The central question of our time is, can the American people gain enough factual information to determine the truth about the issues that face them?
Sadly, I’m inclined to think not. In the past, America was dotted with newspapers that were owned by people who lived in the community they served — newspapers that were supported by the advertising of businesses that were owned by people living in the community. In both cases, this economic independence translated into independence of thought.
Today, that is far less true. Probably a majority of newspapers, radio stations and television stations are owned by absentee corporations. Most of the businesses whose advertising supports local media are likewise owned by absentee corporations.
To understand what a tremendous change this is, remember that owners decide — everybody else is an employee whose future with the corporation rests solely on pleasing the owners. No employee, whether an executive or a worker, can afford to antagonize the owners if he values his job. And everything except ownership is a job.
Ah, but what about the Internet? In the first place, there are fewer computer owners than you might think, and not all of them are computer literate. A huge amount of the information on the Internet is junk and rubbish and propaganda. There are more information spewers than there are information gatherers. A great deal of it is geek talk, reflecting the endless fascination of some people with gadgets. There is gossip and entertainment hype, and there are the unsubstantiated opinions of people who just want to vent.
As the old saying goes, opinions are like elbows: Most people have at least two. But whether an opinion is of any value or not depends on the amount of research and intelligence behind it. Certainly if you had a heart attack, you wouldn’t go to a car salesman for an opinion about what you should do. A great many opinions are birthed by paycheck and self-interest. You wouldn’t last very long at the Heritage Foundation if you decided that there were serious flaws in capitalism that needed addressing.
It goes back to the golden rule: Those who have the gold rule. Big donors to various foundations and think tanks aren’t supporting pure research; they are subsidizing opinions and interests they already hold. The fact is that despite the communications revolution, or perhaps because of it, finding facts and truth are more difficult today than in the past.
It’s also a fact that government routinely lies, and so do many corporations. That mysterious commitment to the public good, which once joined Americans from many different classes and positions, seems to have dissolved. Integrity, which simply means being true regardless of consequences to one’s own beliefs, seems to have no market value in America today.
Self-government only works if the people have access to the truth. If they are lied to and propagandized instead of informed, then they, in fact, live in a dictatorship, though one carefully disguised by their controllers. That’s why Thomas Jefferson said that newspapers that whore for political parties or other interests are no different than newspapers controlled by a government.
Take this little test: Pick out any national issue or any national political figure and ask yourself, What do I really know about this issue or this person? The honest answer in most cases will be not much that hasn’t been spoon-fed to you by liars and propagandists.
More use of libraries and less television watching are necessary steps toward regaining self-government. Of course, if you don’t care for independence, then relax. The controllers will give you what they think you need to be a good sheep.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.