In this century, we have witnessed the emergence of two great ethical philosophies, which converge on the same essential idea. The first was Gandhi's ethic of nonviolence, which calls on each of us to break the self-perpetuating cycle of violence and revenge -- of action and reaction -- by recognizing the common humanity we share with those we consider our enemies. Gandhi put this philosophy into practice by developing a technique of militant nonviolence that was intended to force the British to see the humanity of those they oppressed, and the inhumanity of their own actions. He recognized that what he was doing was an effort to get at truth, and that the truth he was trying to get at -- and get others to see -- wasn't an abstract or disinterested or scientific truth. Instead, it was an essential truth about the moral grounding of human identity, which has the power to free those who recognize it.
The second advance was Freud's discovery that we are enslaved by illusion -- that we misperceive the events of adult life in terms of the fears and desires of childhood; and that we torture ourselves for nonexistent crimes and see enemies and dangers where they don't exist. For Freud, it was the ability to see this truth that had the power to free us from illusion. Some of those who came after Freud brought his ideas closer to Gandhi's by saying that we have to break the cycle of conscious and unconscious deception, and of symbolic (and physical) violence, that is inflicted on each generation by the one before, which results in the distortions of neurosis.
Despite their differences, both of these philosophies are based on the same idea that those who fight for liberating truth cannot become enmeshed in the cycle of untruth and violence that they are trying to break. The nonviolent activist refuses to meet violence with violence but instead seeks to make those who are violent recognize that he and they share the same humanity. The psychoanalyst and psychotherapist refuses to be drawn into the clients transference and play the various roles of seduction and persecution that are a defense from knowing the truth of the clients past. Similarly, the family therapist refuses to be drawn into family games, with all their secret alliances. Instead, the good analyst and therapist seeks to ally him or herself with that part of the client and the family that is seeking health and truth, and that wants to see the deceptions of the mind for what they are.
These forms of philosophy and practice contain an essential insight for contemporary journalism. They tell us that what journalists should be doing is standing outside the cycle of symbolic and physical violence, corruption and manipulated information that makes up the power relations of society, so they can show audiences the truth of the system and how it works. But, instead, they, themselves, are immersed in this system of untruth. Like other players in this system, they engage in symbolic violence against reputations; they manipulate information to achieve various ends; they make covert alliances, and offer the public forms of untruth that masquerade as truth. And they do so even as they depict themselves as honest brokers who stand outside the system and expose it flaws to public scrutiny.
This essential act of corruption on the part of the news media is all the more disturbing when we begin to see the nature of the system that journalists have allowed themselves to become a part of. Today, large-scale decision-making in America (and other nations) is, to a considerable extent, under the control of a kind of virtual "oligarchy", made up of corporations, political groups, and media. All manipulate government to achieve their own ends and all use television and other forms of mass media to shape public opinion.
One potential antidote to this subversion of democracy is an independent news media with the courage and integrity to expose the system to the light of day, so that the force of public opinion, shame, and law can bring about a correction. But it turns out that most of the news organizations with the power to do this are themselves both owned and controlled by other players in the system, and are also, themselves, players, seeking to manipulate information for their own ends. Television news is owned by the same massive corporations that exert control over much of the rest of economy and culture. The journalists who control it, divine what their bosses want or, in some instances, they follow orders directly, and are thus careful to shape the news so as to not challenge their corporate owners. Meanwhile, television journalists manipulate information in ways designed to attract audiences, to push their own political agendas and to aggrandize themselves so they will appear as heroes and celebrities before the public. Thus, the news media, which should be exposing the corruptions of the system, is itself enmeshed in the system.
Instead of fully revealing the reality of a society in which everything is a tool of marketing, and everything is for sale, television news is now itself for sale, and engaged in endless efforts to shape its stories to conform to the demands of marketing. Instead of fully revealing the way reputations are ruined to get political enemies and attain power, television news itself ruins reputations and gets enemies. And instead of revealing the way virtually everything we are told is simplified, exaggerated, hyped and staged, television news simplifies, exaggerates, hypes and stages.
Of course, the news media does reveal a certain amount about all this -- about others. But when it tries to tell significant truths about the system, it increasingly comes up against the same wall -- that it is, itself, now at the center of all these trends. The media today is the story. But it is a story that those who control the media will not allow to be told.
Instead, the news media pretends that "news is primarily about what politicians do because covering politicians is safer than telling explosive truths about itself and the corporations for which it works. Even the journalists who still have a sense that journalism is a calling and not merely a business, spin out the same stale stories rather than challenge colleagues and those in executive offices in a way that might endanger their own power and position.
What we need, than, is a news media that is willing to step outside the system and tell the truth to a public that is hungry for it. The truth and the story is that America today is partly a democracy and, as noted, partly a kind of "oligarchy", in which governing classes with both conflicting and similar goals, compete and cooperate, and share power with each other, manipulating media to attain their ends. The story is about corporations, political organizations, bureaucrats, news and entertainment media, lobbyists and advertising and marketing specialists of various kinds, and how all work the system for their own and each others benefit, and fight each other for control by shaping words and images.
The right to control or influence the news media is one of the prizes that all of these players fight over and the news media is, itself, one of the major players in the game.
This book represents an effort to examine how the media operates and to understand what it says when it says things, in an effort to make all of this transparent to our view and understanding. Everything written here, except for a few additions and modifications, was composed in 1989 and altered and expanded somewhat over the following two to three years. It started out as an effort to understand how and why the news media was increasingly focused on savaging reputations. The answer to that question, only some of which was obvious to me in 1989, is that giving audiences villains to hate and fools to ridicule is a way of getting more readers, viewers and listeners; and it is a way of getting ideological, financial and personal opponents. It is also a form of personal aggrandizement, since it allows journalists to appear as heroes opposing evil, and as competent whole individuals exposing the flaws of fools and pathetic characters. And it is a way of indulging sadistic desires. Thus, destroying reputations has become an essential tool, not only of the new virtual oligarchy, but of anyone who would like to achieve power. It is a way to get audiences and enemies at the same time.
Much of what the reader will find here is social science theory and much of it is in draft form and incomplete, which means that it will primarily be of interest to those with the time, patience and interest to read an imperfect work of theory. All of it is accessible to any reader.
Much of it only touches on the larger theory of society briefly outlined above, since, when I wrote it, I saw the problem as one in which the news media was failing to expose its own abuses and failing to properly expose those of politics and government. I now see the problem as involving the fact that all of society's power centers are, in their essence, producers of media, and all obey some variation on the same dynamics. But I have partially updated the introduction. I will also include an addendum, that will be titled, "Is America A Virtual Oligarchy? How the Nation's Governing Classes Influence Each Other and the Rest of the Nation In a Media-Saturated Society." More on this will be added in the future and links to a few other relevant essays can be found via the link titled "About this book...."
But even in its current incomplete and imperfect form, this book-in-progress will give the serious reader a set of tools he or she can use to understand how news stories (and all communications) are shaped by story lines and by the largely hidden operations of power. Using these tools, a reader should be able to look at any news story and gain some insight into the secret forces that helped shape it.
I trust that if you do some reading, or even just grazing, in these general parts, you will find something of value.