Recent events have demonstrated that contrary to general assumptions about the danger of state controlled news media, what we have in the United States is quite the reverse and far more destructive: The media controls the state. It would be tempting to point at the international rioting in the wake of George Floyd’s death as an obvious example of mass media inflaming an epidemic of violence, but I think the Arbery case is even more instructional on the nature of power in this uniquely post-modern environment.
In February 2020 Gregory McMichael, his son Travis and William “Roddie” Bryan attempted to stop a man suspected of multiple break-ins on a jobsite in their neighborhood. Their quarry was a young black male and the situation predictably escalated leading to the man’s untimely demise as he charged Gregory McMichael and attempted to wrest away his shotgun. At this point the American judicial system intervened, reviewed all the evidence including a video of the violent exchange taken by William Bryan, and declined to prosecute. There are two ways to read this conclusion, but based on the context of the events and the actual video itself we could hardly be faulted for assuming “the system” did its due diligence in evaluating all the evidence and letting these men walk.
For three months this was the end of it, until Gregory McMichael himself decided to release Bryan’s video to a news station. Presumably he made the fatal error of assuming he was exonerated and that there was some kind of public debate to be won by letting people see the events with their own two eyes. To put it mildly, this approach backfired. McMichael clearly thought he lived in a country where centuries of jurisprudence had crafted a relatively good legal system which already determined the reality of the situation and in the interests of full transparency he’d put actual video footage out there to disprove any allegations that he was a murderous white supremacist.
Less than a month later, all three men were charged with murder and William Bryan claimed that Travis McMichael said “fuckin n*gger” while Ahmoud Arbery lay dying on the ground.
It turns out that poor ol’ Gregory McMichael didn’t get the new firmware update for how life works in 2020. Mass media makes the rules, not the state. If we wished to conceptualize a top-down vertical hierarchy, the state is definitely no longer sitting at the top of this old-fashioned totem pole. Mass media can over-ride, preempt or entirely bypass the traditional mechanisms of discipline and control in Western democracies at whim, and it does so constantly.
The authority of mass media, particularly news reporting, rests on presumptions that are increasingly hard to square with observable reality. For one, it’s assumed that “free press” is superior to a state controlled media in terms of unbiased coverage. We don’t need a post-modern dissertation on power relations to understand that ALL media is inherently biased regardless of who controls it. The very second a journalist decides to cover a story he’s monopolizing the time of an audience on a particular news event framed in a particular way. Given how industry jargon and a real sense of narrative control are so hilariously obvious that an entire YouTube compilation series has emerged from documenting it, we can say at this point the Western media as a whole is no less biased than Russia Today or the Xinhau News Agency. We can predict with 100 % accuracy how our vaunted “free press” will contextualize any incident or news item along plainly visible ideological lines. Should Catholic school-kids stand waiting for a bus with a smile on their faces, the entire “free press” will all find a way to simultaneously broadcast implications that said teenagers are actually evil white supremacists.
As Guy Debord observed, the mass media engages in a constant dialogue with itself about its own power and ability to control reality. Nowhere is this more visible than ginning up increasingly strained narratives about the threat of white supremacy and institutional racism followed by self-congratulatory stories about these ideas taking a firm hold in the public consciousness. This is nothing but propagandists patting themselves on the back over the effectiveness of their own propaganda.
There are, to wit, several mechanisms of how media distorts reality into a disorienting hyper-real hallucination, into something more properly resembling a late capitalist fever dream than anything approaching objective news reporting:
1. Privileging certain stories based on how neatly they conform to a pre-existing narrative.
2. Lying by omission with selective edits and failing to report news or facts that don’t reinforce their narratives.
3. Selectively appealing to the authority of “experts”, “studies” and “recommendations” without the slightest critical analysis.
4. “Debunking” and applying isolated demands for rigor on factual information that runs contrary to their framing.
5. Labelling all news and media sources outside the western media network as suspect, false, or “propaganda“.
6. Performative lynching and slandering of scapegoats.
Mass media reports on only what they want you to see, pretends that happenings outside of this narrow window don’t exist, selectively appeals to scientific or medical “authorities, furiously criticizes contrary data, preemptively vilifies non-approved sources, and witch-hunts any heretics real or imagined. This is a pure Hellscape of misinformation and institutionalized mendacity.
The consequences for Western democracies are particularly dire since this monopolization of eyeballs and ears by an ideologically unified mass media apparatus means elections, judicial processes, and individual human lives are subject to constant tyranny by a vast unaccountable corporate conglomerate. Because the major political parties in these countries are committed to the capitalist realism of liberal beliefs, they cannot even articulate a coherent rebuttal to “free market” news outlets engaging in horrifyingly totalitarian abuse on a daily basis. If CNN incites a lynch-mob to make death-threats or the SPLC’s “hate group” designation results in an armed gunman attempting a spree killing, no one can actually propose a solution to letting the media exercise their “free speech”.
Ultimately the consequences of media controlling and manipulating the organs of the state involve a sort of “rapid simplification” of institutional processes into a form more easily wielded by the forces of international capital. Namely, they get to spew a Two Minutes Hate at a designated target and destroy it. No jury of peers, just the unrestrained raw power of propaganda directed at a hapless victim. They can smother and memory-hole their own abuses (notice the lack of coverage on Amazon’s union busting) while defaming and libeling individual citizens and public servants. Politicians are beholden to approval by the media, not their own citizens, not their individual prerogative. They will all ultimately bend the knee or face destruction, and if you don’t believe me just ask Steve King.
This is the reality of market Stalinism, and it’s the mailed fist we live under.