Is the media all-powerful?
Malcolm X once described the media as “the most powerful entity on earth… Because they control the minds of the masses.”
For those interested in questioning the way our world operates, the lying and deception of the mass media can be one of the most frustrating things to confront. But understanding why the media seems to always take the side of the rulers, and how this affects the rest of us, has been a fraught question.
The media is an institution of capitalist rule, despite all of the pretensions to a “free press” and “balance”. Those who own or control the media are clearly a part of the capitalist establishment.
Rupert Murdoch is the most obvious example – a right wing, neoliberal warrior – but Fairfax and his less rabid rivals elsewhere are no different when it comes to having a serious stake in the system.
The Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting website lists the interlocking directorates of the major US media outlets. The directors of NBC also hold directorships at Chase Manhattan, Dell computers, Sun Microsystems and Unilever. The Wall Street Journal/Dow Jones includes directors from Union Carbide, Shell and Texaco while CNN includes Citigroup and Dell.
This is just scratching the surface.
There are well-documented studies showing the British media working closely with MI5 and the US media working with the CIA. Carl Bernstein documents the close relationship of the CIA with Time Magazine, Newsweek, CBS, the New York Times, ABC and NBC.
The media itself is a business. Media corporations operate under the same laws as all corporations within the capitalist system. This is most clearly shown when management is in conflict with the unions. It was Murdoch’s smashing of the printing unions at Wapping in the late 1980s that paved the way for his virtual takeover of the British press.
This filters down to those who actually produce the news and the programs. As Noam Chomsky says, “conformity is the easy way, and the path to privilege and prestige; dissidence carries personal costs.”
Or you can take it from one for whom conformity has worked very well, Evan Thomas, former editor-at-large of Newsweek. After describing himself as of the “establishment persuasion” he writes, “By definition, establishments believe in propping up the existing order. Members of the ruling class have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are.”
The news that these people present reflects their interests. The Pew Research Centre’s analysis of the coverage of the “Great Recession” found that of articles about the economic crisis, government and businesses were the triggers for 53 per cent of stories, and “ordinary citizens and union workers” were the catalysts for only 2 per cent. This during a period in which millions were losing their jobs and their homes.
So while the media likes to give the appearance of debate and balance, the parameters are limited to discourse acceptable to the capitalist class.
There is no doubt that the media has a significant impact on public opinion. Just look at the refugee issue. The Scanlon Foundation Survey last year found that only 19 per cent of respondents believed the best policy for boat people was allowing them the right to apply for permanent residence (as opposed to turning the boats back, mandatory detention or temporary residence). But in the same survey two in three were positive to asylum seekers who had applied offshore.
The survey’s authors point to the role of the media in stoking the fears that are the basis of the antipathy towards boat people. Where in the mainstream media do you find the actual facts – that the number of boat people who come to Australia is tiny compared to other groups of refugees, that it is not illegal to seek asylum, that Australia doesn’t take its fair share of refugees? A number of surveys have shown that respondents are much more likely to be sympathetic to boat people after they have been told these basic truths.
But this influence is not absolute. Here we must disagree with Malcolm X and the many others on the left who see the media as an all-powerful monolith that has succeeded in duping the masses.
First, to a certain extent the media must reflect the concerns of their main groups of consumers. To pump out pure ruling-class propaganda would diminish their standing amongst its consumers.
For example, the red-top tabloid The Daily Mirror in Britain, in competition with Murdoch’s Sun, ran a serious campaign against the Iraq war, which included hiring anti-war journalist John Pilger and producing thousands of placards for the large February 2003 demonstrations.
But even without these occasional wanderings onto the wrong side of the track, there has always been a healthy attitude of cynicism towards the media. The idea that “ordinary people”, especially tabloid readers, are morons who accept anything they read is an elitist myth peddled by those who think their education inoculates them from indoctrination but who often have the worst variety of it.
The Essential Report’s regular surveys of public opinion are cause for some optimism. First, the media rated lower than banks as trustworthy institutions. Of the respondents, 69 per cent disagreed with the statement that “the media usually reports all sides of a story”.
And for all those who think that Herald Sun/Telegraph readers are just dupes, their readers are actually much more likely to say that they don’t trust the paper. The poll was based on readers of particular newspapers: 23 per cent of Age readers and 20 per cent of SMH readers had “a lot of trust”, while the figures for both the Telegraph and the Herald Sun were only 7 per cent!
What this reflects is that people read and engage in the media in a way that is far more complex then is usually assumed. The idea that the media is just a “hypodermic needle” pumping misinformation into willing and empty heads is rubbish.
People filter the messages coming from the media in light of their own experiences, their own situations and those of others around them.
When the Tories got elected in the UK, their drastic austerity measures at first had majority support – no doubt partly because of the media line that everybody needed to tighten their belts. But as the union opposition has picked up and the reality of the crisis and the cuts has started to bite, this is turning around. Now we have a situation where millions are going out on strike against the cuts.
And this is one reason why mass action and class struggle are so important. It is the self-activity of the mass of ordinary people that will give us confidence in our own opinions and interests. If there is no struggle, there is no challenge to the media’s lies and distortions, no alternative to the world-view of highly paid, well-connected editors and producers.
Challenging the power of the media requires those who want to do so to become activists, not moaners.
This article, by Katie Wood, first appeared in Socialist Alternative.