For years, we've been circling around the painful truth about US "news" media, using terms like "establishment" to describe the seemingly fact-indifferent political reporting of America's largest newspapers and television/cable networks. The narrative this implies, which is far more palatable than the true extent of the problem, is that these organizations are merely engaging in industry groupthink and getting away with lazy, hackish reporting due to institutional inertia. While that does undoubtedly contribute to the low quality of information in our nation's alleged "free press," what's actually going on at the root of Washington press corps corruption is much worse: They simply report the consensus of the State as fact, whatever that may be, and ignore, highlight, impugn, or outright fabricate related information to promote that narrative. Even in the absence of explicit government censorship, what this means in practice is that the vast majority of sources the American people depend upon are in fact State Media.
In order to appreciate how real the phenomenon is, it's important to understand the distinction between the State and individual leaders within it: As both Cold War Kremlinology and examination of modern-day Chinese state media illustrates, individuals at every level of government can fall into degrees of disfavor with the overall state, opening them up to what would otherwise be highly unusual public criticism. The resulting span of coverage over time seems capricious and inexplicable to the casual observer, based on opaque standards that have little if anything to do with the actual facts of what someone is doing.
One moment a leader may be totally infallible, ubiquitous, and beyond reproach even when their actions are utterly egregious; the next they may become suddenly invisible, faults once praised or deliberately ignored are now highlighted for what they are, and if none of their real flaws are sufficient to meet the needs of the narrative, they're attacked on bewilderingly spurious if not outright fictional premises. Intelligent observers are left to wonder "What changed?" And the answer is simply that the figure in question has fallen out of favor with the state, or at least come into conflict with some faction thereof that is more directly in control of media organs. As a result, coverage of that person after the falling out seems to come from a totally separate universe than coverage before.
Such doublethink is a universal hallmark of state media worldwide, satirized to the utmost extreme by Orwell's Ministry of Truth - an institution whose job in the fictional state of Oceania was to rewrite history to meet the political exigencies of the present. What's most disturbing about these real and fictional state media, and that got me thinking about this subject, is that this is virtually identical to how the Washington press corps behaves - as if their coverage is not only not bound by present facts, but not even bound by the logic of their own prior claims. There is no limit to how many times, or how often Up and Down can switch sides in US political reporting, with all associated facts treated as subordinate to whichever narrative is currently dominant in the consensus of the State.
Think back to the Bush era: Although there were differences of opinion in the State about tone, timing, and tactics, the invasion of Iraq and deposing of Saddam Hussein were consensus objectives in Washington. Yet at the same time, the American people were split down the middle on the issue, and opposition remained strong throughout due to numerous and obvious reasons: E.g., the UN had not authorized it, Iraq had not attacked us, there was no credible information it intended to attack us, no credible reason to believe it ever would or could, invading Iraq would thus be a war crime, the global democracies were overwhelmingly against it, it was a distraction from fighting al Qaeda that would be used against us, the Bush regime was refusing to pay for the war they were demanding to start, and every claim the White House made to justify the drive to war was debunked almost the instant it was released only to be replaced with some new Big Lie. All of this was occurring right in front of our faces, requiring no special insight or investigative research to report.
And none of it was being talked about by the major US news media. They were completely ignoring the overwhelming, plain, publicly-visible facts of a national security emergency created by the State itself, and instead simply regurgitated the claims being issued to justify invading Iraq. This wasn't "lazy reporting" - mere laziness would have been to talk about the plainly visible facts without digging any deeper. Instead, they deliberately ignored everything except State consensus; deliberately ignored voices within the State that deviated from this consensus, and all facts that contradicted it - effectively meaning all facts period; and all moral, legal, political, and practical objections raised by the public; all contrary opinions by legal, diplomatic, and national security professionals; and the overwhelming opposition of the international community.
Instead, our "free press" treated us to an alternate universe where Saddam Hussein had not only the means but the intention to attack us, the threat was imminent, and he had probably been involved in 9/11. Not because the State believed any of this or provided any basis for anyone else to believe it, but because it was exigent to spread these memes in service to its objective of invading Iraq and deposing its dictator. And the media were diligent in supporting these memes against all contrary fact, evidence, and credible opinion, putting to lie the idea that there was any institutional distinction between themselves and the State.
The same pattern applied in the first half of the regime to the media's coverage of Bush and Cheney themselves, as well as the rest of their individual henchmen to whatever extent they had media exposure. No matter how egregious their hundreds of criminal abuses of power were from the moment they set foot in the White House, they were completely ignored or even articulated as being positive evidence of "bold leadership" and other such transparent propaganda. Thanks largely to Dick Cheney's adeptness with insider politics, these abuses were always deftly calculated to inflict maximum damage on the American people and law-based governance while minimizing the ire of bureaucratic powers whose willing obedience was necessary to implement the regime's policies.
As a result, there was simply no motivation in the major news media to pursue them, because there was no cohesive effort within the State telling them to. And once 9/11 came along, that lack of motivation turned into a full-force motivation to do the opposite: To actively cover for Bush, his people, and his policies, no matter how outrageous their actions became. There was literally no violation of law and basic human decency that they could not have gotten away with at this point, so long as it did not change the Bush regime's disposition to the rest of the State.
I am not exaggerating when I say this: If George W. Bush had been caught on camera personally doing something totally beyond the pale - say raping and dismembering someone - whatever major media coverage of it that occurred, and which would only occur if the video had refused to die after initial denials, would have been sung in unison as a chorus - "Experts inform us that the video is fake." Such experts needn't have actually existed to make the assertion, but no one who said otherwise, regardless of their credibility, would have been reported, and the idea that it's a silly forgery would simply have become public assumption while those who held on to the issue would come to be marginalized as conspiracy theorists. So the fact that Bush's real capital crimes were only carried out by others via institutional power only made them that much easier to ignore and cover for.
But the media's attitude became dramatically different in the later years of the regime, when maintaining the State's relationship with a lame duck of an unpopular Party was no longer deemed worth the effort of covering for him. Hurricane Katrina was merely the first crack in the edifice, and one particularly suited to driving a wedge between the White House and the overall State due to the role of Bush's FEMA Director, Michael Brown: A totally unqualified outsider put in control of a federal institution as a gift because he was a friend of Bush's 2000 campaign manager.
Bush's habit of doling out high managerial positions in the federal government as gifts was likely always an irritant, but had been ignored for all the reasons previously identified. As those reasons began to slip away, the State began to lose patience with Bush for this and a multitude of other reasons. And as they did so, naturally the media did so as well in direct proportion to Bush's growing level of disfavor in the State. This was the first time that the regime's narratives had decisively branched off from State consensus, and the division only widened and solidified with time, allowing the media greater and greater leeway to acknowledge negative facts about the activities of the White House.
It was only in mid-2005 that the New York Times superficially addressed the outright fraud of the previous three years of its own Iraq War coverage beginning in 2002, admitting that it had not quite been up to journalistic standards, and made a ritual sacrifice of pushing key regime stenographer Judith Miller out the door - albeit with a hefty severance package rewarding her for her "years of service." Miller had done her job of copy-pasting regime propaganda too well, and now had to share in Bush's declining political fortunes in order for the New York Times to transition to the new narrative and be able to semi-plausibly claim that Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia: In other words, that they were a real news organization in a free press committed to telling truth to power, and had simply been the victim of one of their reporters playing it fast and loose. Which they failed to notice for three straight years, until it became politically convenient to note.
But even with Bush in disrepute and increasingly irrelevant in the subsequent years, there was never a point where he was so at odds with the State that the media were willing to go beyond merely reporting self-evident facts that they had previously been willing to ignore. Little if any serious investigative reporting on the part of these organizations was ever pursued against the Bush White House even in later years, and it's not hard to guess why: Because real journalism can uncover inconvenient institutional complicity in crimes and scandals that the State would rather avoid, even when it is perfectly willing to support coverage targeting the most superficial aspects of an individual political leader's conduct and policies.
Basically this is the same reason that impeaching Bush was "off the table" when Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House in 2006, and why major media preferred to avoid both the subject and any scandal severe enough to potentially precipitate it. Instead, we got an earful of Bush the Incompetent/Indifferent Douche, because that limited his remaining political power without putting the State in danger of being held accountable for its role in his crimes. While Pelosi was willing to say that impeachment was off the table, as far as the media was concerned it was never even a legitimate subject of investigation or discussion. As a result, Bush and all his top people left the White House free and clear with full public pensions, having subjected the United States of America to eight straight years of nearly every week eclipsing all previous scandals in presidential history combined.
Now with Barack Obama in the White House, we see the same forces at work with considerably different superficial results: Coverage is as neutral on President Obama's liberal social issue agenda as it was on Bush's deranged right-wing social agenda. When Bush banned federal funding of embryonic stem cell research in order to impose his fringe religious beliefs on the nation, the media yawned and reported it as a "controversy" even though the overwhelming majority of Americans favored such research. When Obama first began considering letting gays into the military, the media by and large yawned and reported the "controversy," even though the action was in line with public opinion. But coverage on matters directly related to the interests of the State is overwhelmingly aligned to those interests rather than to the facts of the subject being reported.
The tenor of coverage about this administration would otherwise be inexplicable: When the President's policies begin to challenge and threaten key constituencies of the State, we suddenly find ourselves inundated with seemingly coordinated news media campaigns promoting anti-Obama narratives based on increasingly flimsy premises, cherry-picked information, and in extreme cases outright fabrications, even if what's being attacked is just a tiny little step in the direction of changes the American people and relevant experts overwhelmingly support. But when the administration's actions (or lack of actions) align with State consensus - even when that consensus is clearly wrong, immoral, and dangerous - the media is either silent or supportive.
And despite rather glaring bias in favor of right-wing Republican memes, the media isn't even necessarily against liberal Democrats as a rule. The reason they tend to largely favor Republican narratives is because Republicans have no moral restraints preventing them from tailoring everything they do to the depraved realpolitik that shapes the interests of State, while Democrats by and large have some level of scruples and moral limits on how far they're willing to go to get their way. As a result, Republicans tend to have much deeper and more numerous tentacles into the basic foundations of the State, and are more effective at tying its interests to their agenda. What we see in the media is thus simply an echo of that greater influence in Washington.
Take the sequester controversy as a case in point, or indeed any of the budget crises over the past few years caused by Republican economic hostage-taking. As a set of institutions corrupted by lobbying and revolving-door employment in the sectors they regulate and/or contract with, the State is somewhat hostile to Keynesian fiscal policies that would impose higher tax rates on the wealthy individuals and large businesses whose interests they share and whose ranks they hope to join. It isn't a rigid ideological position, but it is a net tendency that reflects on the State's attitude toward political leaders who favor progressive economics, and thereby on media coverage of budget confrontations between the White House and Congressional GOP.
Even though Republicans are 100% the cause of these budget confrontations, not willing to compromise at all despite being offered concessions, and threatening to inflict grave consequences on the federal government and the US economy in general if their demands are not met, media coverage of these battles invariably portrays them as a product of both sides being obstinate and ideological - if not slightly more the fault of the President for being so "unreasonable" as to resist GOP demands longer than is necessary for mere kabuki purposes. And the reason is that this is how the State views these battles: It does not care how it gets its money or how that money is paid for, so long as it does get its money.
Hence the gargantuan levels of deficit spending that occur under GOP administrations who promote themselves as being against it: They simply have no political choice in the matter, and can either have their tax cuts with deficit spending, or not have them at all. The budget cuts they do enact are always predatory, targeted at the weakest institutions that wield the least influence or have the most powerful enemies - services for the poor and minorities, scientific agencies, enforcement bodies that punish corporate wrongdoers, etc. - and never those institutions with the loudest voices in forming State consensus, with the Department of Defense being paramount. This is why the Obama administration's proposed budget increase for DOD is being portrayed as a cut in the media - because they're not getting as much of an increase as they wanted. Facts don't matter, just the interests of the State.
If they are largely indifferent or mildly hostile to President Obama on budget battles, the State is enraged at him over sequestration - the actual triggering of immediate, across-the-board budget reductions. Republicans are obviously responsible for sequestration because (a)Congress has legal authority over the budget, and the GOP controls the House of Representatives while holding the Senate hostage with filibusters; (b)they refuse to compromise at all; (c)they've created budget crisis after budget crisis in order to issue additional demands even when previous ones were conceded; (d)putting sequestration into law was the only way they would agree to end the most recent of those crises; and (e)they chose to continue refusing to compromise, and as a result sequestration was triggered. These are the facts. But this is not how the State perceives it, nor how the Washington press corps that serves as the Voice of the State is reporting it.
The only way to avoid hurting the State as sequestration approached would have been for one of the sides to yield, and given the aforementioned bias in favor of the conservative economic camp, the consensus will always be that it is the job of Democrats to yield once they have satisfied the needs of political theater by making a show of resisting. But the President didn't yield, so the consensus of the State and its media is that he is to blame, despite all of the facts mentioned above. The sheer volume of material promoting this meme in the media using both right-wing and left-wing rhetoric has been stunning, and stunningly consistent in what it chooses to focus on vs. what it studiously ignores.
State Media in general have never been fond of Barack Obama: Even when he chooses to be thoroughly conventional, the mere fact of what he represents and has inspired others to accomplish is deeply threatening to the corrupt authoritarian psychology of the State and its ersatz instruments in the news business. The coverage of his administration over the years has been like a photographic negative of that given to Bush: When he aligns with State consensus, the negative propaganda doesn't disappear completely - it just quiets down a bit - and when he does anything contrary to that consensus, even by merely falling short of it rather than directly opposing it, the propaganda against him quickly rises to a shrieking crescendo across every single information medium.
In conclusion, we in America do not have any large-scale free press, but rather the overwhelming edifice of major media that most of us depend upon for information is essentially State Media - an organ whose content is dictated by the capricious balances of opaque Beltway interests rather than any examination of facts or intelligent interpretations thereof. While there is no explicit political authority over information in the United States, the relationship between the State and the major media is now so robust and efficient that there is no practical difference with a state-run propaganda organ.
Political news coverage is no longer determined by actual facts and situations, but entirely by the expediencies perceived within the halls of power by institutional consensus, and this has and will continue to promote fact-free coverage, fabrications, blackouts, and outright propaganda, as every other State Media in the world produces. And as a result, we often find ourselves in the surreal position of finding far better, more accurate, and more intelligent coverage of politics in entertainment publications and comedy shows than on the front pages of the New York Times. We should call these organizations what they are - State Media - and authoritatively dismiss any pretense that they are institutionally capable of, let alone willing to report truth to power.