Why your favorite news network is establishment propaganda: In which Kumars watches MSNBC

Attn: liberals!

If we truly have a free press—that is, if corporate capitalism is not a totalitarian form of state control—then why is “independent” media the exception, and not the rule? Why are radical perspectives so effectively excised from public discourse, marginalized and ridiculed as “fringe”?

Fox News betrays the incoherence of its rhetorical equation of the “liberal media” with the “mainstream media” when it refuses to classify its own perspectives as “fringe,” as outside of the mainstream. Fox clearly represents the far-right in the corporate media—but if you recall, I anticipated from the beginning that my focus on Fox and the right wing could potentially be taken as an implicit endorsement of the “liberal media” and the political center. I emphasize the centrism of political liberalism because so many progressives (even some self-proclaimed radicals) who identify with the left have their fun demonizing Fox News but turn, out of desperation, or ignorance, or laziness, to CNN or, more often, to MSNBC—the same way many on the so-called “left” love to hate “the Republican agenda” but blindly support similar policies from Democrats, due either to blind fear or to having no other way to sustain their own private notions of what “democracy” looks like.

If the dichotomy between Fox News and MSNBC is so clear-cut, why are there three to four liberal guests during every hour of “straight-news” programming on Fox? If MSNBC’s perspective represents the left wing in the corporate media—as both conservatives and liberals will claim—then why does Cornel West appear on The O’Reilly Factor, while other radical intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek are effectively blacklisted from appearing on MSNBC?  Like in the case of Democrats and Republicans, both Fox and MSNBC systematically dramatize their differences, using the language of “right” and “left”. All the while, the most frightening implications are those which are either normalized or otherwise excised from public discourse: those issues on which “both sides” more or less agree. Who hinders the cause of radical change and social justice more: conservatives, for calling liberals “the left”? Or liberals, for not being “the left”?

Journalist and author Chris Hedges (himself not as radical as one would like, but nonetheless, in the eyes of the establishment, too radical by half) writes in his Death of the Liberal Class that in the corporate capitalist public sphere of the 20th and 21st centuries, the “work of justifying corporate power is now carried out by the college-educated elite, drawn from the liberal class, who manufacture mass propaganda. The role of the liberal class in creating these sophisticated systems of manipulation has given liberals a financial stake in corporate dominance. It is from the liberal class that we get the jingles, advertising, brands, and mass-produced entertainment that keep us trapped in cultural and political illusions.” The underlying reality behind the discursive right-left dichotomy is that Fox is, in some perverse sense, correct: “the liberal media” is the “mainstream media.” Fox News and MSNBC are 21st century capitalism’s answers to the “free press” envisioned by John Locke. Regardless, the widespread perception among the public is that Fox is also “conservative media,” and has often served as a convenient scapegoat for the uncomfortable ideologies we’d rather water down in the name of “sanity.” This time, I will focus on the less watched, “liberal” part of mainstream discourse.

Hedges emphasizes the Wilson administration, and the onset of the first Red Scare during Wilson’s second term, as the beginning of the US “national security” state of corporate capitalism—which is really just advanced capitalism—and which signifies death for the moderate reformist potential of liberalism and mainstream progressivism. There is, however, another strong, slightly earlier benchmark for the onset of corporate capitalism as we know it, one that points to a less conspicuous aspect of the state apparatus: the Radio Act of 1912, which empowered the Taft administration to take control of all radio frequencies in the United States, most of them being used by private and/or independent actors. The federal government split the frequencies between the Navy and the Marconi Company; then, during World War I, Congress stripped the Italian corporation of its US frequencies and distributed them to a handful of US corporations, among them GE and RCA. Contrary to Hedges’ claim, it is difficult to determine a point at which a mythical “pure” liberalism was corrupted. There is always 1819, the first time that the Supreme Court decided that corporations were people too, my friend. For our purposes, the blatant plutocracy of the Radio Act marks the birth of a corporate state media with a virtual monopoly on new and crucial forms of communication.

The ramifications of this are still pervasive. The corporate-owned “left” serves the interests of the state apparatus by shutting radical perspectives out of the mainstream discourse—thus reifying itself as the only acceptable (during the Red Scares, the only legal) “opposite” to “the right.” The least ambivalent support on MSNBC is for consumer rights and the right of corporate-bought unions to exist, as well as for race- and class-blind social liberalism on issues like gay marriage and abortion. True to the dialectic of the partisan mythology, the strongest opposition is not to a particular ideology or stance, but to the GOP.

The network’s own “ads” for itself, which on Fox are quite bombastic and self-satisfied, are here purely smug name-calling: in one, Al Sharpton relates a story in which, as a child, he and other children would sneak into the kitchen after their mothers had finished baking a pie. Upon being caught by their mothers with pie on their faces, they denied having eaten any. Like the GOP, he says—because they ruined everything all by themselves. They’re the children—and, by implication, Democrats are the adults, fundamentally different, diametrically opposed. That’s all that the ad said.

Another such ad features host Lawrence O’Donnell, who asks rhetorically what one does when one has no argument against “fairer” tax rates. He answers: “A lie. A slogan: Class warfare.” Class warfare exists; it is the perpetual state of struggle between strata of society with different relationships to the state apparatus. It is ironic that the only pole of the mainstream discourse that acknowledges that class warfare exists is the pole that only recognizes class struggle when it is directed at the elite, by the elite, in the altogether castrated form of a slightly higher tax rate. The rhetoric of the center rarely strays from the interests of the middle class—God forbid—to those of the working class and the “poor,” a word President Obama has not said in front of cameras for quite some time. The middle-class, however, are not even the primary beneficiaries of Democratic economic policies like free trade, corporate tax breaks, government subsidies and even (in Clinton’s case) deregulation of Wall Street. Here as elsewhere, liberals in power shirk their moral responsibility to make structural critiques by eliding the true nature of inequality as well as their role in perpetuating it.

The best way to demonstrate the limp centrism of MSNBC is to observe what happens when a foreign—let’s say radical—element is introduced. The Five, which replaced Glenn Beck’s program on Fox, features a panel of no less than four conservatives (including one pro-war “libertarian”) and a liberal, replaced on vacation days by a moderate conservative like Juan Williams. My mom has remarked how manipulative this structure is, and it’s true. MSNBC has since tried to mimic The Five’s popularity by developing their own version of the show-without-a-host. I frankly don’t know if it has aired yet, therefore, I will not be examining it here. One does not have to look past the more conventionally structured programs to see how the numbers game betrays any news program’s political bent.

On the weekend morning show Up with Chris Hayes, veteran journalist and Democracy Now host Amy Goodman made her first ever appearance on the show, a clear indication that voices from the radical left are not an everyday attraction on this supposedly left-leaning network. The host? A liberal. The rest of the panel? Three liberals, and a conservative for segments on foreign policy. Like on Fox, there is often a calculated balance, sometimes even a majority, of (mostly white) women on the screen at any given time.

The hot topic is, of course, Iran. Hayes responds to a parallel to the lead-up to the Iraq War by asking that the panel to “not re-litigate Iraq.” Yet the parallels between the media treatment of Iran and the Iraq warmongering are patently unavoidable as long as a radical voice is there to point them out.

Observe: Eli Lake, national security reporter for the Daily Beast, opens with an appeal to international support that has become standard in the past few years: “We have ample evidence from the IAEA itself, in their latest report, that says some of the research that they’re doing appears to be for a weapons program. That’s not the US intelligence, that’s the people with inspectors on the ground, that are trying to make these judgments and so forth.” Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, former State Department Policy Planning Director under Secretary Clinton, offers the valuable insight that “Israel is making clear to not only the United States but I think equally Europe, ‘Hey, if you aren’t serious about these sanctions, we are going to do this. And you do not want us to do this. And so that’s a big push for the diplomatic…” She trails off.

“Amy, I’m curious to hear your reaction,” Hayes asks Goodman expectantly. The entire panel, in fact, appears anxious to see what ignored and elided facts their esteemed pinko guest will bring up, and she does not disappoint: “I’m thinking about the outgoing Mossad chief, a year ago, Meir Dagan, who was on his last day in office as he was going out, he was saying, ‘Don’t do this.’ He was saying, from the best intelligence, Iran wasn’t developing a nuclear bomb until, say, 2015. One of the senior editors at Yedioth [Ahronoth], one of the major Israeli newspapers, said this is the most important historical statement in 10 years. Why aren’t we hearing this? I know, Chris, you don’t want to talk about Iraq; all I can think about here is ‘WMD’….”

Apples and oranges, Slaughter replies: “I don’t think there’s anyone that doubts that Iran has a nuclear program,”—a meaningless statement, with which Hayes fervently agrees—“and ultimately wants to develop nuclear weapons. The debate is about when it’s able to achieve that.” “And how do you push them further and further to that?” Goodman interjects. “Antagonize them further and further and so they feel they need [it].”

Hayes appears sympathetic to this last point: “Remember, the big success story was that Qaddafi gave up his nuclear weapons. Now, does anyone at this table think that if … Qaddafi had managed to become a nuclear power, that the US would have intervened in Libya? I think the answer is clearly and frankly, no.” Lake seems to agree with Hayes, which is interesting because it shows that Hayes’ statement, besides appearing to corroborate Goodman’s defense of Iran’s antagonized position, can as easily be construed as mandating the destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities. The statement is, in the final analysis, incurably flexible from an ideological standpoint. Lake immediately asks Goodman if “Democracy Now” supports the killings of scientists as an alternative to invasion and bombing campaigns. Hayes diligently cues a clip of Secretary Clinton’s laughably “categorical” denial of any involvement in the murders and, by implication, assassination programs of this nature.

After explaining that Democracy Now is a newshour and that she is representing her views alone, Goodman replies to Lake: “Of course not. This whole line of assassination that has been going on—and unfortunately, the US has been involved in targeted assassinations as well—is murderous.” This may sound uncontroversial, but the wording makes the rest of the panel visibly uncomfortable. “Maybe these Iranian nuclear scientists would have become a nuclear whistleblower, say, maybe like Mordecai Vanunu, who worked an Israeli power plant and started to blow the whistle. Of course, Israel has something like 200 nuclear bombs or more.” She goes further, calling out the Obama administration for their complicity and refusal to condemn Israel’s actions: “It’s not enough to say, ‘We don’t endorse this.’ And the US has to stop doing it as well. The US has to stop doing it in Yemen, as it did with [Anwar al-]Awlaki and with his son—this assassination policy has to end.”

This goes too far for Michelle Goldberg, who interjects, “I also think it’s important to distinguish between a drone attack on Awlaki, who really is a member of al-Qaeda”—“We’re at war with them,” Slaughter pipes in—“and civilian nuclear scientists.” This declaration strikes Lake as unacceptable from his liberal non-pinko colleagues: “Civilian nuclear scientists? You’re presuming the Iranian program is not for a weapon. … I don’t speak for the Israelis,” he says before parroting a tried-and-true Zionist Totschlagargument: “During World War II, there were efforts to kill Nazi scientists who were working on a German Nazi bomb. … I would imagine that Israelis view this as a terrible choice in some ways, but one that they need to do in order to delay or prevent this existential threat to their country.”

Hayes points out that this is identical to the argument being made by Israeli officials, including Ambassador Dan Gillerman, and that “if the argument you’re putting forth is, ‘We must do this or there will be a Holocaust,’ that doesn’t allow a lot of room for debate.” Goodman, dissatisfied with Hayes’ response, adds sharply: “The fact is, there is a lot of debate in Israel. And the US media should reflect that cross-section of debate in Israel that it doesn’t.” She goes further: “When the United States wants Israel not to do something, it can get them not to do something.” When she suggests that the billions in annual military aid to Israel can be used as leverage, Slaughter protests that if this were so, then Israel would have ceased its settlement expansion when the topic was first broached. This reply, which went unanswered due to the rotating structure of the panel, is rendered startlingly incoherent in light of the fact that neither the Obama administration nor any other has ever made anything approaching a threat to end (or even decrease) military or other aid to Israel.

Despite the fact that Goodman was nominally included and was allowed to express her views, the contrast with the insight on Democracy Now shows that the interests served by MSNBC’s framing of issues are made apparent not just by what is said but by what is left out. On the Democracy Now program from February 16th, author and columnist Glenn Greenwald fills in some of the gaps, pointing out that the media harp on Iran’s actions while mostly ignoring the murders of five Iranian scientists “through means that are clearly terroristic, whether it means bombs exploding on Iranian soil or magnetic bombs strapped to cars….” He refers to a recent, apparently quite ignorable, NBC report that the MEK (the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, classified by the US as a terrorist organization) is being trained and supplied by Israel, and to the not-so-recent knowledge that “numerous prominent American officials and politicians from both parties are on the payroll of the MEK and have been advocating on their behalf. So when you talk about Iran’s terrorist network and engaging in terrorism and aggression, … they’ve been the target of exactly those sorts of attacks by the U.S. and Israel, at the same time that the U.S. virtually has Iran militarily encircled with military bases in virtually every bordering country.”

Compare this insight to that provided by the bulk of MSNBC contributors, and it becomes clear that there is more commonality between Fox News and MSNBC than between MSNBC and Democracy Now. This is not to draw an unqualified equivalence, but on issues such as the imperialistic foreign policy of the US, liberals in the media and government are complicit—at best, currently, they are appeasers of the neoconservative agenda. “Obama’s top officials aren’t beating the drums of war,” Greenwald claims. “The media, however, doesn’t speak to those people: They speak to Israeli officials. They speak to neoconservatives who are very much in positions of influence. They speak to other people who are probably hawkish within the Obama administration, who do seem to want a confrontation with Iran.” And, as usual, the media is leading the way.

He refers to an “extraordinarily irresponsible” report from Diane Sawyer and Brian Ross on ABC News which claimed, after speaking with FBI officials, that “synagogues and other Jewish facilities in New York City and around the country are now targets of Iranian terror,” despite a complete lack of evidence. “There are now claims from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post that Iran has an operational relationship with al-Qaeda. And so, what you see is exactly the same kind of techniques—they’re not even hiding it—that were used to lead the nation to war in 2002 and 2003 are now being employed for Iran.”

Hedges writes that the “uniformity of opinion molded by the media is reinforced thorough the skillfully orchestrated mass emotions of nationalism and patriotism, which paint all dissidents as ‘soft’ or ‘unpatriotic.’ The ‘patriotic’ citizen, plagued by fear of job losses and possible terrorist attacks, unfailingly supports widespread surveillance and the militarized state. There is no questioning of the $1 trillion spent each year on defense. Military and intelligence agencies are held above government, as if somehow they are not part of the government.” This truth, and the media’s lackadaisical approach to their supposed task as “watchdogs,” is written all over MSNBC.

On Now with Alex Wagner, the host leads into a segment on Middle East policy by cleverly referring to “literally the shifting sands of foreign policy,” which is funny because those people have a lot of sand. What is not funny, apparently—even for commie rags like the New York Times—is cutting any military spending that could potentially leave the hawks in the Israeli government in the lurch. Times editor and closet pinko Hugo Lindgren tells Wagner that the recent Pentagon budget cuts announced by the Obama administration “can leave us underprepared to fight the ground war if Israel feels it has to defend itself.” The militarism on Now (unlike on Fox, where regime change is routinely brought up) is restricted to “taking out Iran’s nuclear program,” but comments like Lindgren’s reveal an assumption that a much broader offensive, bringing with it death and destruction on a mass-scale, is inevitable, if not desirable. No one questions the validity of the unilateral “preemptive strike” as a means of “defense.” No one brings up the fact that Obama’s move away from a mostly “boots-on-the-ground” style of warfare has been accompanied by a rapid expansion of the drone program.

In a panel interview with Goodman last year, Julian Assange made the point that state censorship is theoretically a good sign, because it means that the establishment considers dissident voices a legitimate threat. Zizek, in the same interview, called attention to a recent Chinese policy banning the representation of time travel in media, suggesting that this means the Chinese government has genuine fears about its citizens imagining the possibilities of different worlds, of alternate courses of history to the one we are led to believe we are currently on. The point made by both Assange and Zizek is this: in the US, the government doesn’t need to censor us—corporate ownership of media does. In fact, we as “free” consumers of media internalize ideology to the extent that we can take pleasure in envisioning a post-apocalyptic world in any number of disaster films and Terminator sequels, but we refuse to conceive of a world after capitalism. We censor ourselves.

We filter even media representations with strong anti-capitalist potential (like news stories about oil spills or sweatshops, or films about crooked CEOs and corrupt politicians) in a way that elides or trivializes the institutional, not just “moral,” nature of these problems. And the truly radical critiques that fall through the cracks are either mocked and marginalized or neutralized and assimilated into non-radical, nonthreatening perspectives. Zizek calls the media assimilation of anti-capitalism into liberal ideology “Hollywood Marxism”; and lest you think Rachel Maddow gets off easy in this piece, she provides the most telling example thereof.

On her February 10th program, the day after the Obama administration’s much-lauded $25 billion settlement with major investment banks, Maddow explains that the mortgage crisis left behind “millions of foreclosed homes, millions of broken families, a shattered economy, and an entire banking sector that survived thanks to the graciousness of US taxpayers. Today … there was a little measure of accountability.” Emphasizing that this “is the beginning, not the end” of those bad apples of capitalism being punished for their greed, she interviews New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Schneiderman assures the viewer that “banks are facing hundreds of billions of dollars of liability”; that the current settlement is “a down payment … a first step”; and that “every possible criminal case is still on the table.” Schneiderman, an extremely handy corporate liberal, assuages progressive discontent while shoring up support for the “toothless capitalism” myth of Democratic rhetoric: “What we’ve seen is a swing towards progressive populism in this country. … A lot of progressives forget about this: It’s not who you elect, it’s providing the movement to empower them to do the right thing. The conservatives don’t forget that.” To which Maddow replies, simply, “Thanks for helping us explain it to the country.” Democrats will do the right thing, if only they are “empowered.” How’s controlling the Presidency and Congress for empowerment? I can only hope that you don’t buy Schneiderman’s drivel.

What conservatives don’t forget is that consistency and conviction are easy to manufacture when you stand at the more ideologically pure end of the plutocratic political spectrum, talking in code about “prosperity” and “growth” while actively protecting the interests of the elite. Liberals, as my breakdown of the State of the Union address suggests, don’t talk in code: they just lie. Their empty populist rhetoric ignores the working class; their supposed concern for the middle class is more than offset by their deviously not-quite-Republican support for the capitalist system that benefits the corporate class.

The same day, Yves Smith, who runs the finance website Naked Capitalism, explained what Maddow and other Democratic cheerleaders left out: this deal benefits banks more than it benefits homeowners. Unlike first mortgages, which were the ones sold, second mortgages have been kept on banks’ balance sheets: “If a corporation has a bunch of different loans, you always reduce the weakest one first. You wipe it out, before you even touch the stronger mortgage. $10 billion of this deal is in the mortgage modifications, where the bulk of that is expected to come from investors, not from banks.” The other piece of the puzzle is an additional $7 billion of “relief” that Smith calls “dubious.” $3 billion, for example, is in “forgiveness”: “If someone’s been foreclosed upon, but the value of the house doesn’t … cover the amount of the debt … in theory, the bank could still pursue you for the money that they didn’t recover. In practice, banks hardly ever do that. So they’re basically going to get credit … for people they weren’t … going to go after anyhow.” This is, of course, on top of the fact that over 50% of the subprime mortgages in question are owned by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as well as the Federal Housing Administration—these homeowners will not benefit from the administration’s settlement in the slightest.

If Maddow and Schneiderman are correct, and this is the first step in a state-led struggle against corporate profiteering, then why, on the day of the deal, did shares of Bank of America rise 6%, to its highest level since September of 2011? Why would these progressive heroes mislead their miniscule (compared to Fox, at least) viewership into believing that Democrats are pushing for substantial reparations and structural reform? As Fox News’s Eric Bolling would say, “follow the money.” Democracy Now’s Juan Gonzalez points out that “a lot of these Attorneys General will be getting cash payments directly from the banks to their offices,” in some cases $100 million or more, to use at their discretion.

What, then, is a leftist to do in a system in which the totality of our public lives is regulated by the corporate state? Should you join the revolution? Not until Americans build a robust civil society. Not until we become aware of the extent to which we experience ideology as our own spontaneous identity. Not until the left gets a spine and rejects the impotent reformism of centrist politics.

Should you get your news from the Daily Show? Only if the most pressing issues we face today are Herman Cain quoting lyrics from Pokémon movies and the sensational bigotry of Rick Santorum. Should you watch only Al-Jazeera and Democracy Now? Not even that. The only way to maintain the critical attitude necessary for radical change is to relentlessly call into question the entire scope of ideological frameworks around us, and the vested interests they conceal. The only way to resist, Mad-Eye Moody once said, is “constant vigilance.”

Happy birthday, mom.


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