Jayson Blair and the Myth of the Free Press
For more than a month the prestigious New York Times, and the media in general, have been shaken by the Jayson Blair scandal, which has put into question the veracity of the mass media that the ruling class relies upon to manipulate and mold mass consciousness in contemporary society. Blair was exposed for plagiarizing and even fabricating more than 73 national news stories over the past year. To repair the damage to its credibility, the Times devoted four full pages of its May 11th edition to detailing Blair’s transgressions. This “coming clean” by the self-styled American newspaper of record was supposed to reassure the public that the New York Times was more than capable of cleaning its own house. The whole thing was very reminiscent of the New York police department’s self-investigations of police brutality complaints. Journalists around the country rushed to the defense of the Times, praising the newspaper for confronting the scandal head-on. As one apologist put it, “the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post are dedicated to reporting the truth.”
For revolutionaries the current affair is not particularly shocking. Blair’s misdeeds pale in significance in light of the daily onslaught of propagandistic half truths and outright falsifications perpetuated by the mass media in defense of the state apparatus to which it is attached and which it defends unequivocally. But for the ruling class the scandal is embarrassing because it potentially undermines confidence in the so-called “free press” which is ideologically touted as a foundation stone of democratic society. There is a myth about the media as the fourth estate which asserts that an informed citizenry, capable of participating in the decisions that affect their lives, is the essence of democracy. In reality, all three elements that make up this myth (informed citizenry, participation in decisions, and democracy) are totally groundless.
“An informed citizenry”
The whole idea of an “informed citizenry” is completely fictitious in capitalist society. “Informed” about what, by whom, and for what purpose? A cornerstone of American journalism is the idea of “objectivity” in reporting the news, an idea that developed only in the beginning of the 20th century. The view that journalists can transmit the central elements of what happens in the real world through a formulaic transmission of information that includes the who, what, why, when, where and how of significant events in society free of bias is the linchpin of American journalism’s self-image and by extension, America’s “democratic” self conception. However, the notion that news coverage is not reality, but a story about reality, and it is marked and shaped by a variety of social institutions, codes of behavior, and practices, that make “objectivity” a chimera is generally accepted even by bourgeois academics in media theory. It is not the facts that determine the story that is written, but rather the story that editors have assigned to a reporter that determine the facts that are selected for inclusion.
Modern journalism as it exists in the US is a creation of decadent capitalism, in which the media has become fully integrated into the state capitalist apparatus as a tool to control popular opinion in the interests of the ruling class. During World War I, government information offices were created to manipulate public opinion as part of the war effort, and it was after the war that the first journalism schools were created in the US and the new generations of journalists were inculcated with the notion of objectivity, which facilitated the integration of the media into the state apparatus. Whatever Jayson Blair’s evil deeds, it was the media as a whole which fed the public all the administration’s lies about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and ties to al Qaeda and Asama bin Laden as a pretext for war.
For marxists, truth is inseparable from class perspective. From the perspective of the ruling class, capitalism is a progressive system, in which the laws of the market determine an equitable distribution of wealth, and workers receive a fair wage for a fair day’s work. This capitalist version of reality, based on the exploiting class’ inability to see itself as the personification of an historically anachronistic mode of production and social relations, is supported by all manner of official and non-official data and evidence to demonstrate its truthfulness. From the perspective of the working class a completely different reality is abundantly apparent: capitalism is a ruthless system of exploitation of labor that offers humanity a stark choice between barbarism or revolution.
“Participating in decisions”
Exactly how do workers, or any individuals in society for that matter participate in the decisions that affect their lives? Any decision we make is totally limited by the circumstances in which we live even on the most personal basis. Sure, we can go to a theater and see any movie we want, but who decides on what films are made and distributed? Sure the capitalist state allows citizens to vote for president, but who decides who runs for president? We can only choose between the limited options the system allows. According to bourgeois propaganda, citizens participate in these decisions of state policy indirectly because their elected representatives make the decisions in the legislature or the executive branch. And in any case, in what way does “choosing” the president have any bearing on the policies that the government pursues?
There are many examples of the farcical nature of this alleged participation in decision making. For example in 1964, Lyndon Johnson won election by portraying the Republican candidate Barry Goldwater as a war monger and promising “no wider war,” but as soon as he was elected, Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam.In 1991, on the eve of the Gulf War, public opinion polls showed a majority of American citizens opposed to war, yet that didn’t stop the elected representatives from launching war. Likewise, a majority of Americans were opposed to war in Iraq, at least without UN sanction, but that had no impact on the decision making in Washington. For a more local example, see the account of the fraudulent financial reports used by the New York Transit Authority to ram through the recent 33 percent fare increase (p. in this issue). While this case is still kicking around in the courts, there is absolutely no one talking about any criminal liability for the board for its fraudulent financial record keeping and willful misleading of the public. Why? Because they didn’t do anything that isn’t part and parcel of the everyday functioning of capitalist government.
The Idea of “Democracy”
This brings us to the third and most pernicious element in this fraudulent myth – the very idea of “democracy” itself. The reason that the bourgeoisie constantly inundates us with propaganda extolling its “democracy” and “freedom” is precisely because the opposite is true. We don’t live in a“democracy” where, by definition the people rule, but in a class dictatorship, where the capitalist class imposes its domination on society, especially on the working class, which produces all the wealth in society, and provides all the services that allow society to function but is totally excluded from the decision making process. The reality of this class dictatorship is covered over by all the trappings of bourgeois democracy: the free press, the electoral circus, clap-trap about inalienable rights, etc.
First of all, there has never been a true “democracy” in all of human social history, which has been characterized always by class rule. The much vaunted Greek democracy was in fact a slave society where democracy was reserved for male citizens only. The democracy established by the American revolution was initially a property owners democracy, with rights denied to workers, women, and slaves. Sure, in the ascendant period of capitalist development the ruling class used its democratic state as a mechanism for determining what policies its class dictatorship would implement, and it was therefore possible during that bygone era for workers to use the parliamentary system to play one faction of the bourgeoisie off against another and wrest certain structural reforms or improvements in the standard of living from the bourgeoisie. But with the passage the capitalist system into its decadent phase at the beginning of the 20th century, that characteristic of the capitalist dictatorship changed, and bourgeois democracy became 100 percent mystification. Real decision making power now resides firmly in the executive branch, and is exercised behind closed doors in the global interests of the national capitalist state, not in the legislature. In decadent capitalism, bourgeois democracy is a massive social swindle.
While the media would like to use Jayson Blair as a scape goat for media shortcomings, it is in fact the nature of journalism in capitalist society that it serves the interests of the ruling class, as a transmission belt for the capitalist propaganda and a central mechanism in manipulating and derailing class consciousness.
– J. Grevin