Social Media and the New Man, Part I

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So you say you hate the media?

I believe I know why.

What follows is an n-part essay, which mostly comes from my book, but I’ve adapted it in light of recent news.

The economic and technological transformation of the mass media is a key aspect of the story of the decline of liberal democracy.

Note: It is not irreversible. Nothing is written.

But do not assume it will all work out well.

Some of you may know parts of this story; others, different parts. I’m going to try to draw it together here in a way that, I hope, provides a useful overview.

The Liberal View

In the liberal view, freedom of expression is to be treasured for two reasons. The first is inherent: It is an aspect of freedom, and freedom is inherently—self-evidently—good.

The second is utilitarian. Freedom of expression, in the liberal view, gives rise to a marketplace of ideas.

The metaphor of a market comes to us from Milton, who in Areopagitica deplored Parliament’s 1643 Ordinance for the Regulating of Printing.

Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?

Ideas and Markets

The analogy to a marketplace is interesting, suggestive, and flawed. There is in fact no market, in the classical sense, because there is no price mechanism. Milton acknowledged as much:

Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopolized and traded in by tickets and statutes and standards. We must not think to make a staple commodity of all the knowledge in the land, to mark and license it like our broadcloth and our woolpacks.

Knowledge and truth, in Milton’s view, are similar to goods one might trade in a marketplace, in that competition gives rise to better products. Yet they’re also different: they are not ordinary commodities.

Liberals have long believed that if ideas are allowed to compete freely, the truth will emerge. The public will weigh and measure ideas, opinions, proposals, policies and Weltanschauungs. The better ideas will naturally win. They will become laws and policies.

The Fourth Estate

The term “Fourth Estate” reflects the liberal precept that the media, in a healthy polity, plays a critical role—one as weighty as the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary.

The term is a neologism. In medieval Europe, the First Estate was the clergy; the Second, the nobility, and the Third the peasantry.

Wikipedia tells me that Carlyle was the first to use it to describe the press. I haven’t confirmed this, but it’s probably true: It’s somewhere in Sartor Resartus. I find Carlyle unreadable, so you’ll have to check for yourself.

In the liberal view, the media serve as guardians of the public interest. A free press affords the public the opportunity to supervise and scrutinize those who hold power. It is an essential component of the system of checks and balances designed to proof democracy against despotism.

Jefferson, particularly, averred with a faith and urgency that no one alive now feels that truth would emerge from freedom of the press:

“The art of printing secures us against the retrogradation of reason and information.”

“To preserve the freedom of the human mind ... and freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom; for as long as we may think as we will and speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement.”

“Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”

Manufacturing Consent

In 1988, Chomsky and Herman published Manufacturing Consent. The title comes from the phrase “the manufacture of consent,” used by Walter Lippman in 1922 in the book Public Opinion. The consent in concern is the consent of the governed.

The ideas are not original. (Chomsky says Herman wrote most of it. I believe him.) It’s a standard neo-Marxist analysis. But Chomsky’s fame propelled the book to enormous prominence. It’s now the best-known objection to the liberal view of the media. Or the second-best, perhaps. I suppose the best-known objection is Donald Trump’s.

Chomsky are Herman argue that the marketplace of ideas is, indeed, a market. It is not a metaphor. But just as there is no reason to think a market for broadcloth and woolpacks would give rise to truth, there is no reason to think truth would emerge from a marketplace of ideas.

The American mass media is not censored in the Soviet style, they argue. But it functions even more effectively as a comprehensive system of propaganda.

Their model is “simply a free-market analysis of the mainstream media,” they claim, and the results were “largely the outcome of the working of market forces.”

Contrary to received wisdom, they argue, the media is neither liberal nor dedicated to the public interest. It is profit-driven, and operates according to the logic of “market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship.”

“The mass media,” they write,

serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda. In countries where the levers of power are in the hands of a state bureaucracy, the monopolistic control over the media, often supplemented by official censorship, makes it clear that the media serve the ends of a dominant elite. It is much more difficult to see a propaganda system at work where the media are private and formal censorship is absent. This is especially true where the media actively compete, periodically attack and expose corporate and governmental malfeasance, and aggressively portray themselves as spokesmen for free speech and the general community interest. What is not evident (and remains undiscussed in the media) is the limited nature of such critiques …

… The essential ingredients of our propaganda model, or set of news ‘filters,’ fall under the following headings:

(1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms;

(2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media;

(3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and ‘experts’ funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power;

(4) ‘flak’ as a means of disciplining the media; and

(5) ‘anti-communism’ as a national religion and control mechanism.

These elements interact with and reinforce one another. The raw material of news must pass through successive filters, leaving only the cleansed residue fit to print.’ …

Journalists, they argued, were riddled with false consciousness:

…. The elite domination of the media and marginalization of dissidents that results from the operation of these filters occurs so naturally that media news people, frequently operating with complete integrity and goodwill, are able to convince themselves that they choose and interpret the news ‘objectively’ and on the basis of professional news values. …

… Advertisers will want, more generally, to avoid programs with serious complexities and disturbing controversies that interfere with the ‘buying mood.’ They seek programs that will lightly entertain and thus fit in with the spirit of the primary purpose of program purchases – the dissemination of a selling message.’

… Economics dictates that they concentrate their resources where significant news often occurs, where important rumors and leaks abound, and where regular conferences are held. The White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department, in Washington, D.C. , are central nodes of such news activity.

If you like your books in cartoon form, this will do:

Yes, yes, I do see the irony: Al Jazeera, of all organizations, produced that cartoon.

What’s the Alternative?

Chomsky and Herman make an implicit argument. Were the media to cease manufacturing consent, the scales would fall from our eyes, and something better would emerge.

It’s self-evident, or trivially true. Absent the media’s propaganda, we’d see the diminution of class and hierarchically-organized social orders and the spread and deepening of egalitarianism.

In 2008, Chomsky was asked whether the rise of the Internet might be significant:

It’s now 2019.

We can now see, with miserable clarity, that politics were not “secondary at best.” We now have a keen insight into the alternative to manufactured consent.

Manufacturing Outrage

Part II, coming tomorrow.

If you'd like to know what happens next

PS: The Claire Berlinski Matchmaking Service

In principle, you can leave comments at the end of the newsletter. In practice, though, none of you do. Why not?

I think you should. That way, you and I can chat a bit, and my readers can get to know each other. I think you’d like each other. You’re the kind of people who do the right thing even though no one’s watching. You’re interested in the same things. And you like to read.

Of course, since this is the Internet, you may prefer to comment using a pseudonym. But if at any point you’d like to get to know someone you meet here in the real world, I’d be happy to serve as a matchmaker. If you both want to meet each other, I’ll give you the others’ e-mail addresses. Like Tinder. (I think.)

I probably don’t have enough time to orchestrate a marriage by the year 2020, but let’s say by the summer of 2020?

Go on, introduce yourselves. Have a great time.

I’ll be back tomorrow.