Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Filtered Notes from Underground: Censorship in Media

                I’m flipping through the pages of Notes from Underground by Dostoyevsky, contemplating some of the idea’s that plagued the philosopher for so much of his life. A major question old Fyodor had was this; why are some people made for a seeming great existence while others a simple one?
                Dostoyevsky had a way of creating something new and with value in the world. His ‘Underground Man’ is a lazy creature, one that would rather sit idly by in a trance of inaction. Like all good philosophers, Dostoyevsky brings a slice of life that argues his point quite well; all of the actions the Underground Man can think of involve revenge on the society that made him insignificant. He would rather do nothing then contribute, as all his contributions would be harmful.
                In contrast I think of the virtuous qualities that a majority of print and news media claim to adhere to and the nature of investigative journalism. Mission statements range from “Fair and Balanced” to “Your News Network” to “Best Deals Around” and “Overstock Only”. Some even claim to offer “Real News” while others concentrate on “Reel News” and others “Real Deals”. And just like Dostoyevsky, I wonder how someone seemingly talentless can produce something such as a moviegoer blog about the latest Kevin Costner feature and manage eek out a living while another, more skilled individual, could be flipping the pages of their life through minimum wage. But I have a feeling, just like the Russian philosopher, that there are others out there. Others looking at media, from news to sales, wondering what really constitutes greatness. Not just in people, but in the products and art that they give us.
                Greatness is not found in the average journalists. For example, look at the Watergate ‘scandal’. Most journalists see this as a pivotal moment in their careers integrity where the journalists and news anchor fearlessly attacked the established government. But with Watergate came the start of the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTEL-PRO) of which the news media was not to report negatively on. Ever. The shame of this program not being reported by the mass media is easily evident. It is described as: 

“…a series of covert and often illegal projects conducted by the United States Federal Bereau of Investigation (FBI) aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting domestic political organizations. COINTELPRO tactics included discrediting targets through psychological warfare, planting false reports in the media, smearing through forged letters, harassment, wrongful imprisonment, extralegal violence and assassination.”

                I stopped for a moment the first time I read “assassination”. I always assumed that was something other countries are supposed to do. I also don’t remember these things being discussed when I watched the memorial pieces honoring the day the Watergate scandal broke out. But the aggravation over what is deemed as an acceptable cultural ethos goes even further.
                Greatness is not found in times of war. During the first Iraq War there were multiple peace treaty requests sent by the opposing forces. Both US and British governments made mandatory that no news media could report this fact as the US would not respond to any requests for peace or surrender.
When the US invaded Iraq without UN consent during the War on Terror, UN head Kofi Annan claimed that the US action was “illegal” and a warcrime against humanity. Since the most recent poll at the time showed that 63% of Americans believed we should only invade Iraq with United Nations support, this news story was also prevented from entering headlines. The White House, a ‘hub’ for news sources, told them it would cause the average American citizen discomfort. So they should refrain from action, just like the Underground Man.
                Greatness is not found in our solidarity, as we are lacking. Notable international news outlet Al Jazeera was recently denied reporting from a Texas town for the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks. The reason is that Al Jazeera posted images of Iraqi dissent during unannounced, unexpected and prolonged US occupation during the second Iraq war. This brought the organization such a scarlet letter that they are unable to report news from some locations.
                Greatness is not found in scientific reporting or consumerism. With scientific study, there are often times situations where a scientists will feel they cannot release findings due to the results being unpopular in the current political landscape. Such an act could remove funding from the project, thus causing the Scientist to be replaced and lose their job. This was most noted during the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt during the testing of hemp production, of which whole scientific teams were fired in efforts to create fears over a non-existing threat. But it’s even easier to find examples of self censorship on the consumer level.
Online gaming magazine Kotaku ran an article in August of 2011 for an Alien Ware laptop priced at over four thousand dollars, stating that it would “revolutionize” computers. The same components could be purchased and made by an individual with rudimentary knowledge for under half the price of the model that received “Editor’s Choice”. Additionally, more powerful laptops are available from competing manufacturers at lower rate at the same quality.
When viewing the website I noticed the article had many negative comments. Some users felt the reviewer essentially “ran an ad for an overpriced piece of hardware”. This is an example of how an online magazine that prides itself in delivering news and pricing on gaming related materials is actually more concerned with the ads listed on the sidebar, with the articles and the content become secondary and almost useless. I’m beginning to wish we had more Underground Men. But the question remains; why would so many companies, ranging from The New York Times to Wired commit acts of self censorship that are detrimental to their reader base and where can greatness in humanity be found? To explore this it is important to understand the propaganda model as presented by Herman and Chomsky.
                The propaganda model has five ‘filters’. Ownership is the first filter, which is the profit seeking imperative of the dominant media corporations. For example, in post World War I Britain newspapers existed that critiqued capitalism's and corporate influence through newspaper’s such as the Daily Herald, Sunday Citizen, Daily Mirror and News Chronicle. All of these publications became absorbed into other publications until they were phased out completely. Comparatively, many modern news outlets are operated under an umbrella corporation, General Electric being one of the largest. Research shows that for the past fifty years media has shifted to a more capitalist approach.
Funding is another filter, which is generated through advertising. Products are catered to certain affluent readers who buy a newspaper or read a website. For most publications, news, articles and reviews are looked at as “filler” to manipulate their readership to see advertisement, which is the true content. In essence, people reading most magazine, blogs, newspapers and websites are the product which is sold to a business that buy advertising space and work on algorithms that compile demographic data. The data on the website, the “art”, the “news story”, has now become secondary. Dostevesky’s inaction is starting to make sense.
                The third filter is sourcing. News is sent through terminals, such as the White House, Pentagon or the British Parliament. These news sources thus rely on these hubs for all their information. Products are reviewed through press kits and hyperbole, none documenting hidden costs or true alternatives. A reason for this is due to corruption. For example, videogame companies Ubisoft will fly their critics out for week long spa vacations, but will revoke such treatment if their titles receive a bad review. Most products offered from articles such as Readers Digest and Wired are actually readily available and much cheaper, online and off. Which brings a moment to discuss the fourth filter, flak.
Flak is what Chomsky and Herman describe as; “…negative responses to a media statement or program. It may take the form of letters, telegrams, phone calls, petitions, law-suits, speeches and Bills before congress, and other modes of complaint, threat and punitive action.” The best known example of this is the US-based Global Climate Coalition (GCC). GCC was a firm that was established to attack the credibility of any scientist who made claims of global warming. Supported by the US government, this firm was made up solely of giant gas and automobile companies, including Ford and Exxon.
Greatness cannot be found in human rights. Another example of self-censorship is found with the Occupy Wall street effort. Even though thousands of letters have been written to major news organizations, such as CNN and Fox News, they refuse to report on the now weeks long occupation of wall street by protestors. During my research I could only find one AP news reference to the event, which was 32 words over two sentences at the bottom of its web site. Independent news sites show video footage of peaceful protestors being assaulted by police officers.
The final element of the propaganda model is called the “War on Terror”, formerly “Anti-communism”. This is modeling fear by creating an ‘other figure’ that is deemed intrinsically evil or extremely dangerous. For example, during the first Gulf war British tabloids read with headlines reading “Smash Saddam!” while the Sunday Times would call environmentalists ‘eco-terrorists’. In the cold war this other figure was communism while in modern times the other figure is Islam.
Greatness cannot be found in charity. When the Haitian earthquake struck in 2010, most Americans saw pop stars begging for donations from the poorer masses. The United Nations, fueled with profits from NGO donations, set up a sanitation system that has been found directly responsible for a Cholera outbreak in Haiti. This disease has killed over 300,000 unprepared people, more than the original earthquake. In an almost comical setting, the news media reports that the United Nations efforts were a success in Haiti.
I put Dostoevsky’s passages back on the shelf. I feel confident that I know what separates a Watergate from a COINTELPRO or a $1,300 machine of the exact same specifications from a $4,000 one.  It isn’t hard work or fate, but a lot of luck and timing. The propaganda model details the problems with our media and how intake information, but it’s what one does with that information that matters. Only when creating a system that has as much freedom as the press did after World War I will we avoid censoring ourselves and providing non-creative fiction.
I just wish the filters of propaganda would sit as idly by as the Underground Man, allowing for a clear representation of what it is to be and why we should act at all.