If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.
~ Thomas Pynchon
As I write these words, we are into the third day of a seemingly endless period of mourning for Tim Russert. While he seemed to be a likable fellow — in a conventional sort of way — and I can sympathize with his family, friends, and colleagues over his loss, there is something telling about the state of journalism in this country in the way his death is being transformed into a national tragedy. Here in Hollywood, the demise of even the most prominent of the prominent stars does not merit the media’s nonstop observance such as we are witnessing not only from Mr. Russert’s network, but from others as well.
This endless electronic eulogy brings to mind the classic observation of Marshall McLuhan: "the medium is the message." A centrally-directed, vertically-structured society requires a uniformity of thought in order to maintain a collective commitment. This requires a continuing indoctrination in the values and purposes of the ruling establishment. Government schools exist for the primary purpose of conditioning young minds in such a viewpoint, a function acknowledged by the Los Angeles County government when it declared that children need to be taught "that we are all part of one big social system" and "must learn to participate effectively in the system." H.L. Mencken was more to the point, as usual, when he wrote that the purpose of schools is:
to manufacture an endless corps of sound Americans. A sound American is simply one who has put out of his mind all doubts and questionings, and who accepts instantly, and as incontrovertible gospel, the whole body of official doctrine of his day, whatever it may be and no matter how often it may change.
Once children have passed through the school system, there is the danger that this conditioned mindset may wither, a threat that the established order has long employed the media to resist. Learned attitudes must be constantly reinforced, a function performed by the journalistic community. Those who were paying attention could see how this role played out in the propagandizing for the Iraq War as well as the treatment accorded presidential candidate Ron Paul. Here is a man whose ideas challenged the very foundations upon which the corporate-state owners had long maintained their destructive power over people. The media immediately went into damage control to prevent members of the public from seeing/hearing any message contrary to that favored by the political establishment.
If, as McLuhan observed, "the medium is the message," who are the scriptwriters of the message? There is a hierarchy of interests at work within the mainstream media that parallels the state apparatus itself. Atop this pyramid of power rest the corporate interests who own not only the political system, but the message machines. Beneath these owners are to be found the corporate sponsors, whose advertising and, in some cases (e.g., PBS stations), charitable contributions, provide the financial backing that keeps the message machines well-oiled and operating.
The message machine owners — subdivided into various radio/television networks and print media who, nonetheless have a shared interest in the message content — hire the "journalists," commentators, and others, to write and deliver the agreed-upon script. It is into this class of people that Tim Russert — along with other members of the fraternity who now lament his passing — was accepted by the owners. He was safe for their purposes, not the sort of person to ask unsettling questions. One major media source referred to him as "a towering figure in American journalism." If such words were intended to acknowledge only that Russert was held in high regard by fellow disseminators of what is to the interest of the establishment to have the public believe, it is probably correct. If we are asked to believe, however, that he represented the kind of critical, journalistic inquiry that troubled the minds of the powerful, I strongly disagree.
I grew up with a great affection for what is now dismissed as "muck-raking" newspapers. Recognizing the inherently dishonest and criminal nature of all of politics, I admired the journalists who preferred exposing the muck of the system to the moderns with their unexamined defense of establishment agendas. Today, however, so much of the muck of politics is inextricably bound up with the interests of the corporate order that own the message machines. Tim Russert’s employer, NBC, is itself owned by General Electric, one of the largest defense contractors. Shortly after the present war against Iraq had begun, one of NBC’s reporters, Peter Arnett, publicly stated that the American military’s "first plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance. Now they are trying to write another plan." While this proved to be a true and accurate statement — for which one would think a journalist would be rewarded — NBC fired Arnett.
If the conduct of a war is highly profitable to a company that happens to be the owner of a message machine, do you think its owners will tolerate any expressions of doubt as to the wisdom of that war? Do you think that the treatment of Arnett — as well as that experienced by a few elsewhere employed journalists who were fired for daring to step outside the lines of employer-permitted reporting — sent a message to Russert and his colleagues? Is it only coincidence that a lengthy interviewed eulogy of Russert was delivered by Jack Welch — former chairman of General Electric — on the Fox News channel — one of the principal propagandists for the Iraq war? Do you wonder why extensive praise of Russert was offered by Dick Cheney?
A few years ago, I listened to a man talking about a New York Times reporter who had endured great danger in a hostile part of the world in order to get a story that his paper, for apparent "policy" reasons, chose not to publish, a decision the reporter reluctantly accepted. The man speaking of this said "he [the reporter] will risk his life for a story, but he won’t risk his job." This is a debate most of us have had with ourselves, at one time or another, as a result of working for others. Tim Russert may very well have gone through this calculation as to whether his self-interest would best be served by the enormous salaries, political influence, and social prestige associated with his position at NBC, versus the inner spiritual sense that drives unfettered truth-telling. I believe I know how I would answer this question for myself, but I do understand how others might come to a different conclusion.
It is representative of the sharp division that exists between establishment, mainstream media journalists, and those who have opted for the joy and integrity that accompanies the hard work of digging out truth. The likes of H.L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock have their modern counterparts in a number of journalists and commentators who insist upon working outside the towers and chambers they are to investigate. Such people would consider it a slur upon a noble profession to be "embedded" with generals and admirals or Daddy Warbucks as sources upon which to depend for their writings. Just a few of such people include (in alphabetical order) Becky Akers, Jim Bovard, Alexander Cockburn, Robert Fisk, Amy Goodman, Glenn Greenwald, Chris Hedges, Seymour Hersh, Bob Higgs, Chalmers Johnson, Karen Kwiatkowski, John Pilger, Justin Raimondo, Paul Craig Roberts, and Lew Rockwell. Please let me know the next time you see any of these persons interviewed on NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, or elsewhere in the mainstream media!
At a time when newspapers and weekly news magazines are experiencing major circulation declines, and television news is losing viewers — all to the benefit of more free, open, and responsive Internet reporting — the mainstream media is struggling for its very existence. There may be a metaphorical message in the untimely death of television news’ most visible personage. Like those who gather to celebrate the life and death of a friend, perhaps the mainstream media is using the memory of Tim Russert to celebrate its own life, which seems now to be in a terminal state.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.