Knowing what you know, what America do you want?: Mainstream media and Truth

Dedication:

to my Afghan students, my past, present and future students in Media, Sports and Identity, and to all my Midd students

Mainstream media protects and serves systems of power. Its role is to push the central narratives of our culture by implying a tension with the dominant culture involving representations of class, race, and gender–and especially masculinity. Political campaigns know this. Case in point is how the McCain campaign is accusing Obama of using the ‘race card.’ The McCain campaign knows that the media will fixate on this; however, this isn’t news, but rather, another sign of the manipulation that goes on for the control of images in politics today given the symbiotic relationship between mainstream media–it acquiesces–and political power–control by the few. (I’ve already covered an aspect of this, here.)

In a democracy, we’re in a bind. Democracy requires an informed citizenry. Are we informed? How are we informed? What work do we to do to keep informed? Who do we trust?

In The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century, John W. McChesney tells us that “the creation of such an informed citizenry is the media’s province.” All theories of self-government have this as a premise. Which means that controlling what the message is–the information, the images–requires control over how the message is delivered–the systems of media production.

“The crucial tension,” says McChesney, “lies between the role of the media as profit-maximizing commercial organizations and the need for the media to provide the basis for informed self-government. It is this tension that fuels much of the social concern around media and media policy making.”

I’d add that it is this tension that produces the shallow reporting we experience today, particularly in agenda driven Op-Ed pages. The agenda is partisan, which is fine and expected (this is why we read opinions), but more often than not, this is tainted by a journalist’s need to push his or her own career in a system that rewards star quality rather than substance. To have “star quality” requires bombastic statements, ill-thought and narrow conclusions about life and death subjects.

The critical problem is that our system hurts the pursuit of freedoms, democracy itself, since to be totally free demands understanding; it, in turn, requires that we participate and debate, challenge and ask questions, and then involve ourselves in the processes of decision making. We must therefore critique and challenge those that describe–and define–the conditions for our debates concerning our differences, needs and dreams.

Media obfuscates this process–it’s been profitable to do so. Good examples are Thomas Friedman and David Brooks of The New York Times.

In the case of Brooks, after William F. Buckley’s passing, his voice is the most formidable of the conservatives. Friedman is difficult to pinpoint because he struggles with attempts at insight while trying to provoke. More often than not, he provokes because he carelessly makes grandiose statements that are extraordinarily one sided, failing to account for any other perspective–The World is Flat is full of these, as undergraduates at Middlebury have pointed out in my classes.

“When the world goes flat, the caste system gets turned upside down,” says Friedman in The World is Flat. “In India untouchables may be the lowest social class, but in a flat world everyone should want to be an untouchable. Untouchables, in my lexicon, are people whose jobs cannot be outsourced” (italics in original).

Friedman must be talking about the lives of sex workers in India, as described by William Dalrymple in Letter from India: Serving the Goddess” (The New Yorker, Aug. 4, 2008). “The majority of modern devadasis (deva means “god”; dasi means “a female servant”) in Karnataka are straightforward sex workers; the devadasis…estimated that only about one out of every twenty of those dedicated as children manage to escape into other careers–not least because almost all of them leave school and begin work from home soon after puberty…Nevertheless, the main outlines of their working lives are in reality little different from those of others in the sex trade.” From Karnataka to Amsterdam to Las Vegas–globalization at its finest.

My students didn’t need Jeoffrey Sachs to suggest that in a world that requires collaboration and cooperation, the “special,” “specialized,” “anchored” and “really adaptable” (Friedman) workers are going to require a totally different form of education, particularly in the humanities, with a strong emphasis on ethics, something that never comes up in The World is Flat.

Friedman’s flat world is either you’re this or you’re out. This is not sustainable–or tolerable. The disenfranchised, the marginalized and the small are voicing challenges to the globalization at any cost because the already powerful can gain even more power and control mantra. Proof is evident in what is being described as the “DOHA failure.” I partially agree with what Tim Worstall points us to in an interesting piece on global trade negotiations by Martin Jacques in the Guardian:

The irony of Doha is that it is being killed by western disinterest in the face of the growing power of the developing world. The rise of China and, to a lesser extent India, is likely to be accompanied by a parallel irony. The west, which has been the traditional defender of free trade – because free trade always favours the most powerful and advanced economies – is likely to run for cover and put up protectionist barriers, unable to cope with the political, social and economic implications of the rise of China. In a sense, the death of Doha is a dress rehearsal, albeit an early one, for the end of globalization. And those who bury it will be those who designed it and proselytized for it – the US and Europe.

All systems move towards entropy. Friedman never accounts for this–ever, anywhere. He is a part of an old system that relies on fragmentation and departmentalization, which is buttressed by an education system that relies on partial truths, fractured information and decontextualization. This is how a ruling hegemony is supported. This is also why we fail to see and understand the solutions we need today.

In Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Plent, Jeffrey D. Sachs says that,

To solve the remaining dire problems of environmental degradation, population growth, and extreme poverty, we will need to create a new model of twenty-first-century cooperation, one that builds on past successes and overcomes today’s widespread pessimism and lack of leadership…Such multipolar cooperation is time-consuming and often contentious. Solutions will be complicated; the problems of sustainable development inevitably cut across several areas of professional expertise, making it hard for any

single ministry—or academic department, for that matter—to address the issues adequately.

It is therefore incumbent on institutions of learning to engage in the myriad ways technologies are enabling a closer look at how we educate and learn, how we become. This requires a focus on the process of learning as defined by a critical pedagogy that questions and articulates that relationships that exist between knowledge production, the teacher and the student, and technology and the ever shifting terrain of language. This also involves understanding the relationships between knowledge production, educational institutions and power.

A few years ago I taught a course where I placed Friedman’s The World is Flat side-by-side with Bill McKibben’s Wandering Home and asked one simple question at the beginning and at the end of the course: “Knowing what you know now, how are you going to live the rest of your lives?” Resoundingly, after criticizing both texts, the class concluded that Friedman’s pursuit of rampant globalization misses the point, particularly in terms of individual rights, the pursuit of happiness and how both of these interact in a single life that has to live close to the earth, a prerequisite, students concluded, for being a vital part of the human race.

There is no accounting for how to maintain a world that is obsessed with more production for consumption’s sake. We have to collaborate and cooperate in a world where we are increasingly intertwined.

Stories in the media, and Op-Ed pages in particularly, aggravate the disciplined world bifurcated along differences that stress continued exile–and concomitant tensions–along borders. If we want to see how the world is really being shaped, we need to actually examine those who are exiled because of war and natural disasters. Our inability to confront these challenges shows how narrow our thinking is.

A perfect example of Friedman’s lack of personal connection with his subject, a lack of understanding of his responsibilities as a journalist in a democracy is his Op-Ed piece “Drilling in Afghanistan” (July 30, 2008). I sent this out to my six Afghan students, friends of Afghanistan I know and to folks that are living and working inside Afghanistan. (Has Friedman ever been to Afghanistan? Does he know any Afghans?).

Most distressing to my students, and others, was Friedman’s cold, callous statement that, “The main reason we are losing in Afghanistan is not because there are too few American soldiers, but because there are not enough Afghans ready to fight and die for the kind of government we want.”

Countless Afghans have died for the cause of freedom; theirs is a historically long battle for independence. In fact, Afghans are known for their tenacity and skill on the battlefield. And what about the Afghan journalists that have died trying to practice the most fundamental premise of democracy, freedom of expression? According to the Kabul-based South Asia Media Commission, five Afghan journalists were killed in 2007. This is on top of countless suicide bombings that have killed civilians and police. And On December 20, 2002, 65 civilian Afghans were killed by U.S. air strikes.

Where is Friedman on any of this? Where is any mainstream journalist on this, faulting the Bush Administration’s callous indifference immediately after 9/11? What about John McCain’s pursuit of the exact same policies as the Bush Administration?

Afghan blood is being spilled without cause. Afghan military and Afghan police, along with Afghan journalists, are the first line of defense–this we know for sure. But Friedman is blind to this. He also knows how responsible we are for this tragedy since we evolved a vituperative foreign policy that turned its back on Afghanistan for an energy policy that required the occupation of Iraq. Now the entire situation is a disaster. Afghans aren’t doing anything? The real question is what have we done? Answering this question is the first step towards reconciliation–without it, we can’t move forward.

Sure there is corruption in Afghanistan. But ours is not a corrupt system? The Bush Administration has been quite efficient in its pursuit of destabilization as a means to profitable ends for the very few friends of the White House–mostly oil executives. This is a strategy deployed by banana republics we thumb our noses at–but we’re no better, not to the world we’re not. Why is the media not taking this tack?

But as one of my friends (from Benington, Vermont) pointed out, as did an incredible Afghan student, it’s best to listen to people that are in the country, such as Barnett Rubin and Ashmed Rashid. We don’t though, and this is one of the causes of our problems, giving the Friedmans of this world the opportunity to gloss over lives sacrificed for catastrophic policies that have no vision at all.

We exist in a world where life is cheap and sensationalism, bombastic statements and a fixation on aesthetics is more important. We’re headed deeper into the abyss created by a conservative agenda.

David Brooks is a voice for continuing down this dark path. In Missing Dean Acheson (August 1, 2008), Brooks says that “In a de-centered world, all it takes is a few well-placed parochial interests to bring a global process tumbling down.” By “parochial,” Brooks means the weaker nations, those that are commonly the labor on which globalization for the dominant is built. These nations should reconsider their narrow local concerns for the greater good of humanity (read: the powerful, the societies that already have).

This is an old agenda ensuring that many will still reside on the borderlines; it is the last breath of audacious colonialism. Brooks fails to see that the disenfranchised live in-between spaces that provide terrain for elaborating new strategies for articulating identities. The Doha failure is no failure at all, but rather, a new narrative emerging. But Brooks can only rely on existing–and very old–systems of power. He longs for them. The smaller but emerging nations are articulating their sense of difference from a minority perspective we cannot now turn our backs on, as we have in the past. They won’t let us–the consequence of our interconnectedness.

Brooks clearly wants to hang on to a world that no longer exists. “The dispersion should, in theory, be a good thing, but in practice, multipolarity means that more groups have effective veto power over collective action. In practice,” says Brooks, “this new pluralistic world has given rise to globosclerosis, an inability to solve problem after problem.” As is his style, this is not what Brooks means; he means that the failure to solve problems is a consequence of smaller, weaker and developing nations not acquiescing to the will of the powerful–the US, mainly, but now China, India and Brazil that are, in turn, also challenging the hegemony we’ve learned to rely on. Collaboration is only good when it’s among the powerful. We need not collaborate and cooperate with the marginalized. The future, though, is dependent on how creative we are in our work with others, and particularly with those that have suffered greatly because of our needs.

Our vision is myopic. A new discourse is essential. New disciplines for the US are required as well. Brooks says that “for the first time since World War II, an effort to liberalize global trade failed.” Of course! The effort would have meant further destabilization by ensuring that the “resourced power of tradition be resinscribed through the conditions of contingency and contradictoriness that attend upon the lives of those who are ‘in the minority,’” as Homi K. Bhabha teaches us in The Location of Culture. Simply going along with how things have always been done would mean further estrangement–but estrangement is good for the powerful because it guarantees a “slave class”; it guarantees that the devadasis will continue their trade, though devastated by AIDS.

In Brooks and Friedman we see how media protects and serves. By merely echoing representations of the surface structure of things, nodding to an alleged tension with the dominant culture, we, the citizenry, are dealt the illusion of truth. There is no truth in what Brooks and Friedman say–other than it would be best if the ways of production designed by the ruling hegemony remain. Everyone need simply go along. It is still, in their hands, an “us vs them” world, which is exactly the Manichaen world defined by very close minded conservatism that is running out of air.

Of course there are moments when Brooks blasts the conservatives for not being conservative enough. And there are moments, likewise, when Friedman addresses the Bush Administration’s narrow field of vision concerning the Middle East and the environment. But as Noam Chomsky points out in Manufacturing Consent, the progenitor to McChesney’s work, dissent is built into the system, it is allowed, even expected so to give the illusion of a dialog between differences, whcn in fact, read this way, dissent becomes merely another vehicle for the strengthening of the ruling narrative.

(We never see Chomsky, for instance, anywhere in mainstream opinion pieces, do we? Why? We never saw Edward Said, either–why is that? What’s the relationship between power and the control of voices of opposition to the ruling class?)

So, knowing what you know now, how are you going to live the rest of your lives?

Freedom and democracy require a lot of work; ciphering through information delivered by powerful institutions is the most difficult thing we have to do because it requires that we first face our biases, then our differences and pierce through the fog of mythologized idealism.


There are alternatives to mainstream media. It’s up to you, the reader, to seek these out–and to read.   Here are but a few:

Asheville Global Report: Progressive News Sources

Democracy Now!

Pacifica Radio

WBAI, New York–99.5 FM Pacifica Radio

Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting

Foreign Exchange with Daljit Dhaliwal

Dahr Jamail’s Mideast Dispatches

Raising Yousuf and Noor: Diary of a Palestinian Mother