“Imagine what it would be like if you didn’t know that the evening news was funded primarily by Big Pharma. You would actually believe the stuff that they’re saying. You might even think those are the stories that matter. ” – Douglas Rushkoff (Source)
Once upon a time, political observers fretted that the free press, the government and the democratic process itself were under threat of being overwhelmed and eventually controlled by corporatism – special interests, corruption and greed. William Greider’s prescient work on the subject, Who Will Tell the People? : The Betrayal of American Democracy was published almost 20 years ago and presaged, in great detail, the economic, political and ethical morass we find ourselves drowning in today.
In the book, Greider predicted the demise of a free press and its replacement by an increasingly corporate owned press devoid of any real investigative power. He also predicted a legislative process hamstrung by gerrymandering and corporate lobbyists, an executive branch whose independence and power is made impotent by elections controlled by financial contributions from corporations and a judiciary deeply compromised by ethically problematic relationships and the appointment of justices more inclined toward ideological interpretations of the law than the rule of law.
What William Greider did not predict is equally as alarming. He could not have foreseen the extent to which the aforementioned
attacks on the foundations of our democracy would move from the dark shadows to being entirely out in the open. Nor could Greider have foreseen the always-on 24 hour instant news cycle of the internet, how it would alter the media landscape in profound ways and how the corporate owned news media would come to parrot anything and everything that trends on the internet, Twitter or Facebook, regardless of the facts. Gossip, innuendo, anonymous sources, timed leaks and even violations of privacy and blackmail have become the rule rather than the exception.
Two decades after Greider’s book, we have come to the point where legislators, politicians and justices who don’t play “by the rules” set down by those who control the purse strings are shown the door via recall elections, redistricting, retention votes, old-fashioned dirty tricks and disinformation. And, disinformation is the front line in the war for influence and power. Media firms such as Freedom Works have created an entire political movement out of whole cloth, based upon and energized by well financed internet distributed disinformation.
The severe lack of media literacy in the general public is crucial to the equation. A society that treats information and disinformation equally is one that is not prepared to conduct business, let alone find solutions to the problems that it faces. The inability of large numbers of citizens to differentiate between propaganda and factual information is the central reason why groups such as Freedom Works are able to influence and manipulate so many. It is also why we struggle so profoundly to engage and fix the problems we face as a society. We don’t see the forest for the trees. We get bogged down in the short game, rather than the long term ramifications.
The recent fall of Rep. Anthony Weiner (NY) is an excellent example of this process at work. Weiner resigned from his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives when it was revealed that he had shared nude photos of himself (some sexually graphic) with a female college student he communicated with via Twitter. On the surface, what happened to Weiner appears to be a version of the basic run-of-the-mill found with his pants down scandal. But, there is more to the story.
There was little discussion in the press (or anywhere for that matter) of Anthony Weiner’s relatively harmless moral transgression. Yet, it was immediately treated as a career ending event for Weiner when other politicians have done much worse (adultery, felony crime) and remained in office. It was a singular moment of trial by media fire and political brinksmanship fueled by media illiteracy, since real facts were (and still are) hard to come by regarding the story.
An important and overlooked fact: The person who broke the Weiner story on the internet remains anonymous, and the events surrounding it are suspicious at best. As the New York Times has reported, “Fake Identities Were Used on Twitter in Effort to Get Information on Weiner” That should raise a few eyebrows, get people asking “what happened?” but it has not.
To be sure, what Weiner did was a serious ethical breach for a public servant. But, sharing nude photos of oneself with other adults is not a crime. No laws were broken. Yet, the reaction of the media and other politicians to Weiner’s mistake did not suit the problem. The situation was exploited and hyped by a press more interested in sensational headlines, sex, scandal and gossip that it is in establishing the facts. And, the reaction of politicians to the event paints a picture of elected officials falling over themselves to be seen on the “right” side of a propaganda tsunami. The fear was palpable.
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow raised a very salient point regarding Weiner’s resignation and the double standard practiced by the press and politicians. From The Huffington Post:
“Democrats have not only refused to hold Republicans accountable for the double standard, but they have joined with Republicans in piling on with the demands that Anthony Weiner had to resign even as David Vitter stays in the Senate,” Maddow said. She then went on a long monologue, listing all the Republicans and Democrats who were not forced out of office even after admitting to more serious ethical violations than Weiner.
“Anthony Weiner, who was not accused of corruption, who does not appear to have done anything illegal, who does not even appear to have had sex with any of the women with any of the people with whom he had scandalous talk and picture-taking, for him a line was drawn,” Maddow concluded, her voice bristling with anger. She then turned her focus on the media, saying that the story was actually “the media covering the media ending a man’s career.”
Maddow ended by addressing Democrats. She issued a dire warning.
“Congratulations, Democrats,” she said. “In an era of unhinged, ideological, big money conservative media that is wholly and admittedly divorced from the precepts of journalism, in hounding Anthony Weiner into resigning … you have just fed and unleashed this beast onto yourselves, probably for a generation.”
All of this isn’t entirely new of course, but the swiftness and the outreach that comes with the “always on” internet are relatively new. And, we’re still figuring out how to function in a world where information moves instantly and citizens have the ability to be heard, regardless of whether the information they trumpet is correct or incorrect.
It is apparent that there was a shadowy effort to destroy Weiner, yet no one truly seems to notice. Even when it is reported in the New York Times.
It simply became entertaining too quickly. Penis jokes became more important than facts. But, when the dirty tricks are so completely and blatantly out in the open as seems to be the case here, it should raise an alarm.
If this is what we can see, what can’t we see?