Springtime For Goebbels

Satire by Robert W. McChesney


In the early 1980s I worked as a stringer for United Press International in Seattle and I periodically went to their offices that were housed in the office building of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the morning newspaper. Immediately on entering the building one was struck by an enormous quotation from Thomas Jefferson extolling the virtues of a free press. Being an emotional type, I must admit it was an inspiring experience. As I marched back to UPI after a day of covering football or basketball games, I felt like I was doing God's work.

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.

Jefferson and Madison and their ilk are just going to have to take a hike. But what figures should replace those shopworn heroes of liberal democracy? Our journalists and media employees still need to have motivational platitudes highlighting the great contributions of the media to our society. The obvious choices are the most successful capitalists like Trump or Milken, or especially the imperious Bill Gates, with his keen eye for monopoly. But these choices miss the fact that these media firms are not merely profit machines, they have considerable control over our journalism, politics, and culture. They might motivate the accountants, but not the journalists and the creative people.

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 Germany. Hold on, I know what you are thinking. "Hey, come on, that guy was in a dictatorship, we live in a democracy." Yeah, I agree, Goebbels isn't perfect. Like everyone else, he has some skeletons in his closet.

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 largest U.S. media firms, put it a few years ago: "Mexico is a country of a modest, very fucked class, which will never stop being fucked. Television has the obligation to bring diversion to these people and remove them from their sad reality and difficult future." Goebbels would be impressed.

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 U.S. advertising industry noted that, finally, one of their own had grabbed the brass ring. "Whatever Hitler has done," the trade publication Printers' Ink wrote in 1933, "he has depended almost entirely upon slogans made effective by reiteration, made general by American advertising methods." Nor was that all. "Hitler and his advertising man Goebbels issued slogans which the masses could grasp with their limited intelligence. . . Adolf has some good lines, of present-day application to American advertisers." This sort of material died off after the war began. Then the industry argued that propaganda was bad when governments did it, but perfectly acceptable when done by advertisers on behalf of corporate clients. After the war it wasn't even called propaganda anymore.

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 U.S. media firms have been closed, and media content has been shaded to suit the needs of the owners, advertisers, and the business community in general. Were this the result of government edicts, it would have been regarded as a gross violation of the First Amendment, perhaps precipitating the worst constitutional crisis since the U.S. Civil War. Watergate, by comparison, would have looked like a day at the beach. The people at the ACLU would have gone bonkers. As it is, these developments happened through the organic workings of the commercial media market, receiving virtually no notice--surprise, surprise--in the press or among the populace. Indeed, the First Amendment's new function is to assure that this process continues without recognition, debate, or interruption.

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.