By Danny Haiphong – Jun 16, 2021
It is imperative for independent journalism to serve as the media arm of a movement that opposes the privatization of information and works toward the development of a public media apparatus.
American individualism is a key component of American exceptionalism. In the US, individual “freedoms” are cherished even under the most perilous of circumstances. The right to choose private health plans is sacrosanct despite rendering a large portion of the US population unable to afford basic healthcare. The right to choose an education in the US is also held in high regard even though the quality of such education is determined by race and wealth, not the preferences of the individual. Everyone in the US is presumably free to “choose” their housing, yet where one lives and what kind of housing they live in (if any at all) is again determined by race and wealth.
Individual liberties in the United States exist within the grating contradictions of capital’s repressive dictatorship. Nowhere is this clearer than in the US media. The US champions itself as the arbiter of “free speech” in the world yet more than 90% of its media landscape is controlled by six corporations. These corporations not only dictate what kind of information is consumed in the United States but also how that information is distributed. In other words, six corporations own the media’s “means of production” in collaboration with advertisers and US intelligence agencies to set the terms of political and social debate.
The monopolization of US media was greatly intensified after former president Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 into law. However, the groundwork for the corporate takeover of US media was laid well prior to the de facto legalization of media mergers. The broadcast reform movements of the 1930s and 1960s were never able to wrestle a significant portion of the media out of private hands. Public broadcasting in the US has long been hampered by a lack of funding and Washington’s firm commitment to privileging corporate networks over the public interest. Only 15% of revenue for public broadcasting outlets comes from the federal government ; the rest is furnished by donations from the largest corporations and their well-endowed foundations.
The explosion of digital communications in the high-tech sector has spurred a rapid decline in print and broadcast media. Independent journalists frustrated by the lack of both opportunity and editorial freedom in the mainstream media have moved on to generate audiences on social media platforms and streaming services such as YouTube. Corporations have attempted to control the rapid growth of independent journalism on these platforms through censorship. Algorithms have been rigged to favor mainstream and elite politics. Alternative viewpoints, especially those on the left, are marginalized or removed all together.
Reliance on Silicon Valley platforms that regularly collude with intelligence agencies to suppress independent journalism is a clear sign that the US is completely bereft of publicly-owned media and the socialist structures required to maintain it. The new independent media ecosphere that emerged from the Occupy Wall Street movement and grew in popularity following the rise of Bernie Sanders is itself not free from the mountain of contradictions produced by such an environment. The Young Turks (TYT) takes large amounts of corporate dollars and regularly attacks independent journalists for their investigations of, and opposition to, the US war machine. Those who have formed their own publications or channels on a full-time basis free of corporate dollars are compelled to build a “brand” and cater to as broad of a thoroughly American audience for clicks, likes, and shares to survive and thrive.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that a tendency exists among independent journalists to establish an apolitical or abstract “progressive” brand. The attack from the ruling class is fierce, and the presumed “gold standard” of journalism in the United States is to be an “objective” and conscientious steward of “free speech.” Of course, no such gold standard exists in the material reality of the United States. Journalists, like everyone else, exist within a system of U.S. capitalist and imperialist domination. Even the most committed independent journalists cannot avoid the impact of society’s contradictions on their work. This is all too clear in the lack of coverage, even among the most left-leaning segments of independent media, of critical subject matter such as the Black condition in the US and the US’s New Cold War on China.
But once one is conscious of the fact that all journalism is a political act, the immediate question on the order of the day is just who and what should independent journalism be accountable to? If the answer is merely ourselves, then independent journalism will inevitably place the pursuit of individual grandeur and profit in command. If the answer is the movement, then journalistic activity must be accountable to the people. That means all the people, especially the most oppressed and exploited among us. Subjects too toxic for popular brands such as the New Cold War on China, the plight of U.S. political prisoners, and the racist roots of American society should therefore be embraced rather than shunned for greener pastures. While independent journalism in the United States skews white and middle class, the vast majority of the globe’s oppressed and exploited people are neither.
It is imperative for independent journalism to serve as the media arm of a movement that opposes the privatization of information and works toward the development of a public media apparatus. In the US, such an apparatus cannot exist short of a revolution that strips control of the media from the ruling class. This scenario may appear remote, but the process that will get us there is always in motion, always in development. Full-scale privatization and neoliberalism have shifted politics so far to the right in the United States that even the most “progressive” or “radical” among us may not realize that opportunities to stand up for a publicly-funded and owned media apparatus do exist.
One such opportunity resides in the US’s attack on so-called “state-affiliated” media abroad. The US intelligence-driven Russiagate conspiracy laid the ideological basis for the US military state to censor the RT and Sputnik, forcing both Russian government-funded media outlets to register as agents of a foreign government with the Department of Justice during the first half of Donald Trump’s administration. Iran’s government-funded broadcast network PressTV has been repeatedly banned from YouTube beginning in 2019. CGTN, China’s largest international news agency, had its broadcast license revoked in the United Kingdom earlier this year. All of these outlets have received the label “[insert government] state-affiliated media” on major social media platforms while the BBC and CIA-cutout Radio Free Asia remain free of such characterizations.
Such attacks not only mark an advance in US aggression against so-called “foreign adversaries” but also represent an attack on the very notion of public media itself. A major objective of US imperialism is to firmly establish neoliberal economic domination by erasing all forms of publicly-owned infrastructure from the planet. This is why state-owned enterprises are the principal targets of US sanctions against Russia, China, Venezuela, Iran, and elsewhere. It is also why Yugoslavia’s publicly-owned media was targeted by NATO bombs during its regime change war to end the 20th century. Privatization and war are two sides to the same imperialist coin. Defending modern-day “state-affiliated” media such as CGTN, RT, and PressTV should thus be seen as both an act of opposition to US warfare and a defense of the principle that media should be a public utility rather than a commodity owned and controlled in the interests of private profit.
Two problems must be addressed before the corporatization of the media and imperialist aggression can be addressed by independent journalists as an interrelated struggle. First, many on the Left in the United States and the Western world view the governments of “adversaries” such as China and Russia as equally if not more corrupt than their own. Such a worldview criminalizes government-funded media outlets in countries targeted by the United States’ military and propaganda apparatus. Second, it is equally true that distrust in the government of the United States is so high that many who oppose the corporate media would likely oppose full-scale nationalization as well. Even still, the overwhelmingly popular fight to maintain net neutrality and ensure that the internet remain a public utility could be leveraged to forward a deeper popular struggle over the entire media apparatus.
All of this is to say that truly independent journalists cannot depend on the principles of individualism and “free speech” to mobilize a strong enough defense against the repressive state apparatus. As ideological expressions of American exceptionalism, these values are incapable of addressing the roots of the US’s oppressive system. Journalism is a political act. We as journalists should therefore be just as dedicated to moving the masses of oppressed people in the direction of seeking power and ultimately becoming the ruling class of society as any other activist or organizer. This is the essence of class struggle. And it is every journalist and analyst’s job on the left to determine which side of this struggle they are on and act accordingly.
Featured image: The illusion of choice—at present, six corporations in the US own 90% of all media. Photo: Business Insider.