Can We Rely on the “Mainstream Media” as a Source of Information?
Compared to past generations, 21st-century people have access to an unprecedented amount of news. We see live coverage of disasters and conflicts in distant places and are flooded with information and commentary on thousands of subjects, from politics and social problems to religion and popular science.
Much of the news we get from mainstream media is based on real events and reliable reporting. But most of us also know that political parties, corporations, and nations at war often contribute large amounts of spin, selective reporting, and even disinformation.
Interestingly, another reason for wondering about the reliability of mainstream media comes from the pages of the Bible. The New Testament describes the kingdoms of the world as being under the control of an evil spirit that is deceptive by nature (Luke 4:5-6; John 8:44; 14:30; 2 Corinthians 4:4). The author of 1 John declares: “We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one” (5:19 nkjv).
In spite of these scriptural warnings, we often overlook the ways that governments, political parties, and ruling classes of every age try to shape the news in ways favorable to their interests. In modern times, these efforts to shape the news are called “propaganda.” 1
Propaganda was first used in a systematic, scientific way in the early 20th century in association with WWI. Most historians now realize that the First World War began as the result of reckless military alliances and unanticipated events. Many people in the United States sensed that the war was a dreadful tragedy with no clear heroes or villains, and a large majority was not interested in getting drawn into European bloodshed. President Woodrow Wilson campaigned as a peace candidate in 1916 with the slogan, “He kept us out of war.”
Although President Wilson publicly maintained a neutral posture, he and most other powerful US political leaders lent support to the English war effort in ways that inevitably drew the United States into the war. After entering the war, President Wilson created a commission to win the support of the American people. The President’s Committee on Public Information, launched a giant propaganda campaign utilizing all of the new media technologies.
The Committee on Public Information (also known as the Creel Commission) was successful beyond its organizers’ highest expectations. It portrayed a complex and tragic European conflict as a stark struggle between good and evil. Violations of international law by Britain and its allies were overlooked, while Germans were portrayed as Huns, rapists, and baby killers. Within 6 months, most US citizens were supporters of the war. Hatred towards all things German reached such a peak that orchestras no longer played music by German composers; German names for cities, towns, and streets were replaced; and the German language was no longer taught in schools. Congress passed legislation (Espionage Act 1917; Sedition Act 1918) that threatened dissenters with prosecution and imprisonment. Prominent critics of the war were thrown into prison.
One of the key members of the Committee on Public Information was Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays was to become known as the “father of modern public relations.” In his 1928 book, Propaganda, he acknowledged propaganda’s crucial role in fostering popular support for WWI:
It was, of course, the astounding success of propaganda during the war that opened the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind (p. 54).
He explained why and how the ruling class should continue to use propaganda to control the thinking of the masses:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. . . . In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons . . . who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind (p. 37).
If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it (p. 71).
In place of thoughts [the group mind] has impulses, habits, and emotions. In making up its mind, its first impulse is usually to follow the example of a trusted leader (p. 73).
Edward Bernays’ principles have been accepted and applied by government and corporations ever since WWI. The public relations industry is based on them. As a result, modern mainstream media does more than provide the public with objective information about current events. Powerful interests continue to use the media to manage and shape public opinion. This doesn’t mean that journalists and editors are conscious liars who conspire to conceal the truth. Actually, if journalists were conscious conspirators and liars, the media would have less influence, as journalists would be struggling against their own consciences and be much less believable. Media misinformation and propaganda are more insidious. Most media spokespeople are probably unaware of their biases or the way they “spin” the news. They rise to the top of their professions by being outstanding representatives of the interests that pay their salaries and grant their promotions. They soon discover the themes and subjects that are taboo.
The reality and effects of government and corporate propaganda have been extensively documented. One example is a 1980s study of media coverage of the Vietnam War. Based on a painstaking analysis of the news coverage of the period, the authors showed that the mainstream media 2 “inculcate and defend the economic, social, and political agenda” of the ruling class by “selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone” and “keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises.” 3
Today a handful of large corporations control television and cable news networks. Such corporations are not altruistic, but present the news in ways that promote their agendas and protect their profit margins.
Sensing that corporate news sources are superficial and biased, many people have turned to “talk radio” commentators who seem more reflective of their concerns. Unfortunately, such “independent” talk show stars are usually less concerned with conscientious commentary on the news than they are in generating good ratings and relationships with networks and sponsors.
Many today are awakening to the fact that mainstream media have long been misleading us about some of the most important events, issues, and facts of our time. Our struggle is truly not “against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 nkjv).
- The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary definition of propaganda is “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person” and “ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause; also a public action having such an effect.” Back To Article
- Mainstream media (MSM) are those media disseminated via the largest distribution channels, which therefore represent what the majority of media consumers are likely to encounter (Wikipedia). Back To Article
- Here’s a quotation from the study’s conclusion:
In contrast to the standard conception of the media as cantankerous, obstinate, and ubiquitous in their search for truth and their independence of authority, we have spelled out and applied a propaganda model that indeed sees the media as serving a “societal purpose,” but not that of enabling the public to assert meaningful control over the political process by providing them with the information needed for the intelligent discharge of political responsibilities. On the contrary, a propaganda model suggests that the “societal purpose” of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state. The media serve this purpose in many ways: through selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, and by keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises. We have sought to show that the expectations of this model are realized, and often considerably surpassed, in the actual practice of the media in a range of crucial cases. We quite agree with Chief Justice Hughes, whom Lewis also cites, on “the primary need of a vigilant and courageous press” if democratic processes are to function in a meaningful way. But the evidence we have reviewed indicates that this need is not met or even weakly approximated in actual practice. (Herman, Edward S. and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, p. 298). Back To Article