The Mainstream Media’s Political Coverage in the US and UK–Kenneth Surin
I’m sure I’m not the only one who considers it a waste of time to engage with most of the print and televisual mainstream media in the US and UK when it comes to political coverage.
In the UK the Guardian and the Independent used to be worth reading. The Independent now only appears online, and its main aim these days seems to be selling stuff to its readers from advertising links (I have to admit to buying some of it myself). Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn, both reporting mainly on the Middle East, are its only consistently excellent journalists.
The Guardian is a mess. Only George Monbiot and Aditya Chakrabortty wield effective critical knife-blades. And this was the paper which once had on its masthead Hugo Young, John Cole, Anthony Howard, Geoffrey Moorhouse, Simon Hoggart, Simon Winchester, Jill Tweedie, Nancy Banks-Smith (on television), and Matthew Engel and Frank Keating (on its sports pages).
No one could accuse the late Hugo Young of being a radical, but there was no more trenchant critic of Thatcherism in the media mainstream. Monbiot and Chakrabortty uphold this tradition in various ways, but their efforts are diluted by the Polly Toynbees and Jonathan Freedlands, as well as numerous other lesser lights on the Guardian’s payroll, all desperate to uphold the Thatcherite-Blairite neoliberal consensus that has prevailed in the UK for four decades.
These “liberal” journalists decry the proliferation of food banks, the numbers of disabled people committing suicide because their benefits have been cut by the Tories, the homeless vagrants on every street, but somehow they still want Labour to be a “Tory lite” neoliberal party!
It says something that the Guardian, that supposed mouthpiece of the left intelligentsia, matches anything owned by the venomous Rupert Murdoch in its attempt to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party.
In the UK, as recent research studies have revealed (e.g. the Media Reform Coalition), the BBC, possibly fearing the Tories will outsource it to the predatory Murdoch, is now little better than that party’s propaganda wing. Channel 4 is the only UK television outlet possessing a modicum of critical integrity in the coverage of Corbyn.
The situation in the US is worse. All of its mainstream television news outlets are in thrall to neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Rampant Wall Street criminality? Well, just a few “bad apples”, really, so no need to toughen regulation. Utterly disastrous military adventures? Well, “freedom is not free!”. Getting the rest of the predictable message is then just a matter of filling in a few blanks while half-asleep.
Occasionally discreet fun will be made of absolute ignoramuses such as the 2012 presidential candidates Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann. Dubya Bush however was given the media equivalent of a “get out of jail” pass throughout his candidacy and subsequent presidency (as was the obviously senile Ronald Reagan before).
There is no American TV or newspaper organization reporting objectively on Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians, unlike the UK’s Channel 4.
Why has this become the case?
The American situation is perhaps easier to explain. Three factors are crucial.
One is the overwhelming corporate control of the media in the US, which generates a voracious appetite for advertising profits. It then becomes a mortal sin to offend anyone who pays for advertising.
The second is the pernicious influence exerted by a credentialing system which puts prospective journalists through schools of journalism favouring those thought to possess “communication skills” over those who are better informed and educated. A middling undergraduate degree in journalism will get most Americans further in the media business than a good degree in history or politics (the matter of personal connections aside).
The third is the abysmal standard of general education in the US, regularly ranked amongst the lowest in the industrialized world. This conduces to people being unaware of their own interests, and hence in a position where they can be enticed to vote against their self-interest when mobilized on “hot button” issues such as gun control, gay marriage, transgender lavatories, abortion rights, Mexican immigrants, the teaching of evolution in schools, affirmative action, whether Obama was born in Kenya, the mosque in the neighbourhood, hijab wearers, those on welfare and food stamps, and so on.
Clinton and Trump would never do anything against their self-interest. “Regular” Americans do it all the time.
The UK is moving in a direction similar to the US. It is becoming easier in the UK to induce people to vote against their interests on the UK’s version of “hot button” issues. Blair’s three electoral successes apart– having in any event turned his party into a “Tory lite” facsimile– the Tories have been in power since 1979. The Tories take every opportunity when in power to dismantle the UK’s health, welfare, and state education systems. The media have largely been a cheerleader in all of this.
The UK has thus not seen a genuinely social-democratic party in power for nearly four decades. Corbyn’s social-democratic principles, sweetly mellow by the standards of any red-blooded insurrectionist, are deemed by the mainstream media to make him “unelectable”. Corbyn would have fitted comfortably into Clement Attlee’s historic postwar Labour government, which created the UK’s welfare state. Today, however, his own parliamentary party is plotting to unseat him.
Likewise, Lyndon Johnson must marvel in some celestial space at how this year’s Democratic presidential candidate can be further to the right of her early idol Barry Goldwater or “Tricky Dickie” Nixon on several issues.
Both 2016 US presidential candidates, with the possible exception of that fatal attempted burglary and subsequent cover-up, also far outdo “Tricky Dickie” when it comes to every kind of shenanigans.
In the celestial space he perchance shares with LBJ, the devious old presidential orchestrator of inept burglars must be wishing he’d been born 40 or 50 years later! In all probability, the instigator of Watergate would get away with it today—now he’d only have to claim his patriotic burglars were on a secret mission to foil a terrorist plot being hatched at the Watergate but alas broke into the wrong office due to an unfortunate miscommunication.
Fulsome apologies all round for this mishap, and Nixon could repair to his amply-stocked drinks cabinet in the White House without having to make those sweaty and unconvincing TV appearances which helped doom him.
The term “living in a bubble” is much misused, but it can aptly be applied to the world of the contemporary mainstream American or British journalist. The old professional route, in the UK at any rate, of joining a small provincial newspaper straight after leaving school and working one’s way up in the newsroom pecking-order is now obsolete. This old route at least made journalism a viable career option for someone from a working-class background.
By contrast, journalists today come overwhelmingly from middle-class backgrounds, attend the top universities where they can plug themselves into useful social networks, are superbly well-paid and given generous expense accounts once they become established, and so on. Some become celebrities in their own right. Oftentimes, lucrative deals for fluffy (and ghost-written) coffee-table books are there to be secured with the services of a competent agent.
Their newspaper offices or television studios are based in the major cities, so the trappings of a graceful metropolitan existence are virtually guaranteed– a nice apartment or a house in a leafy suburb, award-winning restaurants, nannies or au pairs, private schools for the children, a new car every year, a holiday cottage or villa in Tuscany or the Berkshires or Cape Cod, invitations to parties with film stars and supermodels, and so on. (The phone-hacking trials in London last year of several Murdoch tabloid “journalists” saw people in the witness stand recounting, at times coyly, the extravagances at the beck and call of the well-paid metropolitan hack.)
The egregious Boris “BoJo” Johnson, the “bad hair” and gaffe-prone erstwhile mayor of London, now the UK’s foreign secretary, was paid £250,000 a year for writing a weekly column for the conservative Daily Telegraph. BoJo, always the brazen plutocrat, ruffled feathers in 2009 when he described this sum, an absolute fortune for most Brits (the 2014 UK median annual household income (2 adults) was £23,556), as “chicken feed“.
At university future journalists invariably rub shoulders with the politicians they now report on, which has the effect of blunting their reporting scalpels—generally, you are not going to shred someone who was in your boozing circle, or its fringes, at that agreeable riverside pub near your Oxford or Cambridge college thirty years ago.
This bubble is a de facto segregation-wall keeping the brute realities of poverty and hunger at arm’s length from most established mainstream journalists. These individuals are wont to believe in a somewhat abstract way that “real” poverty and hunger only exist in Ethiopia or the Sudan, or maybe the slums of Liverpool or Los Angeles, never near their salubrious streets in Richmond or Knightsbridge or Manhattan’s Upper East Side or Washington Square.
No wonder journalists at the UK’s most “progressive” paper are upset that Labour is now led by someone who has vowed to dump all neoliberal policies once in office!
Has this stubborn old fool not heard that newspaper’s consistent refrain, namely, that in the UK only neoliberal politicians are truly electable?