On the Notion of Mainstream Media (MSM)

Posted on April 22, 2020

It is worrying that in the USA a few mega-rich people are controlling most of the big news corporations. The big news media companies are owned by a small number of billionaires (Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post and Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg owns FaceBook, the Murdoch family owns 21st Century Fox and News Corp, which in turn owns the Wall Street Journal, Michael Bloomberg owns Bloomberg Media, Warren Buffett owns several regional daily papers, Carlos Slim has a large share in The New York Times Company, and so on).

Still, the misleading term “mainstream media” or “MSM” is framing from the merchants of doubt, just like “Lügenpresse” (German for “lying press”). These are misnomers introduced by authoritarian politicians (Donald Trump talking all the time of “fake news by the MSM”, Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler heaping scorn on the German “Lügenpresse”). Authoritarians hate it when the reliable media (or: the serious press) draw useful distinctions between the facts and their fabrications, between true statements and lies.

It is true that the serious independent press and the reliable media have been misled on various occasions in the past, and as a consequence they have misled us. In 1932-33, the New York Times denied the true story of the mass starvation in Ukraine. They let their star reporter Walter Duranty print the lie “There is no famine or actual starvation, nor is there likely to be.” When pressed by other journalists, Duranty shifted the subject and started writing about the successes of the Soviet industry. More than 3.3 million people died in the famine, but Duranty decided not to write about it because he had access to Stalin that he did not want to lose. He chose access over integrity, and his method was whataboutism. “Whataboutism appears to broaden context, to offer a counterpoint, when really it’s diverting blame, muddying the waters and confusing the hell out of rational listeners” (from an insightful analysis about this propaganda tactic in the Washington Post).

Maggie Haberman was doing the same in the New York Times in the 2015-16 election season, the months running up to David Trump’s winning the presidency of the United States. Instead of covering the extensive and well-documented financial ties that Donald Trump has to organized crime, the NYT published piece after piece of obsequious “news” about the Trumps and the Kushners. Maggie can’t be all bad, for Trump repeatedly called her a “Hillary flunky” and a “third rate reporter”. Still, the reporters of the Citizen Journalists Consortium are onto something with their request:

Dig on all of Maggie Haberman’s articles and tie them to the other news that was breaking at the time.

We’re looking for an intentional pattern to obscure real news in favor of spinning Donald Trump garbage into gold. We’re looking for obfuscation.

Maggie Haberman’s family is deeply in the PR business; her mother a chief executive at Rubenstein PR, spinning for Donald Trump, but the New York Times never acknowledged this conflict of interest, and so, to use the phrasing of the Citizen Journalists, they allowed an apologist sycophant to cover Donald Trump’s election campaign.

The New York Times shamefully reprimanded one of their star reporters, Chris Hedges, for exposing the way in which the Bush administration was manufacturing consent for an unjust war in Iraq. After the reprimand, for “public remarks that could undermine public trust in the paper’s impartiality”, Hedges left the paper.

On October 31, 2016, the New York Times published an article headlined Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia. This may have put readers at ease, just before election day, concerning such a connection. But it did hide the big news: Donald Trump was under FBI investigation for his links to the Russian mob. And it may have contributed to Donald Trump’s election. To me it is clear that the NYT failed in its duty to inform the American public about an imminent danger to their government. Other news outlets - Slates and Mother Jones - published reports that were revealing a lot more. A headline of Mother Jones on October 31, 2016: A Veteran Spy Has Given the FBI Information Alleging a Russian Operation to Cultivate Donald Trump.

Manufacturing Consent is the title of a 1988 book by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, in which the authors analyze how the mass communications media in the United States are being used for the manufacture of public consent with the policies of the state. The book distinguishes five distortion filters: financial interests of the owners, influence of advertisers, privileged access for the powerful, sensitivity to negative responses, and war-on-terror (originally: anti-communism) as a social control mechanism. The book is a useful reminder of the sources of bias in the news, and of the attempts by the state to use the press for their propaganda.

As George Orwell reminded us, journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed, and everything else is public relations. By that standard, much of what we read in the newspapers is indeed public relations. Maybe Frank Zappa was right when he called US politics “the entertainment division of the military industrial complex.”

And still, the serious press is alive and kicking. Fearless journalists in the spirit of George Orwell continue to do their best to distinguish fact from fiction and to bring us the news that someone else does not want us to read. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post managed to bring the deep throat story about Watergate to the American public, which led to Nixons’s resignation and to the end of the Vietnam war. Journalist Chris Hedges is covering what goes on in America in his blogs and his books. Masha Gessen writes insightfully about Russia and the United States. Peter Pomerantsev writes about propaganda in Russia, in This Is Not Propaganda. Greg Olear had devoted a chilling blog to uncovering the mobster connections of Donald Trump. History professor Heather Cox Richardson is writing Letters from an American to give us a daily digest of what is going on in her country, with electronic links to all her sources.

Once you get the knack of it, reliable information about what is really going on in the world is not all that difficult to find. There are literally countless resources. Once you have found the excellent journalists, you will find that the source of their excellence is their writing style, combined with their meticulousness in pointing us to their sources. You can check their stories for yourself. The only thing it takes is stubbornness and an appetite for reading and research.

Reporting on what is going on in the world can be dangerous, especially in mobster states such as Russia. Look at this chilling list of journalists killed in Russia. Anna Politkovskaya was a Russian journalist and writer who investigated the Chechen war. She was murdered in Moscow in October 2006. We can still read her Russian Diary: A Journalist’s Final Account of Life, Corruption, and Death in Putin’s Russia. It is remarkable that we all have access to insider stories about Russia that the storytellers have paid for with their lives. Alexander Litvinenko exposed the infiltration of mobsters in the Russian state, escaped from an asassination plot in Moscow, started a new life in Great Britain, and was poisoned with polonium-210 in London in 2006. We can still read his book Blowing Up Russia: The Secret Plot to Bring Back KGB Terror and find out why he had to die.

You will have to make up your own mind about the reliability of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. I tend to believe that these people were used for Russian propaganda purposes. The Russian mafia state granted residency to Snowden, and it is hard for me to believe that they did not get anything in return for that. Assange did cause harm to Hilary Clinton’s presidential bid, and is at least partly to blame for the fact that Trump is president now. Edward Snowden exposed the NSA, and made sure the public learned the details of a massive state surveillance enterprise (but the selection of material that got published harmed Hilary Clinton). Anyway, read up on those guys: you will find lots of info if you start with Wikipedia.

Sometimes journalists become activists. Chris Hedges sued members of the US government about the National Defense Authorization Act that allowed the president to keep people in indefinite detention. Look up Hedges vs Obama to read the details (and maybe to conclude, with me, that the United States of America is not a functioning democracy anymore). Politkovskaya was an activist. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published the Panama Papers, chock full of details about the ways in which offshore shell corporations were used for money laundering and tax evasion by the rich and famous. Daphne Caruana Galizia was a Maltese journalist who reported on government corruption in Malta in connection to the Panama Papers. She was murdered in October 2017. Jamal Khashoggi was a Saudi Arabian dissident and a columnist for The Washington Post who opposed the Saudi-Arabian intervention in Jemen. He was assassinated inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018. These are some of the many people who have given their lives to bring us the news that powerful others did not want us to read.

A free press is indispensable for a functioning society of free citizens. Opponents of freedom try to discredit reliable news agencies by sowing doubt. The least we can do is spend time and effort to get informed by the news that talented and courageous journalists bring to us and that others do not want us to read.

The world is mad and chaotic. Horrible things can happen as the revenge effects of well-intentioned policies. Small mistakes can have disastrous consequences. A handful of terrorists can cause terrible destruction. A single madman with a gun can assassinate a president and cause a war or a revolution. Mobsters can gradually corrupt a democratic government. Nobody is in control. The idea that there is no benevolent spirit guiding what is unfolding on this planet is frightening indeed.

Still, we can try to find out what is going on. We can distinguish between trusted news sources and propaganda. We can make sense of what is going on around us. The alt-right is fooling us by directing us away from the serious news, to unverified youtube channels to get the “real information” ourselves. That is a divisive tactic used to lure us away from what is really happening around us. During the impeachment trial, Fox News was treating the live stream as background noise, blotted out by stream-of-consciousness talking points from their anchormen and -women. But the truth was right there, live on TV. To claim that there is a conspiracy to keep the truth away from us is misleading nonsense. There are excellent sources and excellent reporters who work hard to check, question and verify the narratives of governments and corporations. Populist governments and crooked CEOs hate them with a passion. And that is precisely why we should make an effort to read them.