Springtime For Goebbels
Satire by Robert W. McChesney
In the early 1980s I worked as a stringer
for United Press International in
In the years that followed I discovered that it was rather common for newspapers and media firms to have enormous busts of people like Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln along with their juiciest quotes glorifying the role of the free press for the preservation--or even survival--of democracy. When I became an academic in the late 1980s I learned that more often than not college schools of journalism, too, will feature over their building entryways prominent figures and quotations touting the free press and liberal democracy.
This utilization of democratic icons and rhetoric as the guides and motivators of our free press probably made a lot of sense in the olden days. Like during the early republic, when the press system was replete with highly partisan newspapers devoted to promoting political parties and factions. Or during the competitive commercial press era of the 19th century, which was typified by countless publisher-editors with a genuine interest in public affairs.
But nowadays it just doesn't really square with reality. Our media system is dominated by a dozen or so enormous media conglomerates, whose investors have no more intrinsic interest in journalism or democracy than they do in cigarette smoking or manufacturing anti-depressant pills or nuclear weapons. Their sole purpose is to use their semi-monopolistic market power to maximize profits, usually by doing whatever they can to please the advertising industry.
It is these corporate owners who have inherited the right to brandish the First Amendment, not the editors and reporters they hire and fire, or the citizens who have no say over how our monopolistic media system works. As such, the First Amendment is increasingly divorced from democracy, and is a tool to protect corporate power from public accountability. In this brave new world, the Philip Morris cigarette company is now a leading advocate of "First Amendment" rights, so it can sell its deadly product without government interference.
Don't get me wrong, here. I know that this is the American way. But I do have to confess that being a bit old-fashioned, it took me some time to recognize the special greatness of our modern corporate free press. What did the trick for me was to bone up on my free market economics by reading the complete works of Milton Friedman. I then subscribed to Forbes Magazine and studied the speeches of Jack Kemp and Dan Quayle. I learned that capitalism is freedom and that capitalism equals democracy. So the more money a media firm makes, the freer it is and the better off we all are. The worst thing that could happen, then, would be to put some joker quoting Jefferson or John Stuart Mill in charge of our media. The companies would go broke. We not only wouldn't have a free press, we wouldn't have any press at all. What moron could possibly want this outcome? We'd get our butts kicked by foreigners in the race to control the information highway. I want my kids growing up speaking English, thank you.
I am writing this because I am concerned about what I regard as the most serious threat to our modern free press: its need for real heroes to motivate journalists and media employees.
What are we going to do with all these media workers, especially journalists, who are getting very mixed messages on what they are supposed to be doing? It is flat out getting tougher and tougher to put on your game face for profit maximization if you have all these fourth estate quotations pounding down on your head. How can a journalist, say, go out and cover a press conference by Kato Kaelin or Marv Albert's important activities when you have to stare into James Madison's eyes and read his words about the press being the basis of an informed self-government.
As you can see, I have been giving this
matter a great deal of thought. This might be the one way I can help our free
press get even freer. After years of study I think I
have found the perfect candidate to adorn the entries to our media firms and
journalism schools. So allow me to make a suggestion: Josef Goebbels,
Minister of Propaganda in Third Reich
All I ask is that you keep an open mind, in the tradition of I. F. Stone and Martin Luther King, Jr. If you do, I think you'll agree that Goebbels had some really great ideas for how the modern free press ought to operate. Goebbels argued, for example, that the Nazi media should be such that the more of it Germans consumed, the less they would know, and the more likely they would be to support Nazi policies unconditionally. This seems to be the case with much of our contemporary corporate journalism. There have been several studies that point in this direction, but can it possibly be a surprise? There was the recent study that showed people who followed the press coverage of the health care debate closely knew no more and often less about it than people who read little or nothing on the subject. A brief glance at television news's grab bag of celebrity news, crime stories, corporate and government PR, and trivia should confirm the likelihood of an outcome to Goebbels's liking. The most striking example was the survey from the Persian Gulf War that showed the more TV news coverage of the war people watched, the less they knew about the war, and the more they supported government policy.
Joe Goebbels also
knew that a good media system involved more than journalism. A
lot more. Goebbels's first edict to the German
film industry was, in fact, to avoid political themes and to concentrate on
light entertainment and escapist fare. Our modern system seems to have
accomplished that, too, it didn't even need a reminder from someone in the
government. The corporate film and television industries have virtually
eliminated social commentary and drama from their output, and devote much of
their resources to light comedy and "action" fare. Indeed, nowadays a
good mystery or crime thriller is about as close as anyone gets to serious
output. In some of their more candid moments, our modern media giants confirm
that they realize how important it is to dwell on escapist fare for the masses.
As Emilio Azcarraga, the billionaire head of Mexican
media giant Televisa, which has close ties to the
Goebbels also warned against the media system having a monolithic appearance. He asserted that the media system should give the outward appearance of diversity, but underneath it there should be a clear sameness to the messages being conveyed. What better describes a system with the potential for hundreds of cable channels--a veritable blizzard of options--but which only provides a handful of commercially marinated genres, and where each of the media giants apes the successful output of their competitors?
Now I admit dwelling on Goebbels as the appropriate symbol for contemporary media is not entirely fair. In the interest of accuracy the corporate media giants and journalism schools should probably reserve a place over their entryways next to Goebbels for another person: the Big Guy himself, Adolf Hitler.
Hitler's inclusion is especially appropriate
when one considers how much the media, and especially commercial broadcasting,
are part of the advertising industry. As the CEO of Westinghouse, owner of CBS
TV and the largest group of radio stations in the world, stated in 1997:
"We're here to serve advertisers. That's our raison d'etre."
Advertisers have never been hung up on this participatory democracy jazz; heck,
some of their better markets around the world have been political
dictatorships. And when Hitler came to power, the
And, in fairness, our corporate media giants have figured out the basic flaw--quite unnecessary, it now seems--in Goebbels's system: its reliance upon direct state coercion to get its way. The private control and formal independence from the government is the genius of the current free press. As Walter Hale Hamilton put it in the 1930s: "Business succeeds rather better than the state in imposing restraints upon individuals, because its imperatives are disguised as choices." With corporate rather than state control, the only downside is that you have to let a few malcontents operate "alternative" media on the margins rather then putting them away in the hoosegow. But that is actually a plus, because that way this self-promoting "blame America" crowd can do its self-pitying act harmlessly without even being noticed by any normal people.
Consider this striking example of just how
much our brilliant system of corporate media control has lapped anything Joe
and Adolf had cooked up. In the past decade the
number of working journalists has been cut, foreign bureaus of
Now isn't that wonderful? It means that there is one less problem we have to worry about. In fact, our free press is real good at letting us avoid all sorts of unpleasant public issues, since the good and knowledgable people who own the country are more than willing to make those decisions for us. That means we can all spend more time relaxing in front of our TVs with our families, enjoying the good life in the freest society in the world. So, OK, Goebbels and Hitler weren't perfect, but Jefferson and Madison weren't perfect either. You have to admit that Joe sure had some workable ideas for the modern free press. His basic problem was that he was 60 years ahead of his time.