How the Media Serves the State

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In capitalist democracy, the corporate news media reportage, commentary, and "debates" faithfully reflect the dominant class's ideas regarding which imperialist and domestic strategy best suits its interests. This means that the media is the mouthpiece of the ruling class.  When capitalism entered into its phase of decadence, the links between the state and the media were strengthened to the point where the mass media became part of the state apparatus of state capitalism. The media now plays a dual role for the bourgeoisie: strengthening the democratic mystification and serving as the propaganda arm of the state.

The myth of the free press is a fundamental cornerstone of democratic society.  The lie peddled is that "freedom of the press" is at the heart of every bourgeois definition of democracy, supposedly guaranteeing the right to criticize the state and the status quo.   This mystification constantly contrasts the "freedom" of the media and press in the "democratic" West with evidence that in "non-democratic" and "totalitarian" nations, the press is under the thumb of the state. Those of us lucky enough to live in "democratic" society supposedly enjoy the advantage and luxury of a media that is the watchdog of the public interest -- the fourth estate, which safeguards the public against wrongdoing by government and corporate officials. This mystification can be successful only if the media is presented as "independent" and free from influence and control

At the same time that it supposedly operates as the independent watchdog of the public interest against the government and against powerful individuals, the media also serves as the propaganda arm of the bourgeois state.  The present electoral campaign offers an illustration of how the media and the capitalist state work cooperatively to provide news coverage that supports the political priorities of the dominant fractions of the ruling class.  As we wrote in Internationalism 145, what is at stake in the 2008 presidential election is the distancing of the new administration from the Bush regime, especially with regard to its tactics and stance
vis-a-vis American imperialist policy.  Just as importantly, the disillusionment in "democracy" following the 2006 elections, coupled with disgust with the war in Iraq, requires that this election bring back into the fold of democratic mystifications an electorate that has grown more and more skeptical of "democracy."  This requires, above all, that the ruling class stage a credible campaign to attract the vote of the young generation, the ones who have never voted and who may otherwise be influenced by their parents' skepticism. Barack Obama fits the bill. To the high echelons of the American bourgeoisie -- who conduct the real debates behind closed doors, away from the public ear -- it has become clear that Barack Obama could be used to rejuvenate the democratic mystification, overcome widespread political disenchantment, and readjust imperialist policy. The media have simply fallen in line. 

From the start, Barack Obama has been elevated to the status of a prophet.  In the words of superdelegate Rober Byrd, Democratic Senator from West Virginia, who's supporting Obama, this candidate offers a "transformative national vision, a commitment to a new and unifying politics, and to a long-needed truth in governance and international relations."  This is the same line that the media has peddled.

Every time so far that an opponent unearthed an Achilles' heel in Obama's positions or affiliations -- as in the case of his controversial pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright -- the candidate seemed momentarily at a disadvantage only to make an even stronger comeback, thanks to the support of the media.  This is not a matter of how skilled and well prepared Obama's campaign strategists are in responding to  criticisms and accusations or how "objectively" the media report the various scandals and allegations, but rather how the media covers the controversy and what they emphasize. This doesn't depend simply on the shims of media correspondents and executives, but rather on the strength of the support a candidate gets from key elements and groups within the ruling class, including in its permanent state bureaucracy.  Again, the media just follows suit. 

However, we should point out that the fact that the media do their job of propaganda for the state is not a guarantee that the ruling class will obtain the desired results.  In fact, the risk of failing is heightened by the tendency toward a lack of discipline and an "each for themselves" characteristic of decomposition.

We can also see how the ruling class uses the media for state propaganda with regard to imperialist policy.  In every imperialist war, from the Mexican War of 1845-48, to the Spanish-American war of 1898, to WW I, WW II, Korea, Vietnam, even the invasion of Grenada, the Gulf War, and, obviously, the war in Iraq, the media supported the foreign policy initiative of the war, until and unless divergences developed within the bourgeoisie on war policy.  In fact, when parts of the media oppose the official policy of the state, this reflects either a political division of labor intended to legitimize the claims of a free, independent press, or the existence of real divergences within the ruling class.  This was seen clearly in the Vietnam war, where the criticism of the official policy did not reflect a critical section of the media, so much as it reflected which parts of the media were linked to the factions of the bourgeoisie that were critical of the imperialist policy.

It requires a high degree of sophistication for the ruling class to present the media as the ambassadors of "free speech" when in reality they are pawns in the hands of the state.  How do the dominant fractions of the bourgeoisie exert control over the media?

Control is not exerted overtly or directly as in Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany, where the media was directly owned or controlled by the state.  This was a sign of the weakness of the local state capitalism.  The state's inability to mask its control and manipulation of the media weakened its ability to legitimize its domination over society.   By contrast, in the more advanced democracies, control is exerted indirectly through interlocking networks formed by various connections, such as corporate links, whereby major corporations control the media organizations.  A good example of this can be found in the national security industry - for example, GE, which controls NBC news. 

During the ‘80s, the Reagan administration would routinely complain to GE if they didn't like what NBC was doing.  Despite avowals that the corporate parent would never interfere with editorial integrity, they did all the time.  Sometimes  the mere fear that the corporate parent's links to the government might jeopardize  a journalist's career would lead to toeing of the line, suppressing or canceling negative stories about the government's policies.

Prominent journalists and news executives shift back and forth between government, politics and the news media.  ABC's George Stefanopolous was Clinton's press secretary; Tim Russert of NBC was Mario Cuomo's. In the 1980's, Tom Rogers was an RCA executive who became a public affairs official at the Pentagon during the Reagan administration, who then became an executive vice president of NBC News. Roger Ailes, was a media consultant to Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush and then became head of CNBC (NBC's business channel on cable TV), and now serves as Rupert Murdoch's chief executive at Fox News. There's no need for clumsy, heavy handed bossing around of the media when the people in charge are part and parcel of the same ruling elites. They know what to do without being told.

There are other examples of interlocking networks forming the backbone of the ruling class's control of the media.  There are institutional links.  Journalists are trained to think that part of their job is to support the prevailing system (rather than questioning or subverting it).  For example, when the Reagan administration restricted reporters' access to covering the Grenada invasion, media spokesmen complained that they wanted to support the administration, but to do so effectively, they needed to be free to the cover the story in full. "Please let us do our job," said one of the prominent TV commentators.

Neither should we overlook social links - journalists and media executives are part of the same class, they have the same educational backgrounds, went to school together, belong to the same social clubs and groups, and share the same tendency to move back and forth between the government and media organizations. This independence of the media is an illusion that helps to make it much stronger in its true role as an arm of the state.

Instead of falling into the trap of believing in the democratic mystifications surrounding the trumpeted "freedom of speech and the press," we would like to reaffirm a few fundamental lessons learned by the working class in its long struggle against the bourgeoisie, this most sophisticated and shrewdest of all exploiting classes.  "Democracy" can only be a sham in a society divided in classes, where one class holds the monopoly of wealth and weapons.  Here, the media can only be in the hands of the exploiting class and its political organization, the state.  It is clear that under these circumstances the media-sponsored political "debates" are an exclusive privilege of the ruling class, in which the working class does not take part.   The electoral "debates," culminating in the election of the president and vice-president, are nothing but a smokescreen to hide the fact that the choice of the team responsible for carrying out the bourgeois state's policies is something that occurs in the corridors of the permanent bureaucracy.  The media helps the ruling class to attain the desired results through a campaign of mass ideological manipulation.

In contrast to this, we would also reaffirm the method the working class has historically created to secure the most open expression of ideas and divergences aimed at the clarification necessary to decide on what course of action to take. This method is the widest possible, collective debate, which finds expression in the massive assemblies the workers create in heightened moments of struggle, not in any media coverage, TV ad, reportage, or news commentary. Ana 6/11/08