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Corporate media and the state

Kevin Taghabon

March 29, 2017

An antidote to the mealy-mouthed cries of "liberal media" has been delivered in Fred Peabody's powerful new documentary, All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone. Ryerson's Centre For Free Expression held a free screening on March 23, which featured an introduction and discussion about the film with producer Peter Raymont. All Governments Lie uses Stone's legacy to familiarize the audience with the I.F. Stones of today.

Peabody treats the audience with a powerhouse list of contemporary journalists as featured subjects, including Democracy Now's Amy Goodman, The Intercept's Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald, Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi, and veteran journalist Chris Hedges. Michael Moore, Ralph Nader, and Noam Chomsky also have a fair amount of screen time. Chomsky's groundbreaking book with Edward Herman Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media is duly anointed the "Rosetta Stone" of media critique.

The documentary is partially based on Myra McPherson's book of the same name. The majority of the runtime is spent not on I.F. Stone, but with the aforementioned dissident journalists who have been shut out of the mainstream media. Amusingly, the film reveals that Marilyn Monroe was a subscriber to the famous I.F. Stone Weekly newsletter and that she bought subscriptions for every member of Congress. Stone researched and assembled the Weekly single-handedly, which had enormous influence. Noam Chomsky and Albert Einstein were among some of his subscribers, and the latter once asked Stone to meet.

Balance: a corporate finger on the scale

One of the most liberating aspects of the film is the repeated debunking of the cult of news impartiality. The featured journalists know this is a fraudulent cliché. Daily weather reports are not equal shared segments between meteorologists, astrologists, and the Flat Earth Society. In the same vein, most stories have the truth on one side and corporate interests on the other. MSNBC, for example, is General Electric's news division. G.E. also happens to own Lockheed Martin, and so the perpetuation of war is profitable. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos happens to own The Washington Post. The Post is unlikely to ever investigate Amazon's “gruelling and inhumane” working conditions. In 2013, the CIA gave Amazon a $600 million tech contract, whom the Post is also presumably tasked with reporting on.

These conflicts of interest are never highlighted in the respective news divisions, because for the corporate press all that matters is profit. As CBS CEO Les Moonves said in 2016 about the popularity of Donald Trump on his channel, "it may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS...bring it on Donald."

Independent media

“There are only two types of reporters,” says Chris Hedges in the film. “Those who care, and those who don't...If you care, you are immediately branded as political...I.F. Stone cared...the reporters who care about truth will eventually become a management problem.” The audience sees the consequences of this repeated time and again in All Governments Lie. Hedges says that the careerist priorities of the unremarkable result in media organizations led by mediocrities, including The New York Times. Hedges himself was run out of the Times for denouncing the Iraq War within a year of winning the Pulitzer Prize at the paper for his coverage of Al Qaeda in Paris.

Peabody shows us that those who act ethically and exclusively in pursuit of truth are demoted or terminated. Cenk Uygur of the independent news outlet The Young Turks (TYT) started his career at MSNBC. After asking a Republican representative on air to square surges in war spending with fiscal conservatism, he was given a stern talking to directly by MSNBC president Phil Griffin. He was fired a few months later. Uygur went on to found the now-successful TYT network. He admits some of TYTs audience abandoned them when, after Obama's election, the outlet staunchly criticized his corporate-friendly agenda. “Good journalism today has the state in its crosshairs,” says Jeremy Scahill, and Obama was no exception.

Uygur takes issue with passive citizens who innately trust governments in democracies. Mainstream news organizations, despite their nominal independence from the state, do the citizenry no favours. “All people lie,” he says, yet after decades of CNN news broadcasts, “when have you heard CNN say 'the government is lying'? according to CNN, the Pentagon has never lied.”

Reporters who care understand the narrowness of discourse in the same way that good academics do. In his talks Chomsky often mentions the discussion about transportation being limited to private vehicles—be they hybrid, electric, or gasoline. The mass public transit option is not mentioned. Nermeen Shaikh of Democracy Now points out a similar false “discussion” and impartiality at the Calais Refugee Camp in France. “Why are these people here?” she asks in a particularly emotional moment of the film. Shaikh points out that the mainstream media fails to ever mention that these refugees all fleeing from warzones created by the US and its allies. These are not masses of people who have spontaneous misfortune visit them. Placed on a map, the sub-sections of Calais resemble a destroyed and reassembled map of Middle Eastern countries the US has bombed.

Corporate press

It takes little effort to convince most that during the lead up to the Iraq War the Bush Administration's top officials lied in ways that now looks comically stupid, including by repeating catch phrases like “aluminum tubes” and “yellow cake”. Peabody reminds us that these lies did not go spewed in a vacuum. The chief cheerleaders for the invasion of Iraq were the much-venerated big “free press” institutions. Like toddlers, the media was fed information by the administration's dubious sources, and the administration mopped up whatever was regurgitated and used it as evidence. Peabody has Amy Goodman lead viewers through clips from all the mainstream network news outlets (CBS, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, Fox) as an “endless parade” of generals and former defense contractors parrot administration-scripted lines in favour of the war. “We don't have a state media,” she says “but if we did, how would it be any different?...It's easy to pick on Fox News, it's Fox News. (The problem is) it's Fox, CNN, the New York Times, it's all of them.”

Indeed even The New York Times, to their eternal shame, printed unchecked articles from dubious pro-Bush sources that fell in comfortably with the media zeitgeist. “Conventional wisdom is the enemy of good reporting,” says journalist Carl Bernstein, author of All The President's Men. “The New York Times printed stories that were contrary to the truth.” Many articles were filed by veteran reporters Judith Miller and David Gordon. Miller's name will forever be synonymous with war propaganda in journalism circles.

Tepid celebrations of mainstream media outlets have come about in recent weeks, institutions which have appeared both as wounded puppies and brave professionals checking the Trump administration. While the newfound adversarial tone of the media is commendable (Van Jones' recent capitulations aside), it is woefully insufficient and anything but unified. When Trump labelled CNN's Jim Acosta as “fake news” at a January press conference, the reporters in the room did not turn their backs or defer to Acosta's question in solidarity. “That was one of the saddest moments in the history of journalism,” producer Peter Raymont said at the post-screening discussion. “Nobody supported the guy. I think that's gotta change...there has to be some sort of solidarity. They have to band together. It's a toxic, toxic environment.”

Raymont, prompted by a question by a student in the audience, provided a potential action to quell some of the influence the corporate media has on public discourse. “I think it's important for journalists and publishers and editors to reveal who owns their newspapers and television networks, and institutions...who owns what you're consuming? That would be useful.” In some countries it is illegal for a news organization to be affiliated with another corporation, though such a law has not been proposed here.

Protect press freedom in Canada

All Governments Lie features exclusively American subjects, while the team behind it is almost entirely Canadian, including the institutions that helped fund the project. This is quite appropriate in our moment. The false sense of comfort cultivated by looking south of the border and smugly thinking “it's better here” is something Chomsky and Herman chastised Canadians for in Manufacturing Consent.

Justin Trudeau's government is currently levelling criminal charges against The Independent reporter Justin Brake for his coverage of a Muskrat Falls hydro dam. Additionally, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled this week in favour of the Trudeau government and against Vice journalist Ben Makuch. The ruling forces Makuch to turn over private chat logs and notes to the RCMP and has dangerous implications for press freedom.

Canada incredibly is the only developed nation without a press shield law. Bill S-231, the Journalistic Sources Protection Act, seeks to amend this. You can contact your Member of Parliament to support this Bill by using this tool. Additionally, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has set up a petition you can sign which calls for an end to mass surveillance, a repeal of Bill C-51, and support for Bill S-231.

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