Thomas Paine's Corner
There’s a widespread assumption in leftwing circles that increasing concentration of media ownership is, ipso facto, the main if not sole culprit for the appalling performance of mainstream journalism in our time. Surely there’s a lot to decry, but is media consolidation and deregulation the cause for this calamity? And if the American media have indeed fallen from grace, as it is claimed, where in time do we locate this mythical “golden period” when the media establishment did measure up to its social mandate?
That the American media are palpably in what we might call today a pathetic and degenerate state, if not a free fall toward irrelevancy, should be obvious to thoughtful observers. This reflects the larger forces at work: As US capitalist democracy and general culture evolve due to their inexorable dynamic into ever more predatory and cynical iterations (Bush is more a symptom of the disease than its cause), so do the “relative” quality of the nation’s formal institutions, whether they be at the political center or adjunct, such as the media. But I think that attributing the obscenely bad performance of the corporate media—and television in particular—to concentration is somewhat erroneous. I realize this is by now, mainly thanks to the work of Ben Bagdikian and others, an article of faith on the liberal left. The usual mantra is “It’s the media concentration, stupid!”. But in order for me to believe that claim, that a few decades ago, when diversity of ownership was more widespread than now, everything was honkey dorey in Ed Murrow heaven, you’d have to show me first a period when the American media was substantively better than today, and that, friends, is hard to do, no matter how many media icons you roll out to worship.
Hard if you take the historical record as the arbiter of truth and not the intramural chatter of the profession, which far too many critics seem to have swallowed without examining its self-serving distortions. For at all times the performance of a mass media system must be measured and graded according to output, and this output has been consistently deplorable, for at least 150 years, and shamefully so since the era of supposedly “professional journalism” began in the 1920s. Shall we review this for a moment? (I’m speaking here of mass media, not about the dissenters’ publications, which America has always had.) The question we must ask is: when confronted with severe crises of democracy and criminality in foreign policy, what did the press do?
Consider a few turning points in American history. Let’s take first the infamous “Palmer Raids” in the first quarter of the 20th century. In the wake of the birth of the Soviet Union and the disaster of the First World War, a great upsurge in worker agitation ensued which struck fear in the heart of many ruling classes around the world. The response of the US ruling class, always paranoid to a fault, was swift and unsurprising. As is customary, the target was the “radical movement” and its alleged threat “to the nation” (i.e., big propertied interests). In an article in Forum magazine in February 1920, aptly entitled “The Case Against the Reds,” Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer held forth in near-Apocalyptic terms:
“Like a prairie fire the blaze of revolution was sweeping over every American institution of law and order…It was eating its way into the homes of the American workman, its sharp tongues of revolutionary heat were licking the altars of the churches, leaping into the belfry of the school bell, crawling into the sacred corners of American homes seeking to replace marriage vows with libertine laws, burning up the foundations of society.”
Under Palmer’s direction, and the direct supervision of J.Edgar Hoover, one of the most sordid hypocrites in American history, waves of spies, paid informers, and agent provocateurs were sent into unions, self-help organizations for the foreign born, and leftist groups of many stripes. A special Justice Department publicity bureau was commissioned to concoct and dissseminate stories around the country about a Moscow-directed plot to overthrow the government in Washington. As James Aronson has noted in his classic The Press and the Cold War, press releases were issued daily with inflammatory and highly tendentious headlines, such as, “US Attorney General Warns Nation Against Bolshevik Menace.” Inevitably, once the “radical enemy” had been properly softened through character assasination (a favorite trick), the government’s henchmen moved in to finish the job. On November 7, 1919, as a dress rehearsal, hundreds of foreign-born citizens were arrested throughout the country, many at meetings commemorating the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution. A few months later, on January 2, 1920, raids were carried out in 20 cities with the assistance of state and local police. More than 1,000 were arrested just in New York City, and 400 in Boston, where, as Aronson again notes, the prisoners were marched in chains through the streets. Similar scenes were recorded in many other cities, factories, and communities.
Now, this was a blatant unconstitutional abuse of power, for if freedom of speech and political assembly are worthless when you side with an “unpopular” viewpoint or vision, what is the meaning of protected freedom? We don’t need protection or guarantees when we’re safely ensconced in the bosom of the majority opinion, or fully compliant with the approved status quo. Anyone can loudly proclaim his love for apple pie and motherhood and expect zero retribution for such “bravery” in America. So, how did the media behave? This much more owner-diversified media? Did we see furious editorials and scrupulous coverage denouncing such obvious government overreach?
Well, not exactly. Emblematic of the media’s attitude, on January 3, the day after the raids, The New York Times reported the roundup of “2,000 Reds” putatively involved in a “a vast working plot to overthrow the government.” The headline read: “REDS PLOTTED COUNTRY-WIDE STRIKE–ARRESTS EXCEED 5,000–2,635 HELD.”
By the way, in case you never thought about it, “Reds” is an invidious term calculated to dehumanize radical activists.
On January 5, the American press’ “paper of record” let loose with an even more overt endorsement of the persecution:
“If some or any of us, impatient for the swift confusion of the Reds, have ever questioned the alacrity, resolute will and fruitful, intelligent vigor of the Department of Justice in hunting down these enemies of the United States (sic) the questioners have now cause to approve and applaud…This raid is only the beginning…The Department’s further activities should be far-reaching and beneficial.”
This is the “big property owners” speaking through one of their countless megaphones, approving of their other instrument of social control, the government itself. It’s class-informed “journalism” and nothing but, for what these dangerous “enemies of the United States” were agitating for was a shorter work day, higher wages, and the right of protest—hardly subversive notions in a really free society.
An editorial in Editor & Publisher, the newspaper industry trade journal, later summed up the situation rather neatly:
When Attorney General Palmer started his so-called “radical raids.” so many newspapers entered into the spirit of that infamous piece of witch-hunting that the reputation of the American press suffered heavily.”