All the News Fit to Omit

The call for a lockdown on digital dissent

Fake news is not news. It’s a time-tested strategy that dates perhaps to ancient Athens. Socrates’ rival sophists were considered by Plato to be intellectual charlatans, an early edition of media deceit and dissimulation. The problem was present in colonial America as well. Listen to what Thomas Jefferson said about it:

The most effectual engines for pacifying a nation are the public papers…A despotic government always keeps a kind of standing army of news-writers who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, invent and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.

One might only add that the public papers are also an effectual engine of outraging a nation, as Woodrow Wilson’s Creel Commission showed. But a new innovation has been added to the sordid history of news propaganda, produced by our self-congratulatory liberal press. The mainstream media (MSM) has taken to blaming the election on an avalanche of “fake news.” An academic has produced a list of so-called fake news outlets; Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has vowed to crack down on fake news; President Obama lectured a somniferous German audience on the dangers of fact-free journalism and “demonizing” people or institutions. The was, of course, world-historical hypocrisy from the author of Cold War II.

But the strategy is nonetheless a threat, because it could easily serve as a pretext to silence alternative media and to more militantly police the internet. This could be the upshot of this election cycle—a serious move by the state to impose thought control on the web. This could very possibly be an instance of what Naomi Klein called “the shock doctrine,” when in moments of crisis elites seize upon a stunned populace to ram through ideologically driven changes under an umbrella of populism. Opportunism at its finest. After a tsunami, use development as a pretext for real estate moguls to relieve fishermen of their valuable waterfront property. After a terrorist attack, use security as the pretext for advancing an open-ended state of emergency or broadening a limited surveillance apparatus. And after an electoral stunner, use “fake news” on the internet as a pretext to suppress digital press freedom under the guise of protecting democracy.

The Pot Fingers the Kettle

That “fake news” is a circulating theme in the MSM is a sign that whatever half-baked mea culpas various editorial boards produced to explain their cyclopean misreading of the American public, they haven’t learned a damned thing from the election, and never intended to. Now The New York Times has published editorials from its board calling for censorship of “fake news” while columnist Nicholas Kristof thinks the main problem with the mainstream media is that it is out of touch with the working class. True enough, but Kristof offers this insight in the midst of an article denouncing alt-right “fake news” without once broaching the topic of rampant falsehoods in the MSM. But these falsehoods must be overlooked because they serve to cloak the crimes of the powerful interests that own the media itself. As journalist Glen Greenwald recently wrote, “The supreme religion of the U.S. press corps is reverence for power.”

At the same time as the MSM rails about “fake news,” it is also fearmongering about Russian propaganda, which is conflated with “fake news” under the rubric of a dark and dangerous internet. More shamelessly deceitful than usual is the Washington Post’s front-page conspiracy theory credits Vladimir Putin with a nefarious propaganda strategy that brilliantly succeeded in “sowing distrust in U.S. democracy and its leaders.” It then references a couple of obscure “reports” on this demos-threatening Kremlin plot. One of the reports, from a group called PropOrNot—satisfyingly peopled by “nonpartisan” researchers—appears to take any non-hostile reportage on Moscow foreign policy as “Russian propaganda.” It makes no effort to present facts to invalidate the content on these sites; since it is not pro-imperialism and pro-war and pro-Washington, it is a de facto lie. The group lists numerous respectable left websites in its roll call of red agents, including truthdig.org, truth-out.org, greanvillepost.com, counterpunch.org, globalresearch.ca, and many others. Of course, the Post’s article is presented as fine, upstanding journalism in the public interest.

PropOrNot defines propaganda as:

A systematic form of persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified target audiences for political, ideological, and religious purposes, through the controlled transmission of deceptive, selectively-omitting, and one-side messages (which may or may not be factual) via mass and direct media channels.

This absurdly inclusive definition effectively indicts every mainstream outlet in the country, and any alternative site on the left or right that concedes its values in advance. In other words, opinion itself is vile propaganda. Who, then, is left to report or opine on the news? Can anyone be trusted to present ‘objective’ facts without slanting their reportage thanks to in-built bias? And who will decide who that is? And is it not a direct attack on press freedom, on freedom of speech, to suggest as much?

In another grand gesture of hypocrisy, the EU Parliament itself codified Western propaganda into a resolution denouncing “disinformation” and “hostile propaganda” and claims “Russian propaganda” “undermines the very notion of objective information or ethical journalism.” Someone should inform the EU that undermining “ethical journalism” was accomplished by the invention of mass-disseminated “PR” by Western groups, including Robert Creel, Walter Lippmann, and Edward Bernays. The EU might also recall that it only exists because of massive pro-EU propaganda that defused public fears that nations would lose their sovereignty under the EU umbrella, which is precisely what happened. Likewise, “Russian propaganda” is again inclusive of any content that refuses to adopt anti-Russian views, and instead critiques the imperial policies of Washington.

But there are plenty of people who see through the ruse. Remember Jefferson’s “standing army of news-writers”? Ron Paul went to the trouble of listing them out. To be sure, any serious list of fake news media would begin with the following media shills, among many others:

  • The New York Times
  • The Washington Post
  • Fox News
  • CNN
  • MSNBC (often skewered as “MSDNC”)

But when we talk about “fake news,” we’re not talking about supermarket pamphleteers claiming Michelle Obama has been abducted by aliens, or crackpot social media posts about Obama’s plan to turn America into a giant Islamic caliphate. It’s much more subtle than that. Author Jay Tabar writes:

While mainstream media informs, it does not make information comprehensible; what it leaves out is essential to knowledge that allows readers to form their own judgment, rather than consume corporate distortions and state propaganda.

Another adverse effect of this pernicious meme is not only to encourage the censorship of alternative news sites, but to imply, if only by extension, that corporate media offers the real news. It would argue this despite decades of research exposing its partisan corporate-guided reporting and its utter lack of scruple in demonizing enemies. The idea is to push social and digital media companies like Twitter and Google and Facebook into self-censorship. Anyone that’s ever worked in a corporation knows that there is no real free speech inside the corporate sanctum–at least without severe repercussions for challenging the party line. Which leads us to another long-lived piece of invective still smoldering from the McCarthy era.

Smearing the State

In an era of corporate rule, the idea that “state-owned” media would be more dangerous or partisan than “corporate-owned” media should hardly be dignified with a reply. But this miserable trope keeps circulating, most recently in this pathetic reaction of State Department spokesperson John Kirby to questions from an RT journalist about his accusations against Russia. First, he refused to give evidence to back his claims that Russians target Syrian hospitals. Then, as an American journalist, rather admirably, steps up to defend her right to pose the question, Kirby whips out the “state-owned media” defense to smear and discredit RT.

What precisely, Mr. Kirby, is the difference between state-owned and corporate-owned media? Why is the former something to be dismissed with contempt while the latter is a beacon of journalistic purity? Despite this author’s disgust with the corollary smear that governments are inefficient, it must be conceded that corporate media are the more efficient and persuasive falsifiers of reality. Decades of practiced hostility and dissimulation in relation to labor have given corporate business a comparative advantage in the business of fabrication. State propaganda feels clumsy by compare.

It’s even more farcical when one thinks of the myriad propaganda organs of the American state, which declare themselves to be NGOs, including the National Endowment for Democracy and its capillary outgrowths, the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democracy Institute (NDI). But these nominally nonpartisan orgs are infested with partisan Congressional ideologues and are funded by the State Department. The truth is, any corporate- or state- or alt-owned media—from the Washington Post to RT to Black Agenda Report and Counterpunch—ought be scrutinized for the accuracy of its content. Kirby’s attempt to cast suspicion on state-owned media is fair in isolation, but he used the term to deflect attention from his own lack of evidence.

Confirmation Bias and the Addiction to Fakery

In the wake of the tear-strewn funereal rites that followed the election, there’s been a risible surge in subscriptions to establishment liberal publications. The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Nation, and Mother Jones have all seen giant spikes in subscriptions as cloistered bi-coastals clamor for answers. The thought of shaken corporate liberals scurrying to ideological safe spaces is amusing until to you think about what’s really happening. These magazines will mostly funnel their “terrified” acolytes back into the Democratic fold, using four years of demented Republican deregulation to prop up the mummified corpse of the Democratic Party. Voters will never learn so long as they cling to the megaphone of corporate liberal media. Unless the bourgeoisie (corporate liberals) are unhitched from their MSM IV drip, campaigns like Jill Stein’s won’t hit the five percent threshold, and radical change will continue to circulate in the ether, just so much background noise behind the din of token reforms trumpeted by future Democrats.

The Vicious Cycle

Fortunately, just 32 percent of the country have a fair to strong level of trust in the mainstream media. It seems that the scales are falling from the eyes of citizens around the world as well. Yet if corporate monoliths succeed in suppressing alternative media, Democrats will be well positioned to recapture power. There’s a fresh crevice in the global media complex, one that has a discredited mainstream reeling from its own navel-gazing ignorance, and weakly resolving to return to real journalism, a promise no one believes. The faultline may be pried open by the right wing or the left wing. But time is short. The corporate forces behind the MSM are already using the fake news pretext to foreclosure growing avenues of dissent. What new steps will be taken to further shutter the freedom of opinion and impose forms of thought control on populations? It’s the so-called liberal media that wants to build a wall, not between Mexico and the U.S., but between voters and the truth and, just as importantly, the freedom to pursue it.

The Fourth Estate is supposed to hold power to account. As Joseph Pulitzer put it, “to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” The irony is that the mainstream media has abdicated its original purpose, and now offers succor to the comfortable, while working to disguise in darkness the abject condition of the afflicted. Dissent is the Ariadne’s Thread of democracy. If we lose the thread, we will find ourselves lost in a maze of the very misinformation the mainstream proposes to remove, yet with no tools with which to challenge it, out it, and offer freethinking alternatives.

Jason Hirthler is a writer, strategist, and 15-year veteran of the communications industry. He has written for many political communities. He lives and works in New York City. He can be reached at: jasonhirthler@gmail.com. Read other articles by Jason.