Media: The Lying Machine
By Satya Sagar
I have finally managed to do it ! Quit the habit ! The horrible, horrible habit of reading the newspaper and watching news on television EVERY DAY !
Let me quickly tell you the results of giving up my addiction. In just two months of ignoring the daily news I breathe better, sleep better, eat better and can think clearly for the first time in many years. Kicking the daily media dose, I can assure you, is like getting over the mother of all modern bad habits.
Of course the disgusting mainstream media coverage of the invasion of Iraq with its (ahem!) bedded journalists, hype and lies has got a lot to do with my decision to quit the habit. But that is not the complete story.
There is something else about the way the modern media has taken over my mind so completely that I am revolting against. The daily involuntary switching on of television news channels. The daily rush to the gate to pick up my morning newspaper. The frantic surfing of internet websites in search of those sensational headlines.
Sorry, I think there is something terribly wrong with the velocity at which all this is happening. In fact, the more I think about it the more I am convinced that if we are to get to the bottom of why the MEDIA SUCKS we should figure out the very physics of wind, heat and matter in motion that combine in deadly fashion to produce this whoooooosh sound.
There is something structurally flawed with the modern media industry. So it is just not enough anymore to complain about the media's hypocrisy or deceit without seeing the roots of such behavior in almost every other aspect of our world too.
But first let us take a look first at the usual reasons why the media machine peddles sensational half-truths and sly lies much of the time. Nothing less than outright lies- is what we have been getting from the media about the US/UK invasion of Iraq all these days. What is it that makes an average journalist lie for a living?
Let me attempt an answer by telling you about the strategy, related to me once by a senior Indian bureaucrat, to keep the media lying on behalf of the establishment. According to him there are three distinct approaches adopted by those in power to keep the so-called 'free' press completely pliant.
The first way to deal with a journalist getting close to the truth is to bribe him/her with money, favors of different kinds, promises of plum posts etc., Many journalists, underpaid as they are in the developing world, succumb to the temptations of such baksheesh.
In a profession where information is the main commodity being marketed, the more sophisticated journalists routinely get bribed with 'scoops' and other special bits of 'insider' information from their sources. While these journalists pretend that they are the ones who are 'cultivating' their sources, it is very often the clever source who is 'planting' stories and reaping an entire 'harvest' of lies through the scribe.
If the journalist persists with telling the truth the second tried and tested method used to silence him/her is to physically threaten him/her or actually beaten up. Again in the developing world this happens only too often with many journalists losing their lives every year. And this is the same tactic that was adopted by the US coalition forces in Baghdad when they deliberately bombed the Al Jazeera channel's offices killing their correspondent or when they shot journalists holed up in the Palestine hotel during the recent invasion of Iraq. Assassination was once considered the most extreme form of censorship but in our age it is evidently becoming the choicest form.
The third and apparently most effective method to get a journalist to lie on your behalf is to pump their egos and lavish them with praise in public. That, said the bureaucrat, will keep the scribe completely servile to your every command for nothing really moves them more than the delusion that they are somehow very important to those in power!!
But moving beyond the level of mere individual hacks, an even bigger obstacle to the profession's ability to tell the truth is the media establishment itself, which imposes a huge amount of censorship on its employees mostly for political or corporate reasons.
It could be a media house trying to win concessions and contracts from the government that kills a piece of news that may adversely affect its relations with the ruling regime. Or it could be a large corporate house that threatens the media owners with withdrawal of lucrative advertising if it went ahead with the broadcast of damaging information.
Given the overwhelming dependence of the media industry on advertising revenues such factors can have a devastating influence on the work of ordinary journalists employed by these media houses. Advertising, which mostly consists of promoting half-truths and lies about commercial products anyway, cannot really be expected to support the telling of truth about anything anywhere.
And what purpose do all these lies serve ? To keep the asses among the masses under perpetual CONTROL of course. For when we open the daily newspaper it is not we who read the news but the newspaper that barks out orders to our subconscious. Think this, think that, vote X, vote Y, you little man !
When you switch on a 24 hour news channel it gets worse. Much worse. For the images flickering at high frequency on your television screen have the power of sheer hypnosis. While you may think you are the one pressing all the buttons the sad truth is that you are the one being controlled remotely. Buy, buy, buy, buy, you bozo ! says the television screen to you relentlessly. And after some time you say bye, bye, bye, bye to your own consciousness for the rest of the day (and the next morning it starts all over again).
Have I become a complete cynic after so many years in the profession? A self-hating hack ? A Judas in the media pack ? Nothing of that sort please, for I would also defend journalists from being specially singled out for criticism.
For those members of the public who believe that most journalists are worthless creatures, who don't have the guts to tell the truth and constantly suck-up to their political and corporate masters - I will say you are damn right. But I will also add however that the proportion of such journalists in the profession is not very different from the general ratio of worthless creatures in the society they come from.
After all is this not what most people do in their daily lives in most professions. Bury the few truths they possess, suppress their nobler instincts, say YES to every demand their bosses make and yet come out of it all with a 'clean conscience'? So why should the media be any different?
Of course, there are those numerous people of courage and character who stand up for their and other people's rights, who are kind and human and generous and do many wonderful things. But the journalist profession too has those who would do honor to the ideals of journalism. Braving bombs, bribes and barbs of every kind- committed to telling the unvarnished truth with complete honesty.
If many members of the public believe that the media, which is supposed to be the fourth pillar of popular democracy has become in fact the fifth column of corporate autocracy I will say you are bang on target. I will again however caution that this has become possible only because as societies we have given up the citizen's right and indeed responsibility to both inform others and be informed entirely to the media industry.
Not unlike the way we have given up the task of looking after our health to the medical industry, our sense of justice and injustice to the legal industry, the education of our children to the education industry, the governance of our societies to both governments and industry. If the media in our times has become powerful beyond purpose or proportion it is WE THE PEOPLE who are to blame. So stop complaining.
To really understand the dubious dynamics of the modern media industry we need to look beyond the fallibilities of individual journalists and even the 'usual suspects' of corporate control over and political pressure on the media industry. I feel we need to understand some of the industry's deeper structural problems to figure out what is going so wrong. In our era of consumerist capitalism in many ways we may need to take a closer look at the idea of modern INDUSTRY itself.
It is my conclusion that the media lies not just due to some slavish, unscrupulous journalists and editors or even their evil, corrupt corporate masters but because the media industrial complex, as it has evolved today, is meant for nothing else except- LYING.
When the media lies it is only doing its job. Like shoe factories produce shoes, car factories produce cars and bomb factories produce bombs- the entire media factory is structured to do nothing else but produce lies- daily, 24 hours a day. The media industry as a whole is a LYING MACHINE (if a few gems of truth drop from your daily newspaper consider this a bait for you to swallow the rest of the day's lies)
Here are some aspects of the modern 'industrial' condition which forces the media to lie all the time and also allows the daily newspaper and 24 hour news channels to have so much control over our lives. These are:
The Time is Money Trap: For long, working as a reporter for several national dailies and television channels in India and later in Thailand I have felt severely oppressed by the very idea of 'daily news'. I understand the need for news per se- to add one more source of information that the public can access. Whether the 'news' is good, bad or ugly is a different issue but there can be a certain value to having a system of public information in any society.
But a newspaper every day ? Why ? What is so 'daily' about news, which like life itself is so unpredictable and random ? Why not print a fat newspaper on days when there is lots of 'news' and take a vacation on days there is none ? Who made the law that says a newspaper has to be brought out every day and that reporters like me have to 'file' copy every damn day ? (And if we can't find anything worthwhile to say 'invent' copy to fill up the daily newsprint.)
The same goes for 24 hour television news channels. Who needs news 24 hours a day except complete lunatics? What else is 24 hours a day in our lives ? Should we allow the yak-yak-yak-yak of the daily news compete with the very beating of our hearts and the natural rhythms of our respiratory systems ? Why have we allowed these maniacal peddlers of news to take over our lives, our minds and spray-paint our innermost thoughts ?
This oppressive regularity with which the modern media churns out its products I believe is part of the larger capitalist syndrome that seeks to convert all human time into money. The Capitalist Clock (together with uninterrupted power supplies that turn our nights into day) has carried out a mechanical coup in most industrial societies. It has taken over our lives completely. And who does this really benefit ?
The factory owners, the bankers and the bosses of every kind of course who need slaves to work round the CLOCK- 24 hours a day. The newspaper and television industry follows the same logic of 24 hours of non-stop work for its employees irrespective of the context and unmindful of the consequences for anybody. 24 hours of the cash register ringing in the moolah from the advertising industry is all that they want. Time for the media, like all other industries, is money- a concept which ironically leaves them little 'time' to tell the truth !
The Human Zoo: In his celebrated book 'The Human Zoo' Desmond Morris outlined brilliantly what urbanization had rendered a large proportion of humanity into. Animals trapped in cages of steel and concrete, shackled by lack of space- both material and spiritual. Articulate animals either chattering away nervously to drive away boredom or listening to others chat away nervously in TV talk shows and 24 hour news channels. Millions of lonely animals, marching lockstep to the commands of remote masters- willing to suspend their own thinking, willing to kill and die- rather than face their loneliness together, collectively, or even in groups of two and ten.
It is in this context that the media industry thrives. By providing the non-stop flow of 'analysis', 'information', 'entertainment' to FILL UP our empty souls, help us lighten the burden of TIME weighing heavily on our frail clockwork consciousness. To create spectacles that tickles our tired brains. Tickle us to death if need be.
And as the news media today competes with the movie and entertainment industries for the hearts and minds of audiences it has steadily adopted the same techniques, the same colour and gloss. The glamorous newscaster on your television screen today could well be the action hero of a Hollywood or Bollywood flick tomorrow. And because of the intensity of this competition between the two industries, the news they show you is usually as fictitious too. All bright, shining LIES.
Cerebral Uber Alles: Is that not the dictum that decides who dominates our societies - the Intellect Above All? Those who think, plot, plan, speculate, theorize, manipulate ruling over those who work with their hands, shed blood, sweat and tears - feet planted on mother Earth? Ok, I know the priests with their magic and tricks in ancient Egypt too got away with daylight robbery but I don't think the political and economic domination of the 'informed' and the 'informers' over the 'uninformed' has ever been to the extent that we witness in our industrial/post-industrial societies.
The internet boom during the nineties was one reflection of the way information had suddenly become the key to all riches. Is it a coincidence today that the richest man in the world for quite some years now is someone who deals with 'software'. Mr Bill Gates - who holds the keys to the gates of information and bills you to open them for a few hours before the next version of the gate (or window) comes along?
I am convinced that the power of the media industry in our societies comes similarly from its control over the gates of public information of all kinds from politics to professional crime (same difference ?). It is because of this skewed distribution of material/monetary resources in favor of those who 'think' and those who 'inform' that the media industry commands the great influence that it does.
(Who the hell was that enlightenment philosopher who claimed ' I think therefore I exist'. A swift kick on the hypotenuse could have sorted out his existential puzzle quite certainly besides forcing him to think about things more tangible, and less tangential.)
Hmmm, so what are the alternatives I have to offer? Is this going to be a random rant against all modern 'civilization' as we know it? Not entirely, I would say. There are plenty of things one can do to subvert the logic of modern media and help create a genuinely alternative way of informing ourselves and others.
To begin with one can stop reading the 'daily' newspaper or watching '24 hour' news channels. Secondly get more active in putting together information, analysis on your own and distributing it to your networks.
But for the larger and long term battle to rescue the media from the iron grip of INDUSTRY here are a few things that we need to get cracking on:
Take back your Time: To begin with we need to challenge the obsession of modern industrial capitalism with making us work longer and longer hours for less and less benefit. The massive struggles by trade unions in Germany, France, Italy and elsewhere to reduce the number of weekly working hours are a welcome step forward. The next step is to distribute the burden of all work equally on a global scale so that no one set of individuals get to do all the 'thinking' while the rest of us spend our lives slogging our butts off. It is the hyper mind and not the idle mind that is the devil's workshop. An idle mind is the beginning of you, me and everyone getting a life. Babies have idle minds too and it is only in the feverish imagination of those who make Hollywood horror movies that babies kill anybody.
Once the Capitalist Clock is thrown out of our lives or suitably bashed up to match human needs the media industry will have to adjust accordingly anyway. No more journalists (like other employees) slaving 'round-the-clock' for their capitalist masters.(I can't guarantee, of course, that we hacks will actually stop lying but at least the frequency with which our lies hit the reader's face will diminish considerably.)
Change your Cities: I am actually tempted to say 'Close down the cities!' Or at least dismantle them and spread out the populations drastically. Bring back some community life into your alienated urban existence.
Also, as far as I have seen most Asian cities are simply unlivable because of the way their sheer concentration of resources sucks in large rural populations that finally end up in their urban slums. So, stop the looting of the countryside and give back the resources already taken from the rural poor. Reverse the terms of trade between industry and agriculture. Share national revenues more equitably between the town and the village.
Boy, if that happens anytime I bet not too many people will either have the 'time' or the inclination to watch 24 hour news channels or read the daily newspaper. Try reading the Wall Street Journal while feeding a cow. The cow will love the Journal surely. And the manure will be very fertile too.
Recover your Reality: It is quite widely recognized that one of the most dangerous aspects of the so called 'information age' we live in is the replacement of our sensual understanding of the world by ' virtual reality'. So the military honcho firing his Cruise missile at a Baghdad suburb thinks he is playing a video game with no physical consequences for anybody. Or the ideologue with his bizarre blueprint for a new 'century' goes about the business of creating an Empire irrespective of its costs in terms of flesh and blood human beings.
If we restore the balance between the physical and the cerebral in our world, the media industry which does nothing else except manufacture `reality' for us to consume, will naturally lose its ability to dominate our lives.
One way to cure this modern disease is to seriously take up the old debate about how the rewards of any enterprise should be divided between the so called 'manual' and 'mental' workers. Since the mind and body are normally inseparable- except while watching 24 hour television- I would vote for sharing all profits 50-50. Mental workers who think they deserve better because they are the ones with all the 'ideas' are recommended to try out living in a concentration camp. The camps are supposed to be very good for one's concentration.
Ha ! Now that I have just managed to talk myself out of a livelihood- anyone cares for some curry and Hindi music ?
Satya Sagar is a journalist based in Thailand. He can be reached at sagarnama@...