workers.
Further, despite making huge profits, many of the people at their parks make low wages.
I was proud to work with employees at Disneyland to raise their minimum wage to $15 an hour, but more has got to be done.
Now I could be wrong, but I don’t expect you will see programming tonight on ABC discussing the plight of low-wage workers here in the United States or, for that matter, in China.
But if you do watch TV tonight, check out how many ads come from drug companies, insurance companies, the fossil fuel industry, Wall Street, and the rest of corporate America. They even ran ads targeting Medicare for All during the CNN presidential debate.
These powerful corporations also have an agenda, and you can be sure it isn’t our agenda.
Now, Donald Trump thinks media in America are the “Enemy of the people.”
To me, this is an outrageous remark from a president, which has the purpose of undermining American democracy.
Because the truth is, a knowledgeable and informed electorate is essential to a working democracy, and the work of journalists in this country and abroad is absolutely critical to our communities and to maintaining a free society.
So it is my sincere hope that the coverage of this campaign generally, and our campaign specifically, changes in the weeks and months ahead.
It is my sincere hope we can spend more time talking in-depth about the issues facing the working people of this country and less time covering the latest scandal or political gossip.
It is my sincere hope we have a more serious discussion about the real pain working people, the elderly, the sick, and the poor are facing.
These are not people with well-paid lobbyists who know how to manipulate the system. These are people who struggle every single day but almost always are ignored by the government.
by Branko Marcetic edited by O Society
The corporate media are freaking out over Bernie’s criticism of Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post. They’re not only wrong, they’re hypocrites.
If you paid attention to the news in the last few days, you’ve probably heard about Bernie Sanders’ “dangerous, scurrilous attack” on the US media.
“Do you know how much Amazon paid in income taxes last year?” Sanders asked a crowd, prompting cries of “Zero!”
“I talk about it all of the time,” he continued, “and then I wonder why the Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, doesn’t write particularly good articles about me.”
The line instantly elicited a hurricane of denunciations from both the media and prominent Democrats. Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron dismissed it as a “conspiracy theory,” and various of the paper’s reporters chimed in to this effect, with one charging Sanders “sounds a lot like Donald Trump.” MSNBC’s Brian Williams called it a “Trump talking point,” while Meet the Press labeled it an attack on the free press after assembling a panel to rubbish the remarks. One of the participants included the Center for American Progress’ Neera Tanden, who said at a time when Trump is attacking the press, lines like Sanders’ give Democrats a queasy stomach.
There are several layers of absurdity here. One is Sanders’ point is not particularly controversial. While it’s understandable a corporate-controlled press want to pretend otherwise, there are countless examples of corporate media muzzling its own reporting, whether the wholesale silencing of anti-war voices after September 11 by companies like Disney and NBC, or the editing out of a news station’s parent company from a report on US industry’s use of shoddy materials (also NBC). A less alarming version of this also happens at the Post, which prohibits its employees from criticizing its partners and advertisers on social media.
This isn’t something that just happened back in the day, either. Last year, a standoff developed between the newsrooms and upper management in the newspaper empire of Digital First Media, or DFM, which had been bought by a hedge fund in 2010, that was now ransacking its own newspapers for profit. Editors and reporters were gagged and forbidden from writing critically about what was happening to their own paper, sometimes due to explicit directives from DFM executives, but in some cases simply because editors and publishers preemptively put a stop to such stories to avoid any potential reprisal.
That’s the other thing. As others point out, the idea corporate censorship solely, or even mostly, takes the form of someone at the top sending a memo or making a phone call — and, make no mistake, this certainly does happen — never has been the left-wing critique of a corporate press. As figures like George Seldes and Noam Chomsky explained, from our earliest days, we are enveloped by an architecture of beliefs and assumptions that tells us what we should and shouldn’t think, from popular culture to the educational system to the news.
After which, a ruthless process of self-selection means anyone deviating from this line isn’t seen or heard from. As Chomsky explained to a British reporter who balked at being accused of self-censorship:
“I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”
Second, what makes all of this particularly ironic is the very same news outlets decrying Sanders’ criticism as an unfair, Trumpian attack themselves utilize the same logic to smear reporters. CNN raced to criticize Sanders’ statements, complaining he provided no evidence of bias, yet just months earlier the network had Maffick, a left-wing news outlet, removed from Facebook largely because it received funding from the Russian government.
Unlike the coverage Sanders is complaining about, which is often either outright wrong or cartoonish in its attempts to play down the senator’s campaign and policies, CNN noted Maffick’s content “fits comfortably within fairly mainstream American politics.” In other words, its only crime is its content gelled with the Russian government’s presumed goal of “exploit[ing] existing divisions and tensions in the country.” This same mindset led the Post to earlier cast several legitimate, independent news sources as “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda,” a story Baron personally promoted.
In other words, the corporate media are entirely comfortable with casting aspersions on otherwise factual reporting based on who owns the news outlet in question, at least when who owns it is a foreign government the United States opposes. For some reason, it’s only criticism of corporate ownership which makes reporters uncomfortable.
Finally, it’s curious Sanders’ criticism launched such a furious pushback, including accusations of “attacks [on] the free press” and comparisons to Trump, when, for the past three years, prominent Democrats and liberals relentlessly attack the same media for their coverage of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, including Clinton herself. In some cases, those who lobbed the most vicious criticisms of the press are now solemnly mourning what Sanders said.
Take think tank president Neera Tanden for instance, who did just this on Meet the Press (a program, incidentally, whose host once wondered out loud whether a US journalist should be prosecuted for publishing government secrets). You can find example after example of Tanden criticizing reporters and the media for their reporting on Clinton’s email server scandal, and for having the temerity to report on the newsworthy contents of her campaign’s hacked emails.
Tanden says “every reporter who gleefully trafficked in stolen emails via WikiLeaks abetted a crime” and states “all those who printed WikiLeaks emails helped a foreign adversary.” Nothing Sanders said remotely comes close to the extreme, nearly intimidating nature of these statements from one of the country’s most influential Democrats, who herself has a habit of censoring the supposedly independent reporters whose outlet her think tank owns, and who once suggested the Clinton campaign use “brown and women pundits” to “shame the Times and others” into more positive coverage.
So harsh these criticisms are, they’ve since been internalized by reporters, some of whom now feel bad for having done their jobs and failed Clinton in her bid for the White House. The Times itself decided “every major publication” who reported on the emails had become “a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence.” Who needs an edict from above when media outlets voluntarily decree adversarial journalism is a Russian plot?
Sanders’ words afforded the media their best chance yet to trot out the lazy narrative Sanders is just another version of Trump, an outgrowth of the media’s general tendency to lump all “populists” together. We saw this line tested in last month’s Democratic debate, when Jake Tapper suggested Trump’s and Sanders’ rhetoric about ending wars potentially makes them indistinguishable to voters.
“The idea a member of the United States Congress cannot visit a nation which, by the way, we support to the tune of billions and billions of dollars is clearly an outrage.”
It’s also a testament to the ideology that prevails among America’s newsrooms, places that are still more likely to feature the voice of a “never-Trump” Republican than a socialist. These journalists genuinely don’t understand that the criticisms they have of newsrooms owned by autocratic governments might also apply to those owned by autocratic corporate leaders. Marty Baron is right when he says there’s no conspiracy; there doesn’t need to be.
by Matt Taibbi
I talk about (Amazon’s taxes) all of the time… And then I wonder why The Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, doesn’t write particularly good articles about me. I don’t know why.
Employees of the Post were put out by Sanders’ comments. They insist they hold no ill will against him for regularly bashing the man who writes their checks as one of earth’s most obnoxious plutocrats, and moreover, Sanders is wrong to make the media a “boogeyman” the way he’s turned “billionaires and corporations” into boogeymen. This “doesn’t add up,” noted the Post, going so far as to put the term “corporate media” in quotation marks, as if it were a mythical creature.
Perhaps the negativity toward Sanders isn’t over Amazon. After all, Sanders gets similar treatment from the New York Times, CNN, the Atlantic, and other outlets. Still, the Post’s Bernie fixation stands out. The paper humorously once wrote 16 negative pieces about Sanders in the space of 16 hours (e.g. “Clinton Is Running for President. Sanders Is Doing Something Else,” “Bernie Sanders Pledges the US Won’t Be No. 1 in Incarceration. He’ll Need to Release Lots of Criminals,”etc).
The Post in 2017 asked readers how Democrats would “cope” with the Kremlin backing Bernie Sanders with “dirty tricks” in 2020. In April of this year it described the Sanders campaign as a Russian plot to help elect Donald Trump. They’ve run multiple stories about his “$575,000 lake house,” ripping his “socialist hankering” for real estate. “From each according to his ability,” the paper quipped, “to each according to his need for lakefront property…
Apart from being described as a faux-Leninist Russian stooge who wants to elect Trump and mass-release dangerous criminals, what does Sanders have to complain about?
After Bernie’s Wolfeboro speech, other media outlets let out a group howl. CNN called his attack “ridiculous” and “no different from what Trump does.” CBS said Bernie “echoes Trump” in going after the media.
The news media are now loathed in the same way banks, tobacco companies, and health insurance companies are, and it refuses to understand this. Mistakes like WMDs are a problem, but the media’s biggest issue is exactly its bubble-ness, and clubby inability to respond to criticism in any way except to denounce it as misinformation and error. Equating all criticism of media with Trumpism is pouring gasoline on the fire.
The public is not stupid. It sees companies like CNN and NBC are billion-dollar properties, pushing shows anchored by big-city millionaires. A Vanderbilt like Anderson Cooper or a half-wit legacy pledge like Chris Cuomo shoveling coal for Comcast, Amazon, AT&T, or Rupert Murdoch is the standard setup.
This is why the White House Correspondents’ dinner is increasingly seen as an unfunny obscenity. The national press at the upper levels really is a black-tie party for bourgeois stiffs who weren’t smart enough for med school, and make their living repeating each other’s ideas and using Trump to sell Cadillacs and BMWs. Michelle Wolf was on the money when she ripped us for only covering “like three topics”:
Every hour it’s Trump, Russia, Hillary, and a panel of four people who remind you why you don’t go home for Thanksgiving… You guys are obsessed with Trump… He couldn’t sell steaks, vodka, water, college, ties or Eric. [But] he has helped you sell your papers, books, and TV.
That was too much truth for Correspondents’ Association, who decried Wolf’s lack of “commitment” to a “vigorous and free press” and “civility.” They scrapped the comedy idea, and this year brought in a self-described “boring” speaker, who made light of Trump’s complaints about the press by reading from Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People.”
Instead of submitting to one annual roasting, attendees got to listen to stale Trump jokes and homilies to their awesomeness in between red carpet poses for people like Andrea Mitchell, Gary Cohn, and Madeline Albright.
Sanders in Wolfeboro went too far when he said no reporter has ever asked him what he’d do about income inequality (hell, I’ve asked him that). But his basic complaint is right.
The Vermont Senator frequently cites a (true) statistic three families in America own more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the entire population. In an alternate universe that could be a page one headline every day. The three oligarchical figures are Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and the owner of the Post, Bezos. The trio collectively is worth an absurd $345 billion.
Media companies run by the country’s richest people can’t help but project the mindset of their owners, and they are naturally incompetent when it comes to viewing their own role in society. While we regularly congratulate ourselves for being protectors of democracy, we have difficulty admitting basic embarrassments, like that the news is a profit-driven consumer product that isn’t always good for the customer. The public sees through this with ease. The press is completely in denial about this.
MSNBC’s Brian Williams did a segment showing the Sanders speech. He read a statement from Post editor Marty Baron:
Contrary to the conspiracy theory the senator seems to favor, Jeff Bezos allows our newsroom to operate with full independence, as our reporters and editors can attest.
Williams then said Sanders later “scaled back” his criticism, as if in response to the all-powerful words of Marty Baron:
Well, today Sanders scaled back his criticism a bit during interview at CNN saying, “My criticism of the corporate media is not they are anti-Bernie, they wake up, you know, in the morning and say, what could we do to hurt Bernie Sanders? That’s not the case, that Jeff Bezos gets on the phone to “The Washington Post.”
That’s not “scaling back” criticism. It’s elaborating. Anyone who’s worked in the business (or read Manufacturing Consent) knows nobody calls editors to red-pencil text.
The pressure comes at the point of hire. If you’re the type who thinks Jeff Bezos should be thrown out of an airplane, or it’s a bad look for a DC newspaper to be owned by a major intelligence contractor, you won’t rise. Meanwhile, the Post became terrific at promoting Jennifer Rubins and Max Boots.
Reporters watch as good investigative journalism about serious structural problems dies on the vine, while mountains of column space are devoted to trivialities like Trump tweets and/or simplistic partisan storylines. Nobody needs to pressure anyone. We all know what takes will and will not earn attaboys in newsrooms.
Williams brought out two guests. The first was Eliza Collins, politics reporter from the Wall Street Journal (Williams neglected to mention Sanders had also gone after the Journal and its owner Rupert Murdoch in his speech). He then brought on Robert Costa from the Post, for balance.
They consider “Hoarse Whisperer” complaining Bernie didn’t work hard enough for Hillary Clinton. This incidentally is also untrue, and it’s an issue for another time because what does this have to do with Amazon and the Washington Post?
In sum: a $10 million per year anchor for a Comcast subsidiary brings on employees of Bezos and Rupert Murdoch to ask if the press has a problem covering billionaires – and concludes it does not. They confirm the point using a cherry-picked tweet as the modern equivalent of a “man on the street” quote, itself an easily-manipulated device (you can keep asking “men on the street” questions until you get the answer you want), but at least it requires human interaction. That’s circling wagons, not testing hypotheses.
Trump accelerated distaste for the press, but he didn’t create it. He sniffed out existing frustrations and used them to rally anger toward “elites” to his side. The criticism works because national media are 9.9 percenters working for 0.1 percenters. The longer people in the business try to deny it, the more it will be fodder for politicians. Sanders wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last.
Many decades ago, the great media critic George Seldes observed: “The most sacred cow of the press is the press itself.”
This remains true today.
Bernie Sanders set off the latest round of outraged denial from elite media this week when he talked to a crowd in New Hampshire about the tax avoidance of Amazon (which did not pay any federal income tax last year). Sanders went on to say: “I wonder why the Washington Post — which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon — doesn’t write particularly good articles about me. I don’t know why. But I guess maybe there’s a connection.”
Sanders has fought explicitly and effectively to raise the wages of Amazon workers as well as millions of others. Yet the mass-media pretense is that the financial interests of the Post’s owner have no effect on the newspaper’s coverage of Sanders.
Corporate denial is the name of that media game. Usually, expressed denials aren’t necessary. But there’s nothing usual about Bernie Sanders, who’s been willing to call out the biases and blind spots of corporate media since he entered politics.
For his latest transgression, Sanders earned purportedly authoritative pushback from the likes of thePost’s top editor, its media columnist, and others with high media visibility. “Contrary to the conspiracy theory the senator seems to favor,” Post executive editor Martin Baron declared, “Jeff Bezos allows our newsroom to operate with full independence, as our reporters and editors can attest.”
The Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, quickly chimed in with a harmonizing on Tuesday, defending her editor boss along with the owner of the paper: “I’ve never seen or heard a hint of Jeff Bezos interfering in Washington Post coverage.”
CNN’s Chris Cillizza, citing his work at the newspaper for a decade, indignantly wrote: “For the last three of my years at the Post, Bezos owned the company. Not once in all of that time — and I wrote multiple pieces a day about politics and politicians (including Sanders and Trump) over that time — was there ever even a whiff of Bezos’ influence in the newsroom.”
As George Seldes commented long ago, “The most stupid boast in the history of present-day journalism is that of the writer who says, ‘I have never been given orders; I am free to do as I like.’” Seldes noted reporters routinely “know from contact with the great minds of the press lords or from the simple deduction that the bosses are in big business and the news must be slanted accordingly, or from the general intangible atmosphere which prevails everywhere, what they can do and what they must never do.”
All Baron or Sullivan would need to do to disprove their own current claims would be to write a bunch of pieces denouncing the man who owns the Post — and then see what happens due to their breach of required self-censorship.
On television, a CNN anchor joined with a USA Today columnist to claim Sanders’ criticism of the Post’s coverage is free of evidence. The fact corporate-media employees vehemently defend corporate media is illustrative of the dynamic. It makes you wonder where career self-interest ends and sincere delusion begins.
Baron, Sullivan, Cillizza, and countless other employees of corporate media are well-paid while publicly maintaining their denial in the service of corporate power. So, with the virtues of the Washington Post on parade, Emperor Bezos must be decked out in the journalistic finery of his new clothes, even when the self-interest and implications of billionaire leverage over media are stark naked.
What Bernie Sanders points out is not — and he never said it was — a “conspiracy.” The problems are much deeper and more pernicious, having to do with the financial structures of media institutions that enable profit-driven magnates and enormous corporations to dominate the flow of news and commentary.
The Post’s Baron is ill-positioned to defend his newspaper against charges of anti-Sanders bias. Such bias is profuse, and it began well before a pivotal moment in the 2016 campaign on the eve of the high-stakes Michigan primary in early March. Then, as FAIR analyst Adam Johnson showed, “the Washington Post ran 16 negative stories on Bernie Sanders in 16 hours.”
This year, the Post has strained to throw negative light on Sanders’ campaign, whether focusing on Wall Street or Venezuela. Nor is the Post far afield from other powerful media outlets. For instance, the New York Times reportage has taken Sanders to task for alleged sins such as desiring to exercise control over his own campaign and failing to please Democratic critics who are actually corporate lobbyists but not identified as such.
Nor is the AT&T-owned CNN far afield from the baseline of cable news giants that supposedly provide a liberal alternative to the odious Fox News. Coverage from MSNBC — owned by Comcast, “the world’s largest entertainment company — provoked one assessment after another after another documenting the network’s anti-Bernie bias.
“The corporate-owned and corporate-advertiser-funded media of this country are the biggest barriers between Bernie Sanders and the Oval Office,” I wrote five months ago.
“Often functioning as propaganda outlets, the major news media serve as an amplification system for corporate power that has long shielded the Democratic Party from the combined ‘threats’ of social movements and progressive populist candidates.”
I continue to actively support Sanders.
Journalists who stake their careers on remaining in the good graces of corporate employers are certainly inclined to say in public billionaire owners and huge corporations don’t constrain their journalistic work. And in their minds, they might be telling the truth.
As George Orwell wrote, “Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks his whip, but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns his somersault when there is no whip.”
by Jeff Cohen
Mainstream journalists have a ridiculous hissy fit over Sen. Bernie Sanders’ suggestion there may be a connection between the owner of a news outlet and the content or biases of that outlet’s coverage.
If Sanders suggested Rupert Murdoch’s ownership of Fox News impacts its coverage, few would argue with him. But Sanders referred to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ ownership of the Washington Post — a corporate centrist outlet. And the senator, an Amazon critic, complained that the newspaper “doesn’t write particularly good articles about me.”
Immediately, the Post’s top editor denounced Sanders’ “conspiracy theory” – claiming his newsroom operates “with full independence.” A Post columnist tweeted that she’d never “heard a hint of Jeff Bezos interfering.”
Are they deluding themselves? Or sincerely clueless?
I worked in and around mainstream TV news for years, including at corporate centrist outlets CNN and MSNBC. Unlike at Fox News (where I’d also been a paid contributor), there’s almost never a memo or direct order from top management to cover or not cover certain stories or viewpoints.
But here’s the sad reality: There doesn’t have to be a memo from the owner to achieve the homogeneity of coverage at “centrist” outlets that media watchdog groups like FAIR (which I founded) documented in study after study over the decades.
It happens because of groupthink. It happens because top editors and producers know — without being told — which issues and sources are off limits. No orders need be given, for example, for rank-and-file journalists to understand that the business of the corporate boss or top advertisers is off-limits, short of criminal indictments.
No memo is needed to achieve the narrowness of perspective — selecting all the usual experts from all the usual think tanks to say all the usual things. Think Tom Friedman. Or Barry McCaffrey. Or Neera Tanden. Or any of the elite club members who’ve been proven to be absurdly wrong time and again about national or global affairs.
And then ask yourself why someone like Noam Chomsky can be quoted regularly in the biggest mainstream outlets abroad, but almost never in mass media in his own country — even though he mostly analyzes the policies of his own country’s government.
Bernie Sanders is one of the world’s most effective critics of Jeff Bezos and the fact that Amazon paid no federal income tax last year. And the Bezos-owned newspaper has exhibited an unrelenting bias against Sanders in recent years — perhaps most acutely in March 2016, when FAIR analyst Adam Johnson famously wrote an article that quickly went viral: “Washington Post Ran 16 Negative Stories on Bernie Sanders in 16 Hours.” Among the Post’s headlines during that period: “Five Reasons Bernie Sanders Lost Last Night’s Democratic Debate,” followed an hour later by “Bernie Sanders’s Two Big Lies About the Global Economy,” followed a few hours later by “Even Bernie Sanders Can Beat Donald Trump.”
The day after this anti-Bernie barrage, which included a half-dozen articles on how badly he’d performed in the Michigan Democratic primary debate with Hillary Clinton, Sanders shocked the Post and the rest of the political establishment by defeating Clinton in Michigan’s primary.
If you still want to believe there’s no connection between corporate media ownership and content, join me in a mental exercise: Imagine how quickly heads would roll at the Post in the fantastical event that it somehow produced even three negative stories about owner Jeff Bezos in a few hours. (Needless to say, there’s much to critically report about Bezos, including Amazon’s tax avoidance, labor exploitation, taxpayer subsidies and CIA contracts.)
There’s “almost never a memo or order from top management” to newsroom journalists. In normal times, the media system works smoothly without top-down directives. But in times of crisis, such as during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq — when I was a senior producer of MSNBC’s primetime Phil Donahue show — there may well be orders and memos.
As the invasion neared, top management at MSNBC/NBC News ordered us to bias our panel discussions. If we booked one guest who was antiwar on Iraq, we needed two who were pro-war. If we booked two guests on the left, we needed three on the right. When a producer proposed booking Michael Moore, she was told that three right-wingers would be required for balance. (I thought about proposing Noam Chomsky as a guest, but our stage couldn’t have accommodated the 28 right-wingers we might have needed for balance.)
During that period, we were told by MSNBC brass that invasion opponent Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general, should not appear on the channel. Apparently, some sort of blacklist.
When the Donahue show was terminated three weeks before the Iraq invasion, internal memos that had circulated among top NBC News executives actually leaked. (God bless whistleblowers!) One memo said that Phil Donahue represented “a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. . . . He seems to delight in presenting guests who are antiwar, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.” The memo described a dreaded scenario in which the Donahue show would become “a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”
NBC’s solution? Pull the plug.
My point is a simple one: Our corporate-owned media system too often functions as a corporate-friendly propaganda system, and it operates smoothly. It typically operates without orders from the owner or top management, and without firings for blatantly political reasons.
At MSNBC in those months, we were ordered to bias our content. Memos were written. I don’t know that orders were given in all the other big TV newsrooms. Yet, the content was amazingly homogeneous.
How else do you explain this finding from FAIR? In the two weeks surrounding Secretary of State Colin Powell’s inaccurate, pro-invasion presentation to the UN in February 2003, there were 393 on-camera sources discussing Iraq on the nightly newscasts of ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS. Only three of them represented the antiwar movement. That’s less than 1 percent of the total.
After days of ridiculous, hysterical garment rending by mass media talking heads in response to Senator Bernie Sanders’ utterly undeniable assertion The Washington Post displays unfair bias against his campaign, people with extensive experience in the mainstream press who are fed up with the lies are beginning to push back. Hard.
Former MSNBC producer Jeff Cohen (see above) titled “Memo to mainstream journalists: Can the phony outrage; Bernie is right about bias.” Cohen details his experience with the way corporate media outlets keep a uniform pro-establishment narrative running throughout all their coverage without their staff having to be directly told to to do this by their supervisors (though sometimes that happens, too). He writes as follows:
“It happens because of groupthink. It happens because top editors and producers know — without being told — which issues and sources are off limits. No orders need be given, for example, for rank-and-file journalists to understand that the business of the corporate boss or top advertisers is off-limits, short of criminal indictments.
“No memo is needed to achieve the narrowness of perspective — selecting all the usual experts from all the usual think tanks to say all the usual things. Think Tom Friedman. Or Barry McCaffrey. Or Neera Tanden. Or any of the elite club members who’ve been proven to be absurdly wrong time and again about national or global affairs.”
Cohen’s exposé follows the phenomenal segment recently aired on The Hill‘s show Rising, in which former MSNBC star Krystal Ball and her co-host Saagar Enjati both detailed their experience with the way access journalism, financial incentives, prestige incentives and peer pressure were used to push them each toward protecting establishment narratives in their respective mainstream media careers. Ball said at one point she was literally called into the office and forbidden from doing any critical Hillary Clinton coverage without prior approval in the lead-up to the 2016 election, saying that in mainstream journalism jobs “you are aware of what you’re going to be rewarded for and what you’re going to be punished for, or not rewarded for.”
“It’s not necessarily that somebody tells you how to do your coverage, it’s that if you were to do your coverage that way, you would not be hired at that institution,” Enjati said. “So it’s like if you do not already fit within this framework, then the system is designed to not give you a voice. And if you necessarily did do that, all of the incentive structures around your pay, around your promotion, around your colleagues that are slapping you on the back, that would all disappear. So it’s a system of reinforcement, which makes it so that you wouldn’t go down that path in the first place.”
Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi has also jumped in to push back against the absurd denials of bias from the establishment media (see above) “The Campaign Press: Members of the 10 Percent, Reporting for the One Percent–Media companies run by the country’s richest people can’t help but project the mindset of their owners.” Taibbi, an award-winning journalist with experience in the news media, writes pro-establishment narratives are advanced in mainstream press not because some explicit order is handed down by a media-owning oligarch, but because “We all know what takes will and will not earn attaboys in newsrooms.”
Taibbi writes the following:
“The news media is now loathed in the same way banks, tobacco companies, and health insurance companies are, and it refuses to understand this. Mistakes like WMDs are a problem, but the media’s biggest issue is exactly its bubble-ness, and clubby inability to respond to criticism in any way except to denounce it as misinformation and error. Equating all criticism of media with Trumpism is pouring gasoline on the fire.
“The public is not stupid. It sees that companies like CNN and NBC are billion-dollar properties, pushing shows anchored by big-city millionaires. A Vanderbilt like Anderson Cooper or a half-wit legacy pledge like Chris Cuomo shoveling coal for Comcast, Amazon, AT&T, or Rupert Murdoch is the standard setup.”
Taibbi is correct. Trust in the mass media continues to plummet, and these stupid, nonsensical hissy fits they throw whenever criticized are only making it worse.
What cracks me up most about all this is that the faux outrage over Sanders’ criticisms of The Washington Post was completely unnecessary for everyone involved. They could have just ignored it and let the news churn bury it, but they’re so insulated in their little echo chambers that they seriously believed they could get the public rallying to their defense on this. The general consensus was something like “Ah ha! Bernie did that media-criticizing thing that we all agreed nobody’s allowed to do anymore! We’ve got him this time, boys!”
And all they accomplished in doing this was giving honest journalists an opportunity to inform the public about the insider tricks of their trade. You may be absolutely certain that the information that has been given to the public by Cohen, Ball, Enjati and Taibbi will remain in high circulation throughout the Sanders campaign in response to the increasingly shrill torrent of establishment smears, breaking the spell of mainstream media trust for all who view it.
All these damning insider criticisms of the mainstream American press are coming out at the same time a new Rasmussen poll finds that less than one third of the US population believes the story they’re being told by the corporate media about the highly suspicious death of accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. Despite the mass media’s mad push to tar anyone questioning the official narrative about Epstein as a loony “conspiracy theorist,” only 29 percent of those surveyed report they believe Epstein committed suicide as we’ve been told, while 42 percent believe he was murdered. Never in my life have I seen such a widespread and instantaneous rejection of an establishment-promulgated narrative in the United States.
This is hugely significant. The entire imperial oppression machine is held together with aggressive plutocratic propaganda; the ability of the ruling class to manipulate the way people think, act and vote is the only thing stopping the public from using the power of their numbers to force real changes and create a new system that is not built upon endless war, ecocide and exploitation. The mass media propaganda engine is now at its weakest and most vulnerable point ever, and the narrative managers’ attempts to regain control are only exposing them more severely.
Power is the ability to control what happens. Absolute power is the ability to control what people think about what happens. Our rulers are rapidly losing this absolute power.
People are waking up.