Have we ever lived in a pre-‘post truth’ society?
Friday 16th December 2016
DAVID EDWARDS of Media Lens discusses with Ben Cowles how the corporate media’s failure to explore corporate control of its coverage of ‘post-truth’ politics and so-called ‘fake news’ is fake news in itself
IN THE wake of the EU referendum and Donald Trump’s successful presidential election campaign, the concept of a “post-truth” world has become part of the cultural zeitgeist for many on the soft left.
Wondering why liberal media organisations like the Guardian are using the term so frequently, I sought answers from David Edwards of Media Lens, an online project that has been analysing mainstream media bias since 2001.
What are Media Lens’s issues with the term “post-truth” and what (if any) dangers does its usage have on the media and its role as the watchdogs of democracy?
There never was a pre-“post-truth” society — certainly not for at least the 100 years since big business gained a near-monopoly over the mass media in the early 20th century. It should be obvious that profit-maximising, 1 per cent-owned media corporations dependent on corporate advertising and subsidised news from state-corporate sources with the political, economic and legal clout to reward conformity and punish dissent, are not willing or able to report honestly on a world dominated by giant corporations.
Media performance that emerges out of such a system is itself largely fake news. Take any issue you like, a corporate media system will not report honestly Western machinations in places like Iraq, Iran, Haiti, Libya, Syria and Venezuela as imperialism.
The “mainstream” focus on the West’s supposed “responsibility to protect” (a major theme in Guardian coverage) has been used to promote imperialist wars of aggression in Iraq, Libya and Syria. But the idea that Western elites feel a “responsibility to protect,” that they are guided by moral concerns, is fake news — the historical record simply mocks the claim.
Similarly, a corporate media system will not expose the fierce opposition, over decades, of most large corporations (not just fossil-fuel companies) to action on climate change, with perhaps terminal consequences for human survival. It will not honestly expose the corporate media and their advertisers’ role in normalising unsustainable mass consumerism and infinite economic growth on a finite planet. It will not discuss the role of corporate power in “mainstream” politics, leading to the reality described by three-times US presidential candidate Ralph Nader: “We have a two-party dictatorship in this country. Let’s face it. And it is a dictatorship in thraldom to giant corporations who control every department agency in the federal government.”
Why has the term become popular in the liberal media recently?
The British liberal establishment was profoundly opposed to Brexit, just as the 500 largest US newspapers and magazines supported Clinton and opposed Trump. These losses, in the face of immense corporate media efforts, sent shock waves through the Establishment. Elites are far more keenly aware than many on the left that their traditional ability to achieve a “managed democracy” by manipulating public opinion is being disrupted.
Social media have broken the corporate media monopoly. The focus on “fake news” is an attempt to address this problem by discrediting social media and perhaps preparing the way for controls, further demonisation or perhaps even some form of censorship.
The Washington Post highlighted a sinister report by the PropOrNot organisation that “identifies more than 200 websites as routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season, with combined audiences of at least 15 million Americans. On Facebook, PropOrNot estimates that stories planted or promoted by the disinformation campaign were viewed more than 213 million times.”
As Chris Hedges of Truthdig, which is on the list, commented: “This attack signals an open war on the independent press. Those who do not spew the official line will be increasingly demonised in corporate echo chambers such as the [Washington] Post or CNN as useful idiots or fifth columnists.”
Could the term “post-truth” help people to be more skeptical of the things they read or does the liberal media’s usage of this term imply that they are the sole holders of the truth?
It certainly could be useful in alerting people to the need to think critically, to examine the truth of arguments and honesty of sources. But only if the term is rescued from propagandistic use demonising social media and bolstering corporate media.
In the Guardian, author Andrew Smith argued that, post-Trump and post-Brexit, future historians will decide “whether this will go down as the year democracy revealed itself unworkable in the age of the internet.”
Smith’s conclusion was grim indeed: “One day, I suspect, we will look back in disbelief that we let the net-induced friction on civil society reach this pitch, because if we didn’t know before, we know now that our stark choice is between social networks’ bottom line and democracy. I know which I prefer.”
This represents a fierce, McCarthyite attack on social media, published by the “liberal-left” Guardian. Smith focused on “the accidental or deliberate propagation of misinformation via social media” supporting Trump and Clinton.
But he made no mention of the immense, baseless “mainstream” and social media efforts to suggest that Trump was in cahoots with Putin.
In fact, in his discussion of the “deliberate propagation of misinformation,” Smith had nothing to say about the leading role played by traditional corporate media.
And yet we have all lived through an extraordinary 18-month period when corporate media, across the supposed “spectrum,” have relentlessly smeared Jeremy Corbyn.
This has been a rather obvious Establishment attack on a few thin roots of parliamentary democracy offering voters some semblance of a choice from the two main party political “options” serving the business-run status quo.
In all the “mainstream” articles discussing “post-truth” politics and “fake news” — and there have been many hundreds — we have not seen one that has seriously explored the corrupting influence of elite-ownership, profit-orientation and advertiser-dependence on traditional media.
This means, with perfect irony, that corporate media reporting on “fake news” is itself largely fake news.
Why is it important to highlight the hypocrisy of this term and why does Media Lens focus so much on “left-wing” media like the Guardian, Independent and the BBC?
Non-traditional social media run by non-corporate organisations have had an awesome democratising effect in a very short space of time. They have played a major role in the empowerment of Bernie Sanders, Corbyn, Podemos in Spain, and so on.
For the first time ever, non-corporate media are able to challenge state-corporate propaganda instantly to a mass global audience.
It is vital that these media aren’t demonised, presented as a threat and censored.
Our point is that it is not reasonable to expect corporate media to report honestly on a world dominated by corporations.
In order to show that’s the case, we focus on media across the supposed “spectrum” in Britain and also the US.
While we strongly disagree that the Guardian or BBC could ever be described as left-wing, “liberal” media are generally assumed to represent the more enlightened wing of the media system. In other words, if honest reporting and commentary challenging the state-corporate system is going to be found anywhere, it will be found here.
So that’s the place to identify the limits of free speech in society, rather than, say, The Times or The Sun [both Rupert Murdoch-owned].
But in fact, we find that the better media also provide a system-reinforcing role bolstering state-corporate power, defending the status quo and attacking dissent.
• David Edwards is co-editor of Media Lens and author of Free To Be Human — Intellectual Self-Defence in an Age of Illusions. The Media Lens website can be found at medialens.org.
Attacking media outlets that challenge the status quo is not only counterproductive but also dangerous, writes TOMASZ PIERSCIONEK.
The “fake news” hysteria has become the cover for the U.S. government and mainstream media to crack down on fact-based journalism that challenges Official Washington’s “group thinks”: here.