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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 9/8/13

How Ahistorical Journalism Serves Power

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Oscar Wilde referred to Western history as a "calendar of infamy." 1963 should stand as a prominent mark on such a calendar. It was in this year that covert CIA operations assisted the Ba'ath Party in its overthrow of the governments of both Syria and Iraq. These two U.S.-organized and -funded coups were directly responsible for the eventual rise of power of dictators Hafez al-Assad (the father of Bashar al-Assad) in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

You won't read about the '63 coups in a U.S. newspaper, however.

array of newspapers at the Newseum
array of newspapers at the Newseum
(Image by n0nick)
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array of newspapers at the Newseum by n0nick

Contemporary journalism has a horrendous habit of considering history superfluous. If an event happened more than two--maybe three, if you're lucky--decades ago, it's impertinent. We just want the "facts," and we want them now. No nuance, no complexity, and, Ford forbid, please no ambiguity. Ahistorical "journalism" is the norm; historical framing is abnormal.

The problem is, in order to adequately consider the problems we face today, in order to understand all of their implications, we must take into consideration the historical contexts in which they are situated. Syria didn't just appear yesterday. The civil war didn't just happen today. These things are the products of a series of historical, politico-economic factors.

In lieu of an historical context, the corporate media, as a remarkably homogenous whole, prefers a partisan context. Generally speaking, although both are execrable, the conservative corporate media is doing a much better job of covering Syria of late than is the liberal corporate media. Why? Because it's a Democrat who wants to do the bombing.

There's good reason the corporate media eschews complexity in reporting. Complexity lends itself to ambiguity. Even worse, complexity inhibits the ease with which one can disseminate simple, watered-down "news," confusing and alienating readers (and potential readers), who have gotten used to a world in which events are always either black or white. Worst of all, the communication of complexity simply takes more words, and thus more human labor--and thus more compensation. All of these consequences are obvious obstacles to profits, and, in a capitalist framework, should consequently be mitigated--or, better yet, eliminated.

Murdoch, the always "forward"-looking capitalist, famously framed Fox "News" as a product being marketed to a consumer. "There was room for another point of view and another service," he insists, at a 15-year celebration of its "fair and balanced" reporting. "We like to give people a choice." In this brave new world, it's not about providing, you know, actual news coverage; it's about providing a "service" (a monetized one, it goes without saying), about giving consumers a "choice" as to which facts they would like to see disregarded and which facts they would like to see overemphasized and distorted. In this new age of techno-capitalism, "journalism," information, reality itself is commodified, manipulated to serve profits, mass-marketed and sold to the hungry consumer. There is a demand for a far-right-biased "news" source, Murdoch recognized. He, a faithful servant of the Almighty Free Market - , merely responded to such consumer demand with a plentiful supply.

CNN, MSNBC, and others quickly caught on, toeing the party line of liberal faction of the same Business Party. As John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney write in their recent book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (all emphases mine):

"Michael Wolff characterized Fox News as "the ultimate Murdoch product," because it brought tabloid journalism to American television. What has been missed in the analysis of Fox News is the business model of tabloid journalism: dispense with actual reporting, which costs a lot of money to do well, and replace it with far less expensive pontificating that will attract audiences. For a tabloid news channel, that means the value added is a colorful partisan take on the news; otherwise the channel has no reason to attract viewers. Former CNN head Rick Kaplan told the story of how he was confronted by Time Warner executives in 1999 or 2000 who were dissatisfied with CNN's profits despite what had been record revenues and a solid return. "But Fox News made just as much profit," Kaplan was informed, "and did so with just half the revenues of CNN, because it does not carry so many reporters on its staff." The message to Kaplan was clear: close bureaus and fire reporters, lots of them. In short, Fox News is the logical business product for an era where corporations deem journalism an unprofitable undertaking."

It is easy to see how journalism is an "unprofitable undertaking." "The customer is always right" is the Golden Rule of consumer capitalism. When one offends a customer, one offends potential profits. Global affairs, however, political machinations, economic maneuvering, all of these are inherently inconsistent and irregular forces. Inconsistency and irregularity tend to be unpleasing trends. To ensure that such unpleasantness does not prompt offense, all "news" must be forced through a narrow, unvariegated filter. A particular kind of action (e.g., military intervention by a "democratic" country) becomes inherently "pro-freedom," by its very definition; its particular historico-politico-economic context needn't be considered. Another kind of action (e.g., nationalization of natural resources to benefit the entire population, and not just a small elite) becomes, always and everywhere, "anti-freedom." Such axiomatic logic ensures a steady supply of the consumable product ("journalism"), to meet a steady consumer demand (a desire, and even necessity, to understand what is happening in the world around one's own self).

It is obligatory that capitalism expands, lest it collapse in on itself. New markets must be created; "creative" entrepreneurs must necessarily think of new aspects of life to commodify. Perpetual growth is not optional; "there is no alternative." It was only a matter of time until the news, until reality itself, was transformed into a product. By "dollarocracy," Nicols and McChesney of course mean capitalism, the system as a whole, yet are afraid to overtly recognize it as such, to avoid red-baiting (and encourage book sales).

The first victim in the commodification of journalism is history. The ways in which power and capital struggle to obfuscate and bury unpleasant histories are in fact quite remarkable. One must admit, it does take a certain kind of ingenuity to erase entire peoples', entire lands' histories from public consciousness (see: the treatment of Palestine in the corporate media).

Zhou Enlai once quipped "One of the delightful things about Americans is that they have absolutely no historical memory." The jesting nature of the comment aside, there is a degree of truth in it. We live in a culture in which a serious study of history is not only not valued, it is highly discouraged, looked down upon. Those who choose to study history in college are seen as foolish, because they are not studying something profitable, like business or ("free" market) "economics," or even stupid, because they obviously weren't smart enough to get into a lucrative "Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics" program. As a result, the privileged, educated class of the U.S.--those with leadership positions, those with the power to make decisions that affect the way the rest of us live--is often somewhat knowledgeable of the sciences, but has absolutely no sense of history. And, when you have no sense of history, it is as if you were "born yesterday," historian Howard Zinn reminds us, in a most prescient warning on "Conversations in History" in 2001.

"If I don't have any history, then whatever you, the person in authority, the president at the microphone, announcing we must bomb here, we must go there--the president has the field all to himself; I cannot counteract because I don't know any history. I can only believe him. I was born yesterday. What history does is give you enough data so you can question anything that is said from on high, and you can measure the claims that are being made by people in authority against the reality. And you can look at similar claims that were made before, and see what happened then. Here's a president who's saying "We're going to war for democracy,' and then you go back through history and see how many times have presidents said "We are going to war for democracy' and what have those wars really been about."

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Ben Norton is a freelance writer and journalist. His work has been featured in Mondoweiss, Electronic Intifada, CounterPunch, Truthout, ThinkProgress, and ZNet, among other publications. His website is Follow him at (more...)

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