Law in Contemporary Society

Democracy and the Press

-- By EliKeene - 25 May 2015

“Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”
– Justice Hugo L. Black, New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971)

Democracy cannot exist without the free press. The role of the press is vital and multifaceted, serving both to unearth political corruption and corporate abuses while acting as the voice of popular discontent.

But the press is not an inherently noble institution. Without a discerning public that condemns outside control, the press is just as likely to undermine democratic ideals as it is to support them. In today’s world, the advent of the 24-hour news network had made the press less independent, the public less discerning, and democracy weaker for it.

The Kremlin’s News

My favorite experiment last year, was to ask Westerners what they thought was happening in Ukraine. The answer was usually the same: a democratic uprising to overthrow a corrupt government in Kiev had led to the murder of peaceful protestors and an opportunistic Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory. From within the Russian-speaking world, the picture was grossly different. Thanks to the Kremlin’s media monopoly, most Russians understood that a neo-fascist uprising had overthrown a democratically elected government in Kiev, prompting a humanitarian intervention to stop the ethnic cleansing of Russians in Crimea.

By early 2014, the old Soviet adage that the truth was in the press, so long as you read between the lines, was long dead. But the problem was not simply that the Kremlin had purged the news of any semblance of the facts – it was also that the people had stopped reading between the lines. Few Russians, even those who had previously been critical of Putin, looked further than the TV reports, even as the reporting became increasingly absurd. Instead, most absorbed the dramatic music, the attractive anchors, and the sleek CGI graphics depicting a Ukrainian fighter jet downing a Boeing 777 and nodded along to the story.

The Ukraine crisis was a striking demonstration of the state of the modern press in Russia. Just decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the government had perfected its control over information and the public had lost its ability – or its will – to see through it.

News, Inc.

While American media is free of the strict governmental controls that characterize the Russian press, it is nevertheless characterized by similar trends. Today, five corporate owners control the majority of news broadcasting, down from fifty in 1983. American news outlets are both profit-seeking entities and representatives of the corporate interests that own them. The narratives presented by 24-hours news networks, while different, demonstrate a similar lack of fact-based investigation.

This was true of the Ukraine crisis, where CNN, Fox News, and NBC portrayed the protestors on Maidan as pro-democracy fighters, victims of police violence and Russian imperial ambitions. Where Kremlin-dominated media never missed a chance to call the protestors Nazis, Western press almost entirely ignored the neo-fascist elements on Maidan. This was a narrative choice, not a mere misunderstanding of the situation on the ground. Indeed, when protests struck American streets a year later, the same networks offered no softening context, no discussion of the history of race relations in America, just reports of violence, arson, and looting.

But this is old news. The American public has long been aware of biases and corporate domination of the media. What is more concerning is that Americans, like Russians, are increasingly abandoning any attempt to read between the lines.

State Television

When the Kremlin began its hostile takeover of Russian media, it left the vast majority of independent press outlets more or less alone. It was television that the new Putin government took for itself, starting with a Gazprom takeover of the popular NTV news network in 2000.

At this time, both pro- and anti-Putin Russians were quick to point out that there was no real censorship in Russia – this was not China, anyone could open up their browser and have access to the opinions and facts that they needed.

But the secret was that none of the independent media mattered. Despite the wide availability of dissenting opinions that were, until recently, available on the Russian internet, 90% of Russians get their news from television and 100% of the cable television news networks, were under control of the Putin government.

When, Russia’s lead independent news website, fell victim to a forcible takeover by a member of Putin’s media network in 2014, there was no protest. The last mainstream source of independent Russian news vanished, and no one in Russia blinked an eye.

The Creeping Influence of Cable News

The press in America, like the press in Russia prior to 2014, has retained a considerable degree of independence. American print and online media are some of the most critical in the world, even retaining a degree of influence in shaping public policy.

As Russia’s experiences shows, however, the most important question is not whether critical new sources exist, but whether they matter. While Americans have more access to critical viewpoints than Russians ever had, nearly four times as many Americans get their international and political news from television as from print or online newspapers. In turn, the news that most Americans are getting is the filtered news selected by each of these networks.

What sets the US apart from Russia is that there is no central hand of an autocratic government choreographing what cable news networks broadcast. But Americans have nevertheless become passive and unconscious consumers of their narratives. While a variety of viewpoints exist – MSNBC for liberals, Fox News for conservatives, and CNN for the internationally-minded, each substitutes CGI images and shallow three-minute reports from the field for fact-intensive investigative journalism. Americans, like Russians, no longer engage the news, they consume it.

If the Russian experience tells us anything, it is that the American press has sunk to a more tenuous position than it would seem on first glance. Democracy needs both a press that is free from interference and a public that is discerning enough to recognize when this interference occurs. Today, Americans and the press have failed each other.

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Russia's problem is Orwell, ours is Huxley.

I think you might like this cartoon:

-- AlexWeiss - 31 May 2015

I actually don't think that's right, and I'm glad you left posted the comic, because I think it gets to one of the reasons why I wrote on a subject that has been, in most senses, beaten to death.

I think the interesting thing here is that both the US and Russia are in "Brave New World" mode right now. But American sources of information tell us that we are the utopia gone wrong and they are the dystopia.

Russia, for all of its problems, is not "1984". Yes, Putin has quashed the most vocal dissenters since his re-election, but Russia is no longer a world of torture, arbitrary arrests, and mass executions. What’s more, the Russian people (at least those that remain in the country) truly love Putin, and it's not because he's Big Brother. It's because Putin is giving them exactly what they want. The vast majority of media manipulation in the Russian Federation was giving people access to the narrative they wanted to hear. As I wrote, until very recently -- all the critical investigative journalism one could read was freely accessible to any Russian with a computer. But no one accessed it.

That's not to justify any of Vladimir Vladimirovich's actions (with media or otherwise). But it underlines just how similar our problems are. Americans want the narrative that's pumped in through CNN because that narrative speaks to how they want to see the world, just as Russians tune into Channel 1 because they want to be told that Russia is rising again to its position as a great power.

Of course, Russia may be becoming more Orwellian as this crisis drags on, but perhaps that's something that should be on our radar as well.

-- EliKeene - 01 Jun 2015

The primary method of presentation here is flattening. "Russia" and "America" are flattened into units, which are then compared to one another, and found to be surprisingly alike, as a result of further flattening. "The press" in the two societies mean quite different things and behave in quite different ways. The "Americans" who don't read between the lines have been surprisingly interested in John Stewart, in that case, for example. Russian society is in the midst of a whipped-up war hysteria. You have seen how that works in the US in your lifetime, too, and it's rather different also.

Your points don't require this flattening form of presentation in order to be useful. One might even say that they are better unflattened.



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r5 - 29 Jun 2015 - 21:44:19 - MarkDrake
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