This commentary, however, is not about the merits of Howard Dean. If a mildly progressive, Internet-driven, young white middle class-centered, movement-like campaign such as Dean’s -- flush with money derived from unconventional sources, backed by significant sections of labor, reinforced by big name endorsements and surging with upward momentum -- can be derailed in a matter of weeks at the whim of corporate media, then all of us are in deep trouble. The Dean beat-down should signal an intense reassessment of media’s role in the American power structure. The African-American historical experience has much to offer in that regard, since the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements were born in a wrestling match with an essentially hostile corporate (white) media. However, there can be no meaningful discussion of the options available to progressive forces in the United States unless it is first recognized that the corporate media in the current era is the enemy, and must be treated that way.
It is no longer possible to view commercial news media as mere servants of the ruling rich -- they are full members of the presiding corporate pantheon. General media consolidation has created an integrated mass communications system that is both objectively and self-consciously at one with the Citibanks and ExxonMobils of the world. Media companies act in effective unison on matters of importance to the larger corporate class. For all politically useful purposes, the monopolization of US media is now complete, in that the corporate owners and managers of the dominant organs are interchangeable and indistinguishable, sharing a common mission and worldview. (That’s the underlying reason why their “news” product is nearly identical.) Monopolies do not require a solitary actor -- an ensemble acting in concert achieves the same results.
In the past year we have seen consciousness-shaking evidence of the corporate media’s implacable hostility to any manifestation of resistance to the current order. Media rushed to embed themselves in the US war machine’s Iraq invasion, and collaborated to actively suppress public awareness of a full-blown movement against the war. Hundreds of thousands of protestors were made to disappear in plain sight. Corporate media conspired -- which is what businessmen in boardrooms do as a matter of daily routine -- not only to shield the public from dissenting opinions (their usual assignment), but to drastically diminish, distort and even erase huge gatherings that were profoundly newsworthy by any rational standard. This is not mere bias, but the end result of the corporate decision making process. There is no line separating “news” producers from larger corporate structures, nor can media companies be neatly segregated from the oligarchic herd. Corporate media’s ties to the Pirates in Washington are organic and nearly seamless. Their collusion seems almost telepathic, because they share the same class and worldview -- the most far reaching consequence of media consolidation.
The corporate media is a window on the dialogue among the rich. They are saying loudly and uniformly that even mild resistance to their rule will be treated as illegitimate and subjected to censorship and ridicule by their media organs. The scope of tolerable dissent has been narrowed, as reflected in the behavior of corporate media. The Dean beat-down is just the latest twist in the tightening of the screws.
The thoroughly Republican nature of corporate opinion molding mechanisms is evident in their treatment of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. The media giants subjected Clinton to the full fury of the Hard Right’s campaign to destabilize his presidency, ultimately resulting in impeachment hearings. Al Gore, a sitting vice-president seeking the top job in 2000, was reduced to a caricature by the corporate press corps and punditry -- the torture of a thousand daily cuts. Gore’s cardboard image was the cumulative product of relentless corporate press commentary, disguised as reportage. Jay Leno and the other late night jokers feed off carrion that has already been slaughtered by corporate “news” media.
Clinton’s Republican predecessors were not subjected to anything approaching such scrutiny and abuse. It is self-evident that George Bush, who should have been buried under a glacier of scandal and criminality within months of entering the White House, enjoys the full-time protection of the corporate press. Their institutional intention is to elect him again. Media apologists offer fictions about press vs. power, when in reality corporate media = corporate power, just as Bush = corporate power. The Democrats are not part of this equation.
Thus, the rich men’s media descended on the Democratic Party primary process in order to mangle and denigrate it, while propping up the corporate champion in the White House. The New York Times, through its chief political reporter, Adam Nagourney, set the parameters of coverage by eliminating any mention of the three “bottom tier” candidates -- starting with his “analysis” of the May televised debate in South Carolina, a state in which Al Sharpton is a key player! Nagourney systematically erased Sharpton, Kucinich and Carol Moseley-Braun from his weekly coverage of the contest -- a professionally suicidal routine were it not consistent with the objectives of corporate management. The Times proudly sets the standard for national reporting, but its leadership was not necessary to ensure that the bottom tier would remain at the bottom. The organs of corporate speech all march to the same tune because there is not a dime’s worth of difference between their owners.
Get rich or drop out
The corporate media’s weapons are censorship and ridicule. Dennis Kucinich absorbed the full measure of both. However, TV “news” producers, mindful of viewer demographics, tried to avoid direct aggression against the characters of Moseley-Braun and Sharpton. ABC finally showed its true corporate colors at the New Hampshire debate in the person of Nightline’s Ted Koppel. Imperiously addressing the bottom trio, Koppel said:
You've [to Kucinich] got about $750,000 in the bank right now, and that's close to nothing when you're coming up against this kind of opposition. But let me finish the question. The question is, will there come a point when polls, money and then ultimately the actual votes that will take place here in places like New Hampshire, the caucuses in Iowa, will there come a point when we can expect one or more of the three of you to drop out? Or are you in this as sort of a vanity candidacy?
Kucinich, Sharpton and Moseley-Braun acquitted themselves well in the exchange. The real story here is that Koppel felt empowered to all but demand that the three most progressive candidates (and both Blacks) vacate the Democratic presidential arena. Koppel had fumed to the New York Times about the uppity intruders, the month before. The day after the debate, ABC withdrew its reporters from all three campaigns. (None of the other networks had even bothered to give full-time coverage to the bottom tier.)
Koppel’s arrogance, so unbecoming to a journalist, is rooted in his actual status at ABC/Disney: he is a corporate executive who pretends to be a newsman on television. His professional history notwithstanding, Koppel and each of the high profile TV “news” personalities are millionaire executives who act as spokesmen for the corporate divisions of their parent companies. They interact with executives of other divisions, principally marketing -- the domain of sales and “impressions.” Koppel is incapable of thinking in terms other than money and polls, an important marketing tool. He is proprietary about the political process because, as an esteemed executive in the ruling corporate class, he thinks he owns it.
Howard Dean’s brilliant use of the Internet allowed him to capitalize on anti-war sentiment while assembling a funding base independent of the usual corporate suspects. Dean’s December surge took the corporate media by surprise, alarming the bosses and their friends in the White House. Like a Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the corporate media rose with one voice to question Dean’s “electability.” It is important to note that in mid-December, according to Newsweek’s poll, Dean, Kerry and Clark were doing equally in a match-up with George Bush, at 40, 41, and 41 percent, respectively. There was no statistical basis to single out Dean as unelectable. Dean had just gotten the endorsement of Al Gore and two of the nation’s most important unions, AFSCME and SEIU. No matter. The corporate media has the power of self-fulfilling prophesy, and they know it. Negative impressions rained down on Dean like a monsoon, and didn’t let up even after the damage was done. Dean was tagged by the media as a loser to Bush well before he let out “The Scream” -- an innocuous, non-event, on the night of his Iowa defeat.
Dean understands what was done to him, although there’s nothing much he can do about it. In an interview with CNN’s repugnant Wolf Blitzer, the candidate said: “You report the news and you create the news… You chose to play it [“The Scream”] 673 times.”
It is clear from the numbers that Democratic voters, determined to be rid of George Bush, were afraid to support the “unelectable” Dean. Lots of them ran to Kerry, who had polled at only 7 percent nationally in November. Kerry had done and said nothing to affect this sea change. The irony here is that it is Bush who is so scary to Democratic voters that they backed away from Dean, whom the corporate media had pegged as a “scary” guy.
Chris Bowers offered a compelling analysis of the corporate media coup in the January 28 Daily Kos:
In order to reduce the increasing control of the Political Opinion Complex over our political process, we need to begin developing and strengthening institutions strong enough to counter its current influence. Specifically, we need to further develop networks where political information can be mass distributed outside of the POC's control. Not long ago, there were several such outside institutions. Unions and churches were a far more pervasive part of people's lives. Newspapers and periodicals were significantly more numerous and varied in their political outlook. Public television and radio had far larger audiences. Political parties and societies were either machines or at least overflowing with active members. All of these now weakened institutions once served as means to perform end-runs outside the control of the corporate media and the Political Opinion Complex. Engagement with the political process through means other than television was far greater. However, those institutions no longer serve as significant counter-weights to the strength of the Political Opinion Complex
African Americans faced a much more hostile establishment (white) press in the days of Jim Crow, local newspapers that often incited mob violence against Blacks and, on occasion, announced lynchings in advance. In the Fifties, Blacks employed informal and church networks and the Black press (where it existed) to create mass movements -- facts on the ground that could not be ignored. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and, later, mass marches and jail-ins in Birmingham drew the attention of the northern-based corporate media. More interested in recording the show than supporting the protestors, the media nevertheless served to fire up the spirit of Black America and hasten the demise of Jim Crow.
As the Sixties unfolded, mass incendiary activity presented the media and nation with additional facts -- burning cities are not easily ignored. The corporate press grudgingly integrated their staffs. Although Black newspapers went into steep decline, Black radio sprouted news departments that encouraged local organizers to tackle the tasks of a post-Civil Rights world.
Thirty years later, media consolidation has had the same strangulating effects on Black radio as in the general media. Radio One, the largest Black-owned chain, recently entered into a marketing agreement with a subsidiary of Clear Channel, the 1200-station beast. Both chains abhor the very concept of local news.
There is no question that Blacks and progressives must establish alternative media outlets, and not just on the Internet. However, there is no substitute for confronting the corporate media head-on, through direct mass action and other, creative tactics. The rich men’s voices must be de-legitimized in the eyes of the people, who already suspect that we are being systematically lied to and manipulated. African-Americans have an advantage in this regard, since they are used to being lied to and about.
No society in human history has confronted an enemy as omnipresent as the US corporate media. Yet there is no choice but to challenge their hegemony.
The world can be changed, but only by changing the way others see their world.
Glen Ford and Peter Gamble are the editors of The Black Commentator, where this article first appeared.