Fake News: Chicken Little Meets the Canary in the Coal Mine

The surge of partisan vitriol over “fake news” during and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election raises some very serious though deeply misunderstood issues. What is news, what is information, what are facts, and what role does propaganda play in the “news cycle” in the various media? Is there a viable role for “fact checkers” in today’s fast-paced flow of pseudo-facts and contrived images on social media? After all, a skilled Photoshop user can create an image to match just about any fantasy. Moreover, what is happening to the communication of fact and opinion in the so-called political discourse in the U.S. today? To what extent can the average “consumer” of news actually distinguish fact from fantasy?

For a long time it has been painfully obvious, at least to some, that the quality and relevance of network news have gone steadily downhill since the “good old days” of Walter Cronkite. When Cronkite concluded his CBS evening news show in the 1960s and 70s with “…and that’s the way it is…” we believed him, more or less. We had no reason to suspect, in any case, that he was contriving stories or falsifying images, even if he left out difficult or sensitive details. Those were the days when television network-news divisions operated independently from commercial entertainment divisions and had their own budgets. In the 1950s and ‘60s, competitive pressures drove the networks, CBS, NBC, and ABC to seek news audiences based on gathering and presenting news, not on ratings driven by superficial yet attention grabbing entertainment.

Cable TV and the Internet were things of the future in the era of television network-news divisions that were more or less independent of commercial pressures. Foreign correspondents and field reporters covered the horrible details of the Vietnam War and the brutal facts of the civil rights movement on the ground. The networks’ entertainment divisions have since swallowed up television news operations, which must now muster ratings that satisfy sponsors. News budgets now reflect advertising revenue and entertainment values. News ratings reflect promoting as well as pandering to curiosity over celebrity antics and gossip about political candidates’ personal lives. Neither network nor cable news operations pursue important political or economic stories unless they are consistent with corporate interests. Trump built his initial momentum partly with free air time based as much on media voyeuristic interest as on his demagoguery.

Enter social media and “reality television.” With the proliferation of digital technology, in both constructing images and purveying “information,” the rise of “fake news” probably was inevitable. CNN had broken into the news business as a hard-hitting 24/7 international cable-news source after the networks virtually abandoned their overseas bureaus and investigative reporting. Gradually it succumbed to the dominant model of mainstream media that Paul Krasner used to call “dis-info-tainment,” in his satirical underground magazine, The Realist. (See the The Realist archives at http://www.ep.tc/realist/index.html)

keith-olbermann

Keith Olbermann

MSNBC began as the cable-TV voice of political liberalism, or more accurately, the Democratic Party. However, it was, after all, a subsidiary of NBC, still one of the corporate media giants; its “liberalism” is strictly corporatist, just like that of Hillary and the DNC. MSNBC executives eventually drove out any reporter or commentator who tried to speak truth to power. A certain conservatism is evident in corporatized liberalism – corporate rather than cultural conservatism. The former LA sports reporter, Keith Olbermann, for while held sway on his popular news and political commentary show “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” on MSNBC. His rants were politically biting and quite entertaining for MSNBC’s largely well-educated audience; he did not dumb down his words. Management suspended him, allegedly for donated $2,400 each to three Democratic candidates for Congress, without management approval. Executives him two days later after a viewer petition with 250,000 signatures demanded it. By January 2011, he departed by mutual agreement.

mellisa-harris-perry

Melissa Harris-Perry

Then, on February 26, 2016, Melissa Harris-Perry, a vibrant and moderately progressive political science professor, who hosted a popular current events and political commentary show on MSNBC, announced her departure after they took her show from her without comment. “… I will not be used as a tool for [management’s] purposes … I am not a token, mammy, or little brown bobble head,” she said in an email to her colleagues. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melissa_Harris-Perry) Corporate media allow very little deviation from their establishment viewpoint. Yes, ratings are important to corporate media executives, but their relations to the political elite are even more essential to their power.

cenk-uygur

Cenk Uygur

Ed Schultz, popular outspoken advocate for workers and unions also did not last at MSNBC. Then, following the rearrangement of the schedule after the Olbermann and Schultz departures, Cenk Uygur filled the prime time spot as anchor of “MSNBC Live,” but not for long. Formerly conservative Uygur’s strong voice in progressive news and commentary got him good ratings. He co-founded and now hosts a new network, The Young Turks (TYT), following his departure from MSNBC after management told him that important people in Washington did not like his tone and that “We’re not outsiders.” Now, MSNBC has picked FOX reject Greta Van Susteren over Joy-Ann Reid, MSNBC’s popular hard-hitting journalist who is widely respected for her interviewing skills and incisive commentary. So much for “the liberal media bias.”

joy-ann-reid

Joy Ann Reid

What’s all that about? Fake News, that is what. The current cross-accusations of “fake news” between Democrats and Republicans, with various intelligence agencies chiming in with highly irregular unverifiable announcements and leaks, over whether the Russians hacked Hillary’s emails or a disgruntled Democrat leaked them is the tip of the disinfotainment iceberg. Has anyone considered the possibility that both claims are true? Now, plausible claims surface that Russian agents have evidence of Trumpian philandering in Russia as well as other shocking information – but then, the shock of Trump has worn off, rendering any revelation, true or false, no longer shocking. Social media debates over the source of the Hillary emails exposure become absurd in this climate of unverified dis-information.

Most corporate mass media report the “party line” of the Republican-Democrat political elite as if it were a “fair and balanced” coverage of the political spectrum. Yet independent surveys show that the American public is far more progressive than either party apparatus. That is why the New York Times and Washington Post ignored Bernie Sanders until he got so popular they had to descend into slandering him. (It is also why the corporatist Democratic National Committee undercut his campaign.) Political reporting routinely distorts “news” and power, so that we are likely to hear just about anything we can imagine, or they want us to hear.

glenn-greenwaldGlen Greenwald, who with Laura Poitras, helped get Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s unconstitutional spying on Americans made public, started the online publication, The Intercept (https://theintercept.com/) in 2014, and edits it with Jeremy Scahill, Poitras, and Betsy Reed. The Intercept provides deep investigative reporting of government and corporate wrongdoing. Greenwald recently explained the convoluted manipulations of mainstream U.S. media, on Democracy Now!, America’s premier viewer-sponsored independent progressive news outlet. (https://www.democracynow.org/2017/1/5/glenn_greenwald_mainstream_us_media_is)

As a narcissistic sociopath with unpredictable political intensions ascents to the status of president-elect, the elite members of the “deep state” get nervous.[1] Fox News was the original butt of the puns, “Fixed News” and “Fake News” by its critics. Yet, as Julian Assange pointed out when interviewed by Shawn Hannity of Fox News, the political elite corrupts the mainstream media in the old “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” sense. We now face a situation in which the usual “managing” of news in the interests of the political class has become much more complicated. The usual political rivalries within the Washington establishment seem all jumbled up. In the new Trumplandia, we can hardly sort out the players or their interests. It seems they are all lying. But remember, political claims and the framing of “issues” are primarily means of maintaining or gaining position within the power structure. Yes, the political sky is falling, but “Chicken Little” may very well be the “Canary in the Coal Mine.”

[1] See Lofgren, Mike (2016). The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government. New York: Viking.

The Liberal Conservative and the Conservative Liberal

Political labels along the supposed continuum from left to right have always been problematic for me. As a professor long ago explained to us naïve freshmen in an introductory political science class in college, if you move far enough to the left, you end up on the right and if you move far enough to the right, you end up on the left. Where does that leave the average American? Where, exactly is the middle?

Most people I know hold a mix of views on different issues, yet define themselves as firmly Liberal or Conservative. Yet, in the politicized corporate-controlled mass media, most “commentators” (pundits and propagandists) play the issues to stimulate fear of the Other, thus causing cultural conflict by appealing to whatever fear-driven image or stereotyped value or belief can be used to serve the interests of the corporate state. That usually involves exploiting social stressors such as race, immigration, gay marriage, unemployment, some caricature of “the undeserving poor,” or presumed threats of “terrorism,” crime, or some other source of fear, to gain political favor by portraying one candidate as more ‘righteous’ or likely to ‘protect’ us in some way.

But what are the real issues that concern Americans most? Independent scientific survey results often diverge from poll results funded by candidates. Conservative and liberal Americans agree on more than power elites want us to know.

What are the issues? Mostly human-scale concerns about fairness and getting by in a moderate reasonably way, and being left alone by the powers that be. Ralph Nader argues in his new book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, that liberals and conservatives must unite against the corporate state to bring it down and establish a viable ecological economy and democratic society where people’s everyday concerns are addressed and the world is kept intact so we can live normal lives.

Social conservatives often decry undue corporate interference in government even as they argue for smaller government. Well, government certainly would be smaller without all that corporate pork, massive tax dodging, and subsidies. Liberals want social justice, mostly around issues of human rights, employment, healthcare, and environment. If various minorities and demonized Others were not scapegoated by the corporate media, then justice would be far more easily served. If we actually had a ‘free market’ among local small entrepreneurs and businesses oriented to local production of needed products instead of generating mass consumption of outsourced products in response to manufactured needs, and vast waste of resources on futile wars of empire, we could have lots of jobs and the economy could support health care for all, just like the Europeans and many others routinely afford.

As things stand, the American commonwealth is being rapidly drained of real wealth by the manipulation of the debt-based economy to generate phantom wealth among those who control the financial system. Both conservative and liberal citizens – I’m not talking about politicians here, just real people – do not like the centralization of everything, the unfettered ascendance of power elites, and the failure of government to respond to the people’s needs rather than the corporate oligarchy’s demands.

So, maybe Nader is right. It seems that the only way the American people can overcome the power of the corporate state to impose its own agenda while claiming it is enacting ours, is to unite behind our own values and needs and take down the forces that will, if allowed, destroy what is left of the republic and the biosphere upon which we all depend. Then we can go on and have our debates of left and right politics if we must.

But maybe conservatives would have to stop watching Fox News’ racist Obama-demonizing sniping sessions and liberals would have to stop watching MSNBC pundits defend every corporate-driven Obama policy as if it reflects the needs of the people instead of the demands of the oligarchs who fund the politics of both conservative and liberal politicians.

The politics of social division serves only the interests of corporate oligarchy. The interests of the American people will only be served by the people ourselves, if we can overcome the propagandists who seek to divide and conquer us.