News in the 21st Century

How is present day capitalism changing media?

Perhaps more than news itself, the way we receive news has changed much in recent decades. News comes fast, even appearing in unconnected news-items and flashy headlines via Twitter. For future decades, the news we receive is unlikely to get better. In fact, there is a rather strong likelihood that it will get worse. This does not offer much hope for democracy. Conceivably, as the former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, fears capitalism will indeed eat democracy.

If there would be a choice between having a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, many would not hesitate for a moment to take the latter option. Yet, we are rapidly moving in the opposite direction: government without newspapers or quality news. Today, there are already huge geographical areas in the USA that have no longer any newspaper at all. These are News Deserts which has become so bad, there is a special website on the issue.

Yet much of the news we might eventually miss isn’t much to talk about. Far from enlightening the public, much of the news pushes the sexy, dramatic and trivial aspects of society and politics. It features lascivious affairs and poll results that check the effectiveness of propaganda (now sold as public relations). News often focuses on idle speculation about this or that political horse race filled with endless political celebrity gossip. Much is produced and transmitted with an eye to capturing attention.

As online platforms transmit even more stupefying entertainment, trivial nonsense, conspiracy fantasies, etc. that tabloid TV already does, only 20% of Americans say they have confidence in TV news. The statistic was taken even before the grandiose news abuser — Donald Trump — appeared on the scene.

Sometimes occurring prior, but much more noticeably with and after Trump, gaslighting has become a common practice designed to undermine trust in reality and democratic institutions. Gaslighting has also assisted the rise of the radical right with its goal to destroy press freedom. Much of this is not only happening in the USA. Around the world, press freedom is at its lowest point in thirteen years. This comes on top of the fact that one in three people do not understand the difference between an editorial and a news story.

Worse, the online world is knocking off journalism by undercutting its authority as informational gatekeeper. In this process, new platforms emerge with a wide range of pathways to an ever more questionable truth, often skillfully mixed with falsehoods, misinformation and disinformation. Although TV remains the main platform for news, by 2018, two-thirds of Americans received their news, at least occasionally, via online platforms also known as anti-social media sites. Meanwhile, 93% obtain some news online. This is “news” that bypasses the news room, editors and journalists. In short, professional journalism is no longer the pre-eminent supplier of fact-checked news and information that it used to be for the past two centuries.

On a steadily increasing scale, what people perceive as news comes from ideological platforms that conflate fact with ideological opinions publishing falsehoods galore. Often, it is a weaponizing of digital information that serves the radical right. Yet, there are at least nine ways in which such fake news, accidental misinformation and deliberate disinformation can be detected. These are:

1) If it sounds questionable, it probably is. This follows the old saying, if a deal is too good to be true, it most likely is not true and it is not a good deal.

2) If the news story sounds possible but instinctively appears implausible consider the probability that this is fake news.

3) Be careful with dubious news stories that appeal to a biased worldview.

4) Remain vigilant and seek out clues that suggest falsehood.

5) Check whether a news story has come from a reliable site (BBC rather than infowars.com).

6) Make sure that the news story cites respectable sources from government, business, politics, environmental activists, NGOs, etc.

7) If a news story appears strange, check to see if other respectable sites offer confirmatory evidence.

8) Use Facebook’s fact check site.

9) Finally, check the online reliability of a news site from which the news came from – www.newsguardtech.com.

Online reliability, can be found in sources such as CNN, BBC, MSNBC and recognized newspapers like the UK’s Guardian and the New York Times (USA). New York Times articles are shared every four seconds. Similarly, there is also Salon (progressive) and the National Review (conservative). Overall however, the conservative and right-wing media has a somewhat tighter connection among its readers than their liberal counterparts — tribalism is just stronger amongst conservatives.

Whatever their political orientation, many of these sources operate more journalistically rather than by using algorithms. In contrast, Facebook’s algorithms have never prioritize information exchange or adhered to journalistic values. These are values like being dedicated to the truthfully assembling, reporting and verifying of cross-checked information. Facebook is not journalism. It does not even follow the simple “who-what-when-where-why” style of journalism.

Facebook post simply has no normative function. Instead, its algorithms push what provokes the most comments, the highest numbers of clicks — click baits — and creates the biggest controversy. It often creates a feedback loop in which buzzy topics generate yet even more buzz.

Much of this exists by employing slanderous lies, unvarnished propaganda and corporate public relations as well as rabble rousing rhetoric — a reminder of the penny press of the mid-19th century. It offers even less than the infamous yellow press with its fanatical sensationalism and notorious weakness on factual accuracy.

This often comes with a price as does the unlimited belief in free speech. Unrestrained libertarianism can come with dire consequences when for example, more than 11,000 hateful posts appeared on Instagram alone, falsely and viciously claiming Jews instigated the September 11 attacks.

Fox is a good example of the aforementioned yellow press with its selective, niche-oriented branding strategy. Fox aims at dividing people rather than developing programming aimed at reaching the population as a whole. But Fox is not alone when it comes to news bias. Just two example will show this:

1) Interestingly, at the Las Vegas (2017) shooting, Stephen Paddock killed 58 people. The same number of people were killed by guns in Chicago in the span of less than a month, in Baltimore in a little over two months, and in Houston over a 3-month period. Yet, the Las Vegas story received exponentially more news coverage than the other gun homicides. The overwhelming majority of victims of the Las Vegas massacres were white. Many of those in Chicago, Baltimore and Houston — also innocent victims — were people of color.

2) Similarly, the killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida cost 17 lives in 2018. The leading cause of teenage death still is automobile crashes. 2,829 American teens were killed by motor vehicles in 2016. By contrast, less than 3 percent of homicides of children aged 5 to 18 occurred at schools. Yet, one makes the news the other one does not. Hopefully, all this has nothing to do with the car ad on page three or at the side of your Facebook page.

Yet, despite the seemingly endless rise of online platforms and the scholarly attention given to online platforms, conventional media still exerts considerable power with mainstream news outlets producing much of the news content that appears on social networking sites. In other words, online platforms feed off what traditional media produce.

Often this is the news still produced by journalists of whom 92% had a college degree in 2019. Given that reporters tend to have a college education well above the average American might be one reason why some of those who didn’t go to college might the mainstream media. And why Trump loves the poorly educated.

Beyond that, twice as many US journalist (36.4%) are Democrats than Republicans (17.2%) while independence make up 37.7% — viewed another way: 64% of all US journalist do not regard themselves as Democrats. So much for the supposedly liberal media. Yet, when one looks at the content they produce over five decades — 1948 to 1996 — journalists favor Democrats over Republicans but not by much. By and large, journalist do not favor either side.

Worse, between July 2015 and April 2016 the supposedly liberal CNN and the definitely liberal MSNBC gave Trump more than 65% of their news coverage during those spring months. Amazingly, Donald Trump received more coverage than any opponent on the combined cable networks every single day between 2nd of July and 29th of October 2016 — every single day! It was CNN and the MSNBC! — discomforting evidence on the so-called media bias of CNN and MSNBC.

Even worse for the apostles of the so-called “liberal media bias” is the fact that Fox remains the most heavily viewed cable news network in prime time and over the 24-hour day period since 2002. Fox conjures up a larger audiences than CNN and MSNBC. Fox generated more than $1 billion in advertising each year — thanks, in part, to Donald Trump.

Donald Trump also loved Twitter until his account was closed. But he is not the only one. Journalists like Twitter as well. It allows reporters to communicate with a large audience. It also permits journalist and their audience to keep up with breaking news. Newspaper editors like Twitter as well because it can assist journalists to display their personality while offering a hint of spontaneity.

On the downside, journalists have also been reprimanded or even lost their jobs for displaying unwarranted opinions — and reporters do have opinions just like everybody else. Things get dicey when it comes to raucous attitudes and displaying prejudice against gay marriage, for example, in their Tweets. Just as Tweets that report or comment on news, news itself

Is this supposed to be formatted this way?

is not what happens, but what someone says has happened or will happen.

Reporters are seldom in a position to witness events first hand.

They have to rely on the accounts of others.

Leon Sigal’s dictum still remains one of the most famous quotes in journalism scholarship. One might think of cases in which reporters and journalists even of supposedly liberal newspapers like the New York Times, CNN, etc. got fabulously wrong was the destruction of Iraq for no weapons of mass destruction. Thousands of Iraqis and more than 4,000 Americans were killed for a war mongering lie. Reporters were what was called “embedded” into the US military machine. Some say it means in bed with. Newspapers and its reporters parroted propaganda.

Since then, things have gotten worse for journalists and reporters but not because of their compliance with wars and capitalism. Their time-honored business model of relying on advertising fell apart as ad revenue shifted towards online platforms. This had a punishing impact on newspapers, journalists and reporters. Yet unlike newspapers, TV is still going strong.

Like Fox, the conservative US broadcaster The Sinclair Broadcast Group is also a telecommunications giant — part of a media oligopoly. Sinclair owns more than 190 television stations. Most of them are located in the USA. Sinclair’s news reaches nearly four in ten American television viewers. Worse, it was decidedly and consistently pro-Trump. As so often in capitalism, one cannot understand news without appreciating finance, or as Tom Cruise would say, show me the money. And the money is leaving newspapers massively and rapidly.

Beginning in the first decade of this century, newspaper profits dropped. Advertising revenues went downhill, dropping by more than 55% with the most dramatic year being 2007. Meanwhile total advertising profits fell by $26.7 billion between 2005 to 2011, setting a bitter trend in motion that continues today. Perhaps four overall reasons can be identified for this:

1) Most importantly for the decline in newspapers, reporters and journalists has been the emergence of online platforms.

2) Next to this, when advertisements started to shift toward online sites, many newspapers had nothing on offer to counterbalance this trend.

3) Newspapers also experienced a near total breakdown of their distribution model. They offered very little to replace the delivery of newspapers onto customer’s doorsteps and onto newsstands.

4) Finally, the operation of pay walls — hard and soft — offered no real way out of the misery created by online platforms for newspapers.

Today, 2/3 of all American consumers receive some of their news from online platforms like Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, Facebook, etc. with Facebook emerging as the number one gatekeeper. They, like traditional newspaper and TV channels, often prop up the powers that be. In three ways, this is important for the system of capitalism and its two subsystems:

Capitalism: Capitalism depends on compliant media. First and foremost, they create a pro-business atmosphere or what is called the manufacturing of consent that, ideologically, sustains capitalism. The media helps to legitimize capitalism’s concentration of wealth, staggering levels of rising inequality and it creates hallucinations like the trickle down effect.

Politics: In the political subsystem, the media assures democratic rule and the protection of civil liberties without questioning how effectively this works in practice. Parliamentarian democracy, lobbying, dark money and dirty politics is presented as the only game in town.

Culture: In the cultural subsystem, capitalism-compliant artists are flourishing. The media’s massive entertainment industry provides distraction and transmits cultural values that support capitalism. Much of this is sexed up (Tony Blair) through trumped up controversies, an overrepresentation of killings, murder and violence, a focus on sex and romance, and the creation of spectacles and mindless amusement.

These are the handmaiden of the status quo. In these three media systems one is not surprised to find that a whopping 90% of newspaper editors acknowledge that advertisers had tried to influence news content. More than a third said they had caved to advertisers’ pressure. This comes on top of the fact that most editors do not even need to be forced in line. They are executors of capitalism’s ideology and its global hegemony.

Inside the so-called “frightful five” or what the French call GAFMA – Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple — things are no different. Next to online platforms, the standard media monopoly is already bad enough. In Great Britain, for example, just four companies — all operated by oligopolistic media moguls — control a whopping 90% of all daily newspapers. Only North Korea can offer comparable numbers — a county considered to be evil. In North Korea, the media consistently affirm communism. In the UK and elsewhere, they consistently affirm capitalism. One might be called the dictatorship of the proletariat and the other dictatorship of capital.

The tyranny of the global media oligopoly is increasingly defining news, often via the source from where their news actually comes — international news organizations. Invented by German-born Paul Reuter, Reuters for example has diversified its operations so that about 90% of its revenues come from expert and specialist financial data services rather than reporting. In other words, Reuters transmits pure corporate PR.

With such a high degree of exposure to business, corporate bankruptcies like Enron in 2001, Lehnman (2008), Germany’s Schlecker with 52,000 jobs gone (2012) and Wirecard in 2020 (a €1.9 billion bankruptcy) etc. remain largely unnoticed. Worse, the corporate media have presented these corporations as marvelous business organizations often up until the very day before they collapsed. In short, the watchdog doesn’t bark!

All too often corporate media simply moves from the sphere of manufacturing consent to the sphere of legitimizing controversy. Companies, politicians, etc. are considered fair game when entering the domain of rough-and-tumble fights. Yet it remains a shadow fight that stabilizes capitalism by exposing selected companies for corporate criminality — mostly those that cannot be helped anymore.

This is the moment where framing comes in. In the case of corporate collapses, a frame is set up by the media. The word “collapse” therefore frames something that happens almost naturally; something from which we can easily recover. In any case, companies that go down or commit crimes are always framed as bad apples so that the system of capitalism is off the hook. This is the inevitable task of our corporate media.

In the end, news in the 21st century is very unlikely to get better. If anything, it seems to get worse. Perhaps German philosopher Theodor Adorno was right when outlining that capitalism creates pathologies and to camouflage these pathologies, capitalism depends on ideologies. Yet, capitalism also depends on an apparatus to transmit these ideologies. Adorno called it “The Culture Industry”. Under capitalism, the culture industry has one task. It is to engineer what Adorno calls “mass deception”. This is what large section of the media do — every day.

This article was published at CounterPunch on 2 April 2021.

Photo: (source: The Barricade)

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