War Propaganda, Pseudo-Events and the Global Village Idiot

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Perhaps another potential title for this article might that be of Journalism “as” Propaganda, since a large section of what we perceive to be journalism – such as, the gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting of news and information – have become mere propaganda. Worse, in recent years, reporting the truth has been slowly converted into the production of mass deception and mass ignorance.

What we see as “the news” can boil down to the so-called Pseudo Events manufactured by a sophisticated global PR industry. It is called Public Relations (PR) to avoid the ugly word “propaganda”. PR/propaganda present global news stories – some of which have proven to be rather fictional like the infamous but non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction. Many of them are generated as new machineries of international propaganda.

A good example is the UK paper, The Daily Telegraph when it published an event “before” it had happened. Six hours before it actually happened, The Daily Telegraph reporter Toby Harnden described the hanging of Saddam Hussein. While The Guardiancalled such journalists as Media Monkeys, there is a system behind things like these – they are by no means individual mishaps.

Rather, falsehoods, distortions, and outright propaganda – as the Ukraine war shows almost every day –  seem to run through global media outlets – an industry which is supposed to be dedicated to the very opposite: truth telling.

Meanwhile, in another so-called “war”, the media executives of the archconservative newspapers and TV stations prop up a rather useless war on drugs. Almost simultaneously, they are shoving cocaine up their nostrils in office toilets. Some media stories are produced by corrupt and cynical journalistic puppets that do not care whether they tell the truth or not. They simply dance to the tune of whoever is pulling their string – namely, the powerful corporate owners of media outlets.

Of course, the capitalist system is cranked up by media outlets needing to generate profits. That makes journalism extremely beholden and vulnerable to pressures from advertisers, for example. Consequently, journalists – explicitly or implicitly – tend to frameour world in a way that suits their corporate interests – a version of His Master’s Voice.

As the great Upton Sinclair said in 1935, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Much of this certainly comes with some evidence. In short, big advertisers can strong-arm media outlets. In other cases, there is no need for such strong-arm tactics because of an interest symbiosis between corporations selling things and corporations selling news, information, and entertainment. This underwrites a system that is based on profits.

It is not at all surprising to find that the fingerprints of big corporations are all over news coverage. Worse, media owners can – and do! – interfere in the editorial process of their outlets. Perhaps Murdoch is a prime example. 175 of his newspaper editors wrote articles and editorials that supported Iraq. This was a war conducted with absolutely no weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

As what the owner of the UK’s Daily Express once said, “I run the paper for the purpose of making propaganda and with no other motives.” Decades before all that, Rupert Murdoch’s daddy (Keith) once said about an Australian Prime Minister, I put him there, and I’ll put him out. On rare occasions, power speaks!

Speaking of which, the world’s most powerful media owner – the ultra-conservative, but aging Rupert Murdoch – has always been a highly successful and crude businessman – just like daddy. Yet, journalists know him as a brutal and unscrupulous bully.

One of Murdoch’s main strategies is to use his media power to “build alliances” – e.g. buy – politicians who, in return, help him to further his business. Whether that is Thatcher, Blair, Cameron, etc. hardly matters to Murdoch. In other words, Murdoch accumulates politicians of any persuasion and then dumps them once they have outlived their usefulness. Murdoch’s overall guide is: profit and his reactionary ideology.

In the case of Thatcher, for example, she was useful to Murdoch when she blocked a referral to the UK’s Monopolies and Mergers’ Commission which could have stopped Murdoch buying two UK papers: The Times and The Sunday Times. While the ideology of neoliberalism’s free market was rolled out, Murdoch’s intervention – with the generous assistance of Thatcher – led to an even higher concentration of media ownership in the UK.

Profits and reactionary ideology also flourished when Murdoch moved into China. In China, Murdoch was keen to win in favour of China’s autocrats. To access a huge market and increase profits even more, Murdoch quickly agreed to drop BBC World Televisionfrom his Star satellite TV in China. But that wasn’t enough. Murdoch also prevented his book publishing arm – HarperCollins – from printing Chris Patten’s Hong Kong Memoirs because it criticised China’s human rights’ abusers.

Murdoch has a long history of personally whinging when “his” newspapers are too sympathetic to what he believes to be “commies, poofters, and blacks.” Yet, this knee-jerk ideology often falls a long way short of a coherent political programme. In any case, it is always less important than commerce and business.

After eleven years of working for him, Scottish journalist Andrew Neil said, Murdoch “is much more of a right-winger than is generally thought, but he will curb his ideology for commercial reasons … he will always moderate his political fundamentalism if its suits his business.” Just like on all of his newspapers, Murdoch imposes his right-wing ideological agenda on his UK newspaper The Sun – a paper that features right-wing news, sport, celebrities, and gossip.

Yet, Murdoch isn’t alone. All corporate owners will impose their pro-business frameworks and they will also directly interfere in political coverage. More often than not, it happens at times of heightened political tension. It tends to occur prior to national elections in which media owners favour the so-called “leg-&-reg-candidates” – political candidates and parties that favour pro-business legislation and pro-business regulation.

In the United States, Murdoch’s political ideology and his Fox News has contributed to uniting with the Republican Party behind Donald Trump. At the same time, his favour-trading with powerful politicians has, only increased the ideological power of Fox News TV.

On Fox news, the poorly educated (Trump) are Out-Foxed (Murdoch) almost every day. Of course, all this also means that corporate media owners will interfere – often rather spitefully – and most directly into journalism. This occurs particularly if one of their media outlets trespasses on their business interests.

In 1989, the editor of Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph – Max Hastings – admitted, “I’ve never really believed in the notion of editorial independence.” Meanwhile, the aforementioned Andrew Neil noted on Murdoch, he is “an interventionist proprietor who expected to get his way.”

In short, the principle of honesty has long been conquered by the production of ignorance, propaganda, and mass deception. All three are bitterly needed to sustain a pro-capitalist attitude that allowed capitalism to flourish while simultaneously, eliminating – in the mind of as many as possible – the pathologies of capitalism.

The very same support is often engineered in times of war – the Ukraine is the current example. In the build-up to the unwarranted attack on Iraq, for example, a whopping 86% of the people assumed that Iraq had WMDs while only 14% had doubts about their existence. In other words, propaganda works.

War and invented threats are always helpful when the Politics of Fear is made to engineer a compliant voter base. Simultaneously, it diverts attention away from pressing issues like world hunger, global poverty, environmental vandalism, and the looming Uninhabitable Earth.

For almost everything else, corporate media has this in store: some governments are spending enormous amounts of money on pseudo-solutions which – we know – are proven failures. Yet, these faked solutions match the misconceptions and right-wing propaganda of the media.

Worse, corporate PR – propaganda, now called public relations – is regularly cranking up facts while taking the ever compliant media along. Their manipulative propaganda tales are designed so that people can be made to believe that Toxic Sludge is Good For You.

Virtually, all of this assures a deep penetration of falsehoods into the foundations of our collective mind. Even more devastating is the fact that great construction of political activities and policies are happening on top of those false foundations. This prevents society from moving forward. It is a gigantic waste of talents, efforts, money, time, energy and plenty of opportunity that go nowhere while stabilizing capitalism – the ultimate goal of corporate propaganda.

Over the years, the power of corporate propaganda has only increased. Since the 1960s, the national network of communication enabled digitalized mass media to embrace the entire planet. With that and the power of corporate propaganda, the idea of a global village mutated into the global village idiot. This new idiot knows everything about the Kardashians but nothing else. He is deeply ignorant and easily led. Today, the global idiot can be found in the backstreets of Kiev, just as on Meadow Lane, Long Island.

What definitely gets unnoticed by the global village idiot is the fact that equally idiotic journalists are churning out a massive amount of silly, mind numbing, and anesthetising stories – without checking them. This became known as churnalism. Massive numbers of stories circle the planet under the all-time favourite mass media motto: “when it bleeds it leads – when it thinks it stinks.”

Yet, much of this applies even to the most treasured media outlets – the so-called high-quality media like The Times (UK), The Washington Post, The New York Times, etc. These quality newspapers too, are routinely recycling unchecked second-hand materials.

Today, we know that up to a whopping 60% from even these high quality newspapers carry news stories consisting – wholly or mainly – of PR material – often coming straight from corporate PR. This means that corporate lobbyists write article-style stories and overworked journalists cut and paste them into their newspapers. A quick and easy way to fill pages.

Once, the respected UK paper – The Times – was found to have 69% of its news stories wholly or mainly copied from PR. Even though this has become a general praxis, there is a general denial of the PR input. Corporate lobbyists and PR-experts rarely admit what they do. Yet, PR pundits generally and specifically aim to make their own role in the entire process as invisible as humanly possible. Of course, overworked journalists are only too happy to go along with the whole travesty.

It is what the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard calls as Simularca – which means everyone simulates and pretends. Journalists pretend or simulate to write proper articles. In reality, they cut and paste corporate press releases and place them into their newspaper. Meanwhile, PR experts who write those corporate PR pieces pretend or simulate that they have nothing to do with this process. Finally, newspapers pretend or simulate to inform the public. In reality, they merely sell corporate propaganda.

All this also means that journalism – is a meaningful and independent activity existing apart from media owners – has become the exception rather than the rule today. As one journalist admitted, “we are churning stories today, not writing them. Almost everything is recycled from another source.” Of course, the work of journalists has been deskilled. What defines today’s journalism is the rapid repackaging of largely unchecked second-hand material – churnalism at its worse.

In the UK, much of this began on a cold early night in 1986. It was the night that Murdoch moved his UK newspapers to a new location: East London’s Wapping. Murdoch’s new printing facility operated behind barbed wire and was patrolled by menacing-looking security guards. His new corporate bastion was Wapping. With that, Murdoch broke the UK’s print unions removing the final obstacle to the unrestricted rule of corporations under uncontrolled neoliberalism.

This sent the signal to corporate media owners to apply the destructive logic of neoliberal commerce to do three things: a) cutting costs – mostly on journalists; b) increase revenue; and c) engineer profits at all costs. The relentless drive of capitalism released a devastating chain-reaction of corporate changes which had – and still has – a wrecking effect on journalism. Worse was yet to come.

In the late 1990s, media owners started another round of even more severe cost-cutting in the wake of the Internet. The rise of the Internet quickly began to suck readers and, more importantly, advertisers out of the traditional mass media market. This led to a widespread profit loss, the turbo-charging of churnalism, and the use of corporate propaganda in the media. It pushed the media even further into being a propaganda instrument of neoliberal capitalism.

With this, neoliberal capitalism moved on to become media capitalism at lightning speed. In media capitalism, the media serves two purposes: a) selling goods (marketing) and b) selling the ideology of neoliberal capitalism (PR and propaganda). The latter more than the former engineers what Adorno once called mass deception.

Thomas Klikauer is the author of Managerialism (Palgrave, 2013).

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