‘Fake News’ in America: Homegrown, and Far From New
By Chris Hedges
First appeared on Truthdig
The media landscape in America is dominated by “fake news.” It has been for decades. This fake news does not emanate from the Kremlin. It is a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry that is skillfully designed and managed by public relations agencies, publicists and communications departments on behalf of individuals, government and corporations to manipulate public opinion. This propaganda industry stages pseudo-events to shape our perception of reality. The public is so awash in these lies, delivered 24 hours a day through electronic devices and print, that viewers and readers can no longer distinguish between truth and fiction.
Donald Trump and the racist-conspiracy theorists, generals and billionaires around him inherited and exploited this condition, just as they have inherited and will exploit the destruction of civil liberties and collapse of democratic institutions. Trump did not create this political, moral and intellectual vacuum. It created him. It created a world where fact is interchangeable with opinion, where celebrities have huge megaphones simply because they are celebrities, where information must be entertaining and where we can all believe what we want to believe regardless of truth. A demagogue like Trump is what you get when you turn culture and the press into burlesque.
Journalists long ago gave up trying to describe an objective world or give a voice to ordinary men and women. They became conditioned to cater to corporate demands. News personalities, who often make millions of dollars a year, became courtiers. They peddle gossip. They promote consumerism and imperialism. They chatter endlessly about polls, strategies, presentation and tactics or play guessing games about upcoming presidential appointments. They fill news holes with trivial, emotionally driven stories that make us feel good about ourselves. They are incapable of genuine reporting. They rely on professional propagandists to frame all discussion and debate.
There are established journalists who have spent their entire careers repackaging press releases or attending official briefings or press conferences—I knew several when I was with The New York Times. They work as stenographers to the powerful. Many such reporters are highly esteemed in the profession.
The corporations that own media outlets, unlike the old newspaper empires, view news as simply another revenue stream. Revenue streams compete inside a corporation. When the news division does not make what is seen as enough profit, the ax comes down. Content is irrelevant. The courtiers in the press, beholden to their corporate overlords, cling ferociously to their privileged and well-compensated perches. Because they slavishly serve the interests of corporate power, they are hated by America’s workers, whom they have rendered invisible. They deserve the hate they get.
Most of the sections of a newspaper—“life style,” travel, real estate and fashion, among others—are designed to appeal to the “1 percent.” They are bait for advertising. Only about 15 percent of any newspaper is devoted to news. If you were to remove from that 15 percent the content provided by the public relations industry inside and outside government, news falls to single digits. For broadcast and cable news, the figure for real, independently reported news would hover close to zero.
The object of fake news is to shape public opinion by creating fictional personalities and emotional responses that overwhelm reality. Hillary Clinton, contrary to how she often was portrayed during the recent presidential campaign, never fought on behalf of women and children—she was an advocate for the destruction of a welfare system in which 70 percent of the recipients were children. She is a tool of the big banks, Wall Street and the war industry. Pseudo-events were created to maintain the fiction of her concern for women and children, her compassion and her connections to ordinary people. Trump never has been a great businessman. He has a long history of bankruptcies and shady business practices. But he played the fictional role of a titan of finance on his reality television show, “The Apprentice.”
“The pseudo-events which flood our consciousness are neither true nor false in the old familiar senses,” Daniel Boorstin writes in his book “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.” “The very same advances which have made them possible have also made the images—however planned, contrived, or distorted—more vivid, more attractive, more impressive, and more persuasive than reality itself.”
Reality is consciously deformed to easily digestible sound bites and narratives. Those involved in public relations, political campaigns and government stay relentlessly on message. They do not deviate from the simple sound bite or cliché they are instructed to repeat. It is a species of continuous baby talk. And it dominates the news and talk shows on the airwaves.
“The refinements of reason and shading of emotion cannot reach a considerable public,” Edward Bernays, the father of modern public relations, noted cynically.
The rapid-fire, abbreviated format of television precludes complexities and nuance. Television is about good and evil, black and white, hero and villain. It makes us confuse induced emotions with knowledge. It reinforces the mythic narrative of American virtue and goodness. It pays homage through carefully selected “experts” and “specialists” to the power elites and the reigning ideology. It shuts out, discredits or ridicules all who dissent.
Is the Democratic establishment so clueless it believes its party lost the presidential election because of the leaked John Podesta emails and FBI Director James Comey’s decision, shortly before the vote, to send a letter to Congress related to Clinton’s private email server? Can’t the Democratic leadership see that the root cause of the defeat was that it abandoned workers in order to promote corporate interests? Doesn’t it understand that although its lies and propaganda worked for three decades, Democrats eventually lost credibility among those they had betrayed?