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How the ruling class shapes the media

By Paul D'Amato | January 5, 2007 | Page 10

KARL MARX once wrote that "the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas."

He did not mean by this that the Murdochs, Gateses and Rockefellers write news copy, textbooks and TV scripts, any more than these men make steel, computers or furniture. Other people--hirelings--produce them on their behalf.

The process by which ruling ideas are disseminated is sometimes very crude and direct, as when companies hire public relations firms to plant fake news items in the press.

The Center for Media and Democracy produced a report last April documenting 77 television stations in the U.S. that presented video news releases from corporate PR firms--representing companies such as General Motors, Intel, Pfizer and Capital One--as if they were genuine news items. According to the PR Watch report, "In each case, these 77 television stations actively disguised the sponsored content to make it appear to be their own reporting."

Governments engage in similar behavior. Ex-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced in October 2001 the creation of an Office of Strategic Influence, which planned to send out government-spun news items to the press domestically and internationally.

A public outcry forced the Pentagon to abandon the project a week later. But soon, after Rumsfeld announced that he had given up only the name, not the operation. "You can have the name," he said, "but I'm gonna keep doing every single thing that needs to be done, and I have."

But most often, these direct interventions to shape media spin are not really necessary.

Think of it this way: Try and remember a positive news article written about any world leader that the U.S. government has deemed an enemy. You can't. Try to distinguish from week to week the content of Time and Newsweek. You can't--it's Pepsi versus Coke, transferred to the world of the printed word.

How is this conformity accomplished? In part, it is the product of market relations--businesses (and media is big business) attempting to produce what will sell the most for the least cost, and at the highest price possible. That means appealing to the lowest common denominator and not offending any target buyers.

But it is also a product of subtle and not-so-subtle forms of pressure. Many articles, books, television shows and movies have been either edited or cancelled over the years based on threats by investors or advertisers to pull their support. Careers have been ruined for those who fail to conform, as the McCarthy era in the U.S. showed most glaringly.

Above all, the media are run by capitalists who share the same worldview as the rest of the capitalist class. There is a tacit acceptance of capitalism, in the same way that in the old slave South, public attacks on slavery weren't permissible. The same is true of the bourgeois media today.

It is important that the hirelings who write the news, the books and the scripts don't see themselves as such. An essential part of the ideology of the market is that we are all free to speak and write as we please. The academic, the news reporter and the novelist are all encouraged to see themselves as individuals, expressing their individuality through their writing.

While this idea is harder to sell to a meatpacking worker--who is stuck on an assembly line, making the same cut thousands of times every day--it is the daily bread of the writer.

But the fact that the writer has some leeway as to what to write or produce and how serves only to disguise somewhat the fact that he or she is operating under constraints. These constraints are no less real for being less visible than the constraints of an assembly line.

Indeed, for the constraints to be effective, they must be loose enough that the producers of ideology feel themselves to be freely expressing their outlook. Paid hacks are less convincing.

This sense of independence is also encouraged by the fact that social criticism is permissible within certain boundaries. Criticism's purpose in the bourgeois press is not to undermine, but to restore credibility to social institutions.

Corruption is periodically uncovered in order to prove that the "system works." Economists debate ways in which to salvage capitalism from its problems, not transcend the system. Class struggle is forecasted as a warning against "unbridled capitalism" and the danger of revolution, not as a positive means for workers to change their conditions.

Nevertheless, it is this small space for criticism (especially in times of social crisis) that accounts for the fact that sometimes useful (or artistically valuable) works are produced in spite of the constraints of capitalist social relations.

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