HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

April 7, 2008
From Liberty Street

Media Motivation

John Turner


The wish to have the major media outlets in the United States report what's actually happening in the world appears, increasingly, to be a futile hope. That's widely acknowledged among people who are serious about understanding government actions and the motives behind them. But the reason for the failure is much less certain.

The most common explanation is that the media are owned and, therefore, controlled by major corporations. Consequently, newspapers and television networks can't be expected to lay out a picture of the world that counters the basic corporate view of reality. Corporate dominance is not maintained by anything as crude as direct orders from executives to journalists. There's simply an understanding within the corporate culture about what's acceptable, and journalists drink in that aura of respectability as regularly as they do their morning coffee. This might be called the economic theory of media control.

I don't subscribe to it. That's not to say I don't acknowledge some corporate influence, but I don't believe it's the principal reason why the media perform as badly as they do.

Full analysis is doubtless a complex thing, with many forces influencing the quality of what you read in your newspaper or hear from your TV set. But I'm convinced the strongest of these is a swirling complex of religion and psychology.

We need to remember that journalists are people and that they are subject to the same emotions as the population at large. At the moment in America the strongest public sentiment emerges from the belief that the nation, and the good of the nation, rises above all else in its call on our loyalties. We are supposed to be willing to sacrifice everything -- family, friends, truth and integrity -- if the nation needs us to do it. This, in itself, is a monstrous morality but it is made many times worse by our inability to get clear in our minds exactly what it is we mean by the nation. Our lack of clarity provides fertile ground for cynical manipulation. And, as I say, journalists stand on that ground just as much as anyone else does.

We saw this most markedly in the response from "embedded" reporters in the spring of 2003, as American tanks sped across the plains of Iraq. The supposed truth-tellers were giddy with the glory of it all. Their minds were so entranced by the grandeur of American might there was no chance they could explain what was really taking place. The American soldiers were all heroes engaged in a mighty mission.

Who was there to say they were intensely propagandized, ill-informed young men, dressed up in soldier suits, so full of themselves they were about to burst, being sent by a corrupt and dishonest government to kill and be killed? Anybody who even hinted at the genuine situation would have been scorned and ostracized. It would have been like taking the side of Satan at Armageddon. That wouldn't have been supporting the troops, would it?

No one raised the question of whether the nation can be rightly defined as a particular government, at a particular time, in the hands of particular officials, with particular goals that most of the people had never imagined. Those young men were wearing the uniform of the United States, and they had to be reverenced, regardless of who draped that uniform over them, for whatever purposes. If we can't acknowledge what happened then as religious fervor then we have no inkling of what religion is.

The truth has no standing when the faith of nationalism strides onto the stage.  Consequently, a nationalistic press, regardless of its good intentions, cannot be relied on to tell the truth. It doesn't comprehend the emotions that have it in their grasp.

The question naturally follows: can we have a mainstream press that's not nationalistic? That's clearly what we need in order to make good democratic decisions. But is it possible?

I wish I could say it is. But, right now, I'm afraid the answer is, no. And if that's the case, then what can be done?

There clearly are voices in America who care more for the truth than they do for the motives of the government. It's just that, generally, you have to go someplace other than the New York Times or CBS News to find them. This is not to say that the Times or the TV networks are useless. The Times is the best newspaper in America and you can learn more from it than you can from any other single news outlet. But you need to read it comprehending that it is infused with nationalistic propaganda. It cannot offer you a wry, dispassionate view of reality.

I suppose all I'm really saying here is that good reading is critical, skeptical reading. But I think we can come closer to achieving it when we grasp that we live in a religion-scented cloud of nationalistic emotion, and that the vapors of that sentiment course through newsrooms almost as vigorously as they do through barrooms of American Legion lodges.


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