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Despite their constant attempts at knocking the house down, the US press sits at a pivot point. In the era of the self, they need a vast rethink. Although it might be too late.
The press is going through a hell of a time. Assailed on one side by conservatives that see it as a pandering, liberal monolith and on the other by progressives that accuse it of being nothing more than a mouthpiece for neoliberal corporate interests. This once proud edifice of a healthy democracy looks colic and vertiginous.
This once proud edifice of a healthy democracy looks colic and vertiginous.
The meme ‘Trump versus Fakenews’ is an old one, so it is somewhat surprising that the media has hit the panic button eighteen months too late. Make no mistake they’re doing it now. And they’re bashing it like crazy. Following the kneecapping administered by the Project Veritas undercover video, and the clotheslining delivered by a lo-fi wrestling.gif, no one much cares to help CNN up off the mat. Their anchors and contributors are positively apoplectic: “Why won’t anyone come to our aid?”
The mainstream media needs smelling salts something serious, but the medics are too busy addressing to their Facebooks and Snapchats to tend to this sad, sad little invalid… The media is dying in front of us, on its tottering feet, and we just seem to be shrugging… ‘meh media, so what?’
The problem for the press is that they are trying to justify their existence (and a right to protection) by appealing to a doctrine that is righteous in principle, but empty in practice. Two of the most brilliant minds could have warned the media they wouldn’t have public support in their time of need…not anymore anyway.
Before diving headlong into some florid Hegel (1820) and Montesquieu (1748), allow me to make the case for the distance between the principle, and the practice.
The Press is dying on its feet, and no one will step forward to catch it, because it is a Press in name only, not in substance.
The argument for Press indispensability goes something like this:
The Press is a way of checking the excesses of the political class. By providing insight into their actions and behaviours, and by mediating the people’s concerns and holding the political class accountable, a healthy democracy is assured in this ideal public sphere.
Unfortunately, the press hasn’t been faithful (at least not in the United States) to this ‘spirit’ for a long time. Following the 1996 Telecommunications Act of Congress, media deregulation consolidated the number of media companies in the United States from 50 to 6. Today, six companies control 90% of all news and public affairs reporting: Viacom, News Corporation, Comcast, CBS, Time Warner and Disney. These companies are all publically listed, with enormous (multi-dimensional, cross-domain) commercial interests, and corrupt both themselves and the political class through the breathless lobbying and financial contributions that lie at the heart of Washington power structures.
Montesquieu (1748) and Hegel (1820) were adamant about the necessity of institutions to remain faithful to their ‘spirit’, to retain legitimacy and defensibility. Hegel called, “supplying a good reason for a bad thing” an “eternally deceptive method of the understanding”. Montesquieu explained that the most important thing about any institution wasn’t what it did, or what it produced, but what its spirit was. Without proper consideration of the spirit, how can you make any determination about the institution itself? How can you say if it’s a good or a bad institution, or if it’s working well or badly, if you don’t refer back to its spirit: the reason for its very creation?
The press is supposed to be something that acts on behalf of the people, to assist us in steering the political class closer towards our own interests. Today the press does nothing of the sort. The media as a commercial enterprise is invested in the production of information for one of two ends. Either to manufacture consent for the projects of the ruling class (as Chomsky said so eloquently), or, simply to entertain: the opioid of the masses (to paraphrase Marx).
“…legislation in general and its particular determinations should not be considered in isolation and in the abstract, but rather as a dependent moment within one totality, in the context of all the other determinations which constitute the character of a national and an age; within this context they gain their genuine significance, and hence also their justification”
The Press is dying on its feet, and no one will step forward to catch it, because it is a Press in name only, not in substance. It ceased to be a press in substance long ago (if it ever was one). There’s no sympathy for CNN, if its defence when attacked is an appeal to the hallowed fourth estate. That is so transparent a delusion that it must cause bilious reflux to express. The Press that is dying is a mere chimera of a check on power, a mere phantom of the halcyon institution of yore.
Indeed, a healthy and sane democratic society needs the press. And it is a most assured travesty that a U.S. president attacks it remorselessly. But look how weakly it defends itself – how soft a target it has become. The press can blame no one for its mortality, and swiftly descending darkness, than itself. They exchanged truth for traffic long ago and now the devil has come to collect on that awful, Faustian bargain.
The solution is to recognise that today we do not have a press. And we sorely, sorely need one. Time is precious. We must stop allowing entertainment to consume what little we have. We should be prepared to sacrifice titillation for information, and the salacious for the salutary. We must recognise what we have and what we don’t, and appreciate that a genuine press – one that mediates the publics interests into the sphere – is something worth demanding, and above all, worth paying for.