Grinding out the news:
Upton Sinclair, media control, and capitalist journalism

Writers, like teeth, are divided into incisors and grinders.

--Walter Bagehot
, journalist and economist (1826–1877)
Public discourse—mediated public discourse, that is—seems to be in rough shape. The New York Times has been struggling with scandals, the FCC is cozily cocooned in the pockets of corporate media owners, mainstream journalists essentially spout the Bush administration’s press releases on the war, and just about every news operation is clamoring to produce the mostly false rescue story of Jessica Lynch in Iraq. Just this week, I was shocked to see that Donald Rumsfeld’s admission that the war in Iraq was never about weapons of mass destruction (a complete about-face from his pre-war statements) didn’t even make my local paper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Shouldn’t this be a screamin’ front-page headline: "White House Lied About War Motivations"? From Jayson Blair’s fabricated news to the hyperbolized heroics of Pvt. Lynch, where’s the truth here? Backburnered to focus on stories that attract viewers and readers and, ultimately, make the media bosses richer? Or presented in such a way as to not scare off advertisers?

Probably, on all counts. Upton Sinclair--always an incisor, never a grinder, using Bagehot’s terminology--nailed it when he said, "Politics, Journalism, and Big Business work hand in hand for the hoodwinking of the public and the plundering of labor." Media scholar Robert McChesney described it in modern terms in his report to the UN on media ownership issues:
Alongside its merits…professional journalism also tends to generate a tepid journalism that reflects the range of existing elite opinion. It therefore reinforces conventional business-as-usual politics and marginalizes the new, the critical and the radical, especially if it is threatening to entrenched economic interest. It presupposes the capitalist status quo as the natural and proper democratic ordering of social life. On the most ominous work of the state that requires the greatest democratic monitoring—engaging in war—professional journalism has proven to be mostly a stenographer to those in power.
In the same report, McChesney adds that, "With hypercommercialism and growing corporate control comes an implicit political bias in media content. Consumerism, class inequality, and individualism tend to be taken as natural and even benevolent, whereas political activity, civic values, and anti-market activities are marginalized."

Don’t believe it? Adbusters magazine has been repeatedly told they can’t buy airtime for their Buy Nothing Day "uncommercials" because, according to an NBC spokesman, "We don't want to take any advertising that's inimical to our legitimate business interests" adding that Buy Nothing Day is "in opposition to the current economic policy in the United States." (Sinclair was in the same boat: he had to self-publish The Brass Check because no publisher would print it and no reviewers would write about it.) Those who do make it on network TV and profess non-mainstream opinions are characterized as hippies (peace activists), anarchists (antiglobalization demonstrators), or lunatics (Noam Chomsky). And consider how the Dixie Chicks became pariahs (for a moment) for saying they were embarrassed the president came from their home state, while rightwing loudmouths like Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, Michael Savage (although, thankfully, only on radio now), and Rush Limbaugh can spew hate without any sort of backlash.

How did things get so bad? One could argue, they’ve always been this way, with only varying degrees of severity. McChesney wrote an excellent piece for Monthly Review on Upton Sinclair’s little-known expose on the media, The Brass Check. Pointing out the bias in Progressive Era newspapers, Sinclair reported that newspaper owners used their papers to convey their own, always partisan and usually conservative, points of view. (Clear Channel’s pro-war rallies and their post-9/11 banning of "unpatriotic" songs by John Lennon and others seems to fit in here.) This was the era of "yellow journalism," when "profit-hungry publishers published whatever was necessary to attract the mass readership that would win over advertisers."

These days, the line between corporate America, American media, and the American government seems to blur. The "revolving door" of agencies like the EPA and the FCC is well documented. Likewise, no one’s surprised by the vast sums of money the Bush camp raises through "pioneer" fundraisers like Clear Channel CEO L. Lowry Mays and Enron’s Ken Lay. As Bush aims to raise a record-setting $200 million for the ’04 campaign, that staggering sum is still small potatoes compared to the money in big media. As McChesney reports, the merger of AOL and TimeWarner in 2000 was "470 times greater than the value of the largest media deal in history that had been recorded by 1979"—a sale valued at somewhere around $160 billion. This money, or a portion of it, has got to find its way back to the hands of those who broker the deals. Consider, the recent finding by the Center for Public Integrity that FCC officials met with big media representatives 71 times before the June 2 ownership vote that tipped in favor of corporate media; the FCC only met with the public a handful of times. From 1999 to 2002, the top 25 media companies spent $82 million on lobbying.

Again, looking back to Sinclair’s era, this stuff’s not new. In 1910 Charles Edward Russell wrote in Bob LaFollette’s magazine The Progressive, "If the people of the entire United States could be informed every day of exactly what happens at Washington and the reason for it, the peculiar stranglehold that the corporations have upon national legislation would last no longer than the next election." Well let’s make it so. Let’s be diligent and add momentum to the "media revolution" McChesney spoke of in his recent interview. It’s being spearheaded by groups as diverse as FAIR, Common Cause, Adbusters, Free Press, the Center for Digital Democracy, and others. Join them, then write letters to the editor, to your local TV station, or the ombudsman at the daily paper (Lou Gelfand at the Star Tribune must be pretty sick of me by now). As Harvard professor Hugo Munsterberg wrote in 1911,
If the country is governed by public opinion, and public opinion is largely governed by the newspapers, is it not essential to understand who governs the newspapers?

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