The Pathos of Politics – The Press

The Press

A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will in time produce a people as base as itself. ~ American Hungarian newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer (Because of a prize in his name, Pulitzer is now celebrated for excellence in journalism. This comes from his leaving $2 million to Columbia University to found its school of journalism. Pulitzer made his money as a newspaper publisher with yellow journalism: offering no real news, instead pandering to the prurient interests of the public with sensationalism.)

Decisions are made upon available information, demarcated by bedrock beliefs, which are formed from cultural indoctrination. Where popular opinion guides polity, belief systems act as a double-edged sword: they both secure societal cohesion and endeavor its division.

Without an informed people, there can be no democracy. ~ American political reporter Helen Thomas

The hope that underlies democracy is that people are capable of informed rationality. It is an attempt to validate the exceptional to prove a rule.

You can fool too many of the people too much of the time. ~ American humorist James Thurber

What is indisputable is that the press serves a vital function in making democracy appear viable. Hence, the health of the press is perhaps the best diagnosis one may make as to the assured sanity of a polity.

Journalism is not a perfect vessel of truth. Its coverage of politics is based on unspoken, often unconscious, and sometimes unjustified assumptions. Its narratives are based not only on a familiarity with the communities it covers but on an alienation from them. Journalists are torn between understanding the world from the viewpoint of the sources they talk to – at the risk of being manipulated – and suspecting that their sources are lying or spinning – at the risk of cynicism. ~ American sociologist and journalism scholar Michael Schudson

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Ignorance is an evil weed, which dictators may cultivate among their dupes, but which no democracy can afford among its citizens. ~ English economist William Beveridge

To the extent that free flow of information threatens the powerful, those in power will seek to suppress it. ~ Russian American computer scientist Sergey Brin

Pursuing their own self-interest, governments try to repress unfavorable press while promoting claimed successes. Information control is especially ham-handedly in countries like Russia and China, but the practice is universal. The US is exemplary.

The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for ensuring the safety of consumables for Americans. The FDA tries to tightly control reportage about its purview.

The FDA assures the public that it is committed to transparency, but the agency denies many reporters access, and even deceives them with half-truths to handicap them in their pursuit of a story. At the same time, the FDA cultivates a coterie of journalists whom it keeps in line with threats. And the agency has made it a practice to demand total control over whom reporters can and can’t talk to until after the news has broken, in violation of its own written policies. ~ American journalist and author Charles Seife

The FDA has good reason to try to control its coverage: the agency needs to hide its incompetence. 1/3rd of the drugs approved by the FDA as “safe and effective” are later shown to be dangerous. The FDA approves medical implants that have not been sufficiently tested for efficacy and safety.

The FDA is a captive creature of the pharmaceutical and medical industries that it regulates, referring to them as “customers.” The FDA prides itself on “customer satisfaction.”

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The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge. ~ Trump White House aide, on US water pollution

In 2018, the Trump administration suppressed a federal water pollution study, conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, that showed that many American water supplies are laced with industrial waste chemicals which are toxic at levels far lower than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) previously called safe. A Trump aide had warned that publishing the report would be a “public relations nightmare.” So, the report was quietly buried, and the mainstream press never covered the cover-up.

The water pollution report was just a single example of a concerted campaign to suppress public knowledge of the destructive impact of the market system and governmental failure to rein in its destructions. (A private initiative called Silencing Science Tracker exposes the Republican science devastation campaign in detail.) States helmed by Republicans are abetting the endeavor to blot out science and keep the public in the dark.

The most vigorous vector involves obliterating federal support for investigation into and reportage of climate change and pollution. Federal employees are silenced from expressing facts under threat of persecution. Expenditure for scientific endeavors of all kinds has been slashed, regardless of Congressional funding (an illegality that goes unenforced, as governmental oversight toward rectitude is a sham). This includes health research and science education. The Trump administration is even crippling the ability to detect and publish weather data.

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The police everywhere can be counted upon to relate as little as possible that casts them in a bad light, airing their dirty laundry only under intense political pressure.


On a typical day in 1960, all of the front-page stories in the New York Times were uncritically about the US government. Inside were transcripts of official statements and speeches. The press generally reported governmental impropriety only when charges were filed.

The liberal social movements from the late 1960s, including increasingly widespread protests against the Vietnam War, changed the reporting habits of the mainstream press, including the New York Times. The American press metamorphized from toadying to officialdom to interpreting current events, including penetrating analysis.

This continuing institutional evolution was off-putting to conservatives, as disrespectful of authority, and succoring, God forbid, liberality. Arch-conservative Vice President Spiro Agnew, referring to the press in 1970, observed:

In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism. (In 1973, Agnew was investigated for bribery, extortion, conspiracy, and tax fraud. Agnew cut a deal, resigned as vice president, and lived a quiet life thereafter.)

Agnew was at the crest of the wave which has swept away the regard of conservatives for mainstream reportage, with its untoward tendency to critically cover the unsavory aspects of society, including suspected malfeasance by authorities and the rich and powerful, and the press’ readiness to express skepticism about traditional institutions. Conservatives now heartily distrust the “liberal media.”


Knowing that the mainstream press was against him, Donald Trump attempted to discredit them in the broadest possible terms, less than a month after assuming the presidency.

The fake news media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is the enemy of the American People! Sick! ~ Donald Trump

Trump referred to the news media generally as the “opposition party.” This echoed President Richard Nixon before his downfall, who told his national security advisor in late 1972 (but never stated publicly) that “the press is the enemy.”

In trying to destroy the credibility of the press, Trump aimed to undermine democracy itself.

Donald Trump is demonstrating an authoritarian attitude and inclination that shows no understanding of the role of the free press. ~ American journalist Carl Bernstein, who helped uncover the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon

The American press failed to aptly respond to Trump’s relentless attack on facts. Instead of reporting his lies as such, the press fawned on Trump’s every utterance, thereby granting his propaganda credibility.

The press has become complicit with Trump by allowing itself to be used as an amplifier for his falsehoods and frames. ~ George Lakoff

Only belatedly was Trump treated by the mainstream press with the scalding he deserved, and even then, punches were pulled in an obscene deference to the office he had managed to swindle.


Let the people know the facts and the country will be safe. ~ American president Abraham Lincoln

There are 3 flawed assumptions about Lincoln’s optimism that “the country will be safe” if “people know the facts.” 1st is that people actually want to know the facts, not just validation of what they already believe. The 2nd assumption is that the press delivers the facts, as contrasted to a biased facsimile. The 3rd assumption is most important: that knowing the facts is enough. There is always a context to information.

Take capitalism as exemplary. From its broad corruption to environmental destruction, the deficiencies of capitalism are well known. But if the market system is all that one knows or can imagine, incessant facts about corporate ills only indicate a need for regulation. The suggestion simply never arises that capitalism is a thoroughfare to mass extinction on a global scale, which it clearly has proven itself to be; so, the assumed “safe” path of “facts” is one of self-destruction.

In short, the press is no substitute for education. Without a proper grounding of perspective, facts alone are of dubious value.

The state of the press as an institution illustrates the point. The surfeit of news information sources in the 21st century has done nothing to change political persuasion among the public. Public news media has instead entrenched established mind-set. People consume the news that agrees with them.

Journalists themselves, of their own volition, limit the range of opinion present in the news. ~ Michael Schudson

Reporter range of opinion is self-circumscribed for multiple reasons. 1st is a source dependence. Reporters rely upon and reproduce the views of their primary sources, which tend to be government officials and business leaders. Those reporters who do not play along get shut out.

The 2nd limitation is cultural. Professional norms are themselves a constraint on expression. Within a corporate media organization, journalists echo the opinions found in their environment, which is typically secular, college-educated, and upper middle class, as well as having the appropriate ideological cast. Hence, reporters appear as paragons of conventional wisdom.

There is real danger for democracy here: namely, that journalists and politicians, because they are so closely linked, have their own, narrow, idea of what the media should cover, and ignore the interests of the people. ~ French journalist Thomas Ferenczi

Cultural gravitation means that the press is invariably partisan. Bias may be cast in slight blushes, but it is invariably there. The press upholds the status quo in every arena. Even the skeptical outliers are careful not to offend their readership by questioning bedrock beliefs.

Media decisions about what to publish by and large protect dominant cultural values such as existing power and class arrangements. In general, there is a lack of news that might appear offensive to the values of family, religion, community, patriotism, and business. ~ American journalist Julia Corbett

Environment Reportage

Besides the bias in the mainstream media to the status quo, environmental quality and climate change have proven elusive subjects because their newsworthiness is not always apparent. What makes the news is determined by its immediacy, novelty, and conflict. Nature deteriorating lacks these elements. Species’ extinction is a snooze. Stories airing out pollution stink.

Coverage on the environment commonly call for contextual complexity, both historically and scientifically. People want hard-edged stories, not history lessons with hard-to-suss statistics. Tying specific events, such as storms, to the larger climate picture is problematic. Further, the false code of objectivity often leads journalists to reduced complex situations to 2 sides which are expected to balance each other out, even when there is no equation of equality to be had.

It is impossible to convey urgency about climate change, as its pace is measured in decades; a time frame that only institutions concern themselves with, and institutions are devoid of radical inclinations. Similarly, democracies, with their revolving-door governance and election-cycle perspective, are ill-suited to address the challenge of climate change, as has been amply demonstrated.


 Fox News

Roger Ailes, chairman of Fox News, had a fondness for fondling women. Enduring predation of female employees at Fox eventually forced his resignation in 2016.

The scandal at Fox News was no news to the network, which barely made any mention to its viewers that anything untoward occurred. (A partial reason is that blatant sexism is embedded in the corporate culture of Fox News, so was no news to them at all.) This sort of omission is not at all unusual. News organizations typically give scant coverage of their own peccadillos.

Such smoothing over occurs in reportage of whoever the “home team” is perceived to be. Corruption, whether corporate or political, is more enthusiastically covered by the foreign press than it is domestically.

Fox is owned by right-wing Australian-born American media mogul Rupert Murdoch, with extensive media holdings in Australia, the UK, and US. To gather gossip, Murdoch-owned media in the 2000s illicitly hacked the phones of royalty, celebrities, and people with a high public profile.

In Britain, revelations about the long-running phone-hacking scandal at Murdoch’s now-defunct British newspaper, the News of the World, came from the rival Guardian newspaper.


The average American doesn’t know how the system works or the problems of other countries in the world. He’s been fed a pap which has been a combination of the capitalist, imperialist mouthings in the newspapers and comic books which he prefers to read, so he’s ignorant. ~ American psychologist William Major in 1956

Everything that flows to the public from corporate media is filtered through the cultural worldview of the organization that produces it. This affects both what is considered newsworthy and the slant of its coverage.

The New York Times has a subdued liberal bias, meriting its nickname: The Gray Lady. In stark contrast, Fox News is a flaming right-wing organ of the 1st degree.

Upon discovering in 2016 that $70 million dollars of fraud had been found in the food stamps program, Fox News hosted a discussion whether the program should be terminated because of piddling chicanery.

The $70 million represented 0.09% of the $70.8 billion spent to feed the needy. Small potatoes indeed compared to the $125 billion in 5 years that the Pentagon might have saved had it not deep-sixed saving recommendations; a revelation that the defense department had tried to hide.

Fox News held no discussion as to whether national defense ought to be abandoned in light of rampant waste, hoodwinking, and mismanagement.

The Economist has a somewhat socially liberal stance ensconced within economic conservatism. The Wall Street Journal, owned by Rupert Murdoch, is practically reactionary in harkening back with favor toward the 19th-century era of robber-barons. Fringe differences aside, both are blatant advocates of status-quo capitalism.

The Guardian is England’s liberal-leaning mainstream outlet; a counter to The Times, a punchless conservative paper owned by Murdoch. The Guardian offers a smattering of news with a generous filling of opinionated trivia, typically sassily written. The insightful commentary which occasionally appears in The Guardian is especially refreshing given its scarcity.

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Whatever smugness the media might otherwise wrap themselves in, the messy meanness of the world lends them an honest façade.

Because shit happens, journalists gain some freedom from official opinion, professional routines, and conventional wisdom. Journalism is an event-centered discourse, more responsive to accidents and explosions in the external world than to fashions in ideas among cultural elites. ~ Michael Schudson

To survive, newspapers and magazines must cater to readers’ tastes. The trend of media coverage from hard news to soft illustrates how the Collective have stupefied themselves in recent decades.

U.S. News & World Report is exemplary. For a quarter century after World War 2, the magazine provided decent reportage on events worldwide. Subscriptions peaked in the early 1970s, whereupon the magazine increasingly turned toward human-interest stories, rendering news reportage a secondary endeavor. The self-absorption that infected white Americans of the era swept aside hard news coverage and analysis.

The 21st-century tendency in the American and British media to prattle at the expense of serious coverage of world events has been apparent even in publications historically respected for hard news, such as The New York Times and The Guardian.

The dearth of in-depth coverage stems from both reader interest and the economics of the press. The American situation has been sliding downhill for quite some time. A 2006 poll found that nearly 75% of adult Americans could name the 3 Stooges, but fewer than half could name the 3 branches of the federal government.

As the 20th century wore down, large US newspapers suffered declines in subscription. Focus on the bottom line meant layoffs and less investigative reporting. From 2008 to 2017, the American newspaper industry shed 45% of its employees. Total news employment dropped 23% in this period.

Building the relationships and trust that uncovers corruption requires a news organization’s patient support. The cost of patience is high.

A single skilled investigative reporter can cost over $250,000 a year in salary and expenses for a handful of stories at most. A single project can take months or even years.

In 2005, the Los Angeles Times published a report which exposed local predation of the elderly by legally appointed guardians. The exposé took 3 journalists 3 years to produce, with 1 on the project full time. The report rocked Los Angeles, resulting in the tightening of laws regarding guardianships.

Without such investigations, the world is worse for wear. Cost-cutting at news-gathering organizations has meant there is much less of it than before.

This kind of reporting often means incurring legal risks and igniting the wrath of powerful interests, which is one reason there is so little of it on the Web. ~ American news media maven Alex Jones

However dismal the situation may seem to a newshound, it is nothing new. The burden upon the 4th estate has long been overwhelming. (Edmund Burke used the term 4th estate to refer to the news media during parliamentary debates in 1787. The estates are institutions which influence or determine polity. Historically, the other 3 estates were the monarchy, legislature, and church. In modern democracies, the executive, legislature, and judiciary are considered the 3 estates. Players change but the paradigm remains.)

In 1920, American journalist Walter Lippmann was discomforted at the state of news media. He believed journalism lacked the intellectual resources to accurately portray the world. Nor did he think it would be of much good if they could. For the most part, beyond prurient curiosity, people were not very interested in the world beyond their doorstep.

Newspapers were in decline before the Internet put media online, as the economic structure that sustained news gathering has been deteriorating since the late 19th century. The Web only accelerated the degeneracy into short-attention-span theater.

All is not gloom. While corporate media has become more conglomerate, the Internet has democratized news: giving a technologically unique voice to civil society.

Bloggers cover, often poignantly, what media outlets overlook or do not care about. This broadening of coverage, though sometimes problematic in terms of accuracy, offers promise that unsavory facts about polity and business practice may continue to be known. Anecdotal but accumulative evidence of corruption paints a picture of it being rampant everywhere, most notably the United States, which has a much better reputation in this regard than it deserves.

Outsiders are always troublemakers. The news media are supposed to be institutionalized outsiders even though they have become institutionalized insiders. ~ Michael Schudson

Fake News

A democracy can’t really function properly if everyone is walking around with bad information. ~ American news correspondent Pierre Thomas

Nature abounds with examples of deceptions. Human history is replete with falsities shaping public opinion, most flagrantly religion and its proselytization. The trend never ends.

In 1920, Henry Ford published a series of articles about a global Jewish conspiracy, based upon a forged document that originated in czarist Russia. Dozens of US newspapers published the tripe as news.

In 1924, 4 days before a general election, The Daily Mail in Britain published the fake Zinoviev letter: supposedly a directive from Moscow that British communists were to mobilize “sympathetic forces” to support the Labour Party. The letter was manufactured by the British intelligence community, which was a sympathetic force for the Conservative Party. Labour lost the election by a landslide.

During the 1960s, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover orchestrated a smear campaign against Martin Luther King Jr.  Besides planting stories in the press, the FBI forged a letter threatening to expose King as a degenerate.

In 1987, 96 soccer fans were crushed to death after being forced into overcrowded pens by police. The police lied to British newspapers, stating that drunken fans were responsible for the disaster.

In the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, the Bush Jr. administration ladled a load of lies to the press which filled newspaper pages across the world.

It is hard to tell which is worse: the wide diffusion of things that are not true, or the suppression of things that are true. ~ Harriet Martineau

The Internet floats an armada of fake news, some of which has had considerable impact. Stock prices have been affected by fake news.

In historical perspective, fake news may be considered a continuation of the practices of tabloid newspapers found on supermarket checkout shelves. But Internet fake news is targeted to alter economic and political dynamics, not just entertain those easily duped.

We are living through a dangerous era of untruth. ~ American British scientist Jenny Rohn

The 2016 election of Donald Trump for president was abetted by fake news against his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Right-wingers are particularly prone to believe fake news, and the rabid ones to produce it; cretins which Clinton characterized as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it; what I call the basket of deplorables.”

Much of the fakery was concocted by Russia, which wanted Trump to win. Fake news and fraudulent voting tallies made the difference in who won that close election.

Democracy absolutely cannot survive a citizenry that can’t tell the difference between what’s true and what’s false, that can’t be bothered to find out, and that doesn’t even think it matters. ~ American Nancy Stark

You’d have to be gullible to buy into fake news; which is what makes its impact so ferocious. This is the root dilemma with democracy: fools with their hands on the little levers that select policy makers.

The Americans are a very impressionable people. They see what they want to see. ~ Russian propagandist Yevgeniy Prigozhin

We fail as a society to teach our citizens how to be critical about information. ~ American academic and internet entrepreneur Kalev Leetaru


The Internet and social media have transformed news into an often-viral phenomenon. Many countries try to suppress untailored news and rumors from the hydra-headed online sources as best they can. Mobile-phone social media has made this repression problematic. China authorities are constantly vexed by their citizens sharing information which casts the government in a glaringly corrupt and incompetent light.

Certainly, there is no greater threat to societal well-being than muzzling the press and crimping the conduits of news flow. This is especially true of societies that lack an electoral vent, where distrust of government without any means of nonviolent change leaves only revolt as an avenue.

Arab Spring

In 2011, social media played a vital role in uprisings throughout the Arab world. With exception, the results were not the victories for democracy hoped for.

Tunisia, which served as inspiration to other countries in the Arab Spring, fared fairly well from a political standpoint. Its revolution overthrew longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had held office since 1987. Tunisia has since managed to maintain a parliamentary democracy in the face of repeated extremist attacks, and despite its lousy economy, with stubbornly high unemployment and debilitating inflation.

The Egyptians overthrew military and political leader Hosni MuBarack, who had ruled since 1981. In the elections that followed, the people opted for Islamic tyrants, who were then deposed by the military, which took Egypt back to its authoritarian roots.

Libyans managed to oust its longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi, who had seized power in a 1969 bloodless coup, overthrowing an absolute monarchy. Gaddafi was tortured and killed by 2011 revolutionaries. His corpse was publicly displayed for 4 days, during which it was a popular attraction to those happy to see him dead. Having celebrated the vicious murder of its erstwhile despot, Libya descended into civil war and warlordism.

Protracted civil war was also the fate of Syria and Yemen.

In the wake of uprising, the Algerian ruling elite held on to its power after elections marred by widespread apathy, which is justified considering how the country is run as an oligarchy, with media censorship and continual harassment of political opponents.

The monarchies ruling Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Oman were a bit shaken, but survived with lip service to reform, and a crackdown on dissent.

The monarchy of Saudi Arabia saw only a smattering of protest, which is a banned activity. Discontent was bought off with an extra heaping of social benefits. Residual malcontents were beaten and imprisoned for “disobeying the ruler” and other nefarious transgressions.