This week the US Department of Justice Criminal Division forced the Russian-funded television network RT (formerly Russia Today) to register as a “foreign agent” under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Failure to comply would have risked arrest of RT’s management and seizure of its assets. The move comes on the heels of Senators’ recent demands that terrified tech giants Twitter, Facebook, and Google act as ideological filters.
With no discernable defenders among America’s media establishment, RT rightly denounced the selective FARA mandate as an attack on media freedom – which it is. But more ominous is what the move against RT says about America’s rulers’ further intention to limit the sources of information available to its subjects.
As Daniel McAdams of the Ron Paul Institute writes:
“RT America is a news organization operating in the United States that is funded at least partly by a foreign government. So is the BBC. So is Deutsche Welle, France24, Al-Jazeera, and numerous other foreign media organizations. It is assumed that they all to a degree reflect the editorial interests of those who pay the bills.
“The same is true with other, non-state funded media outlets, of course. It’s up to us to factor these things in when we consume media. That’s what it means to be a free people.
“A core value in a free society is that our own government has zero power over what we read, what we watch, how we think, how we come to interpret current events, the conclusions we draw based on these inputs, and so on. These are private matters over which any government that is not tyrannical should have no sway.
“The real insidiousness of tyrannical systems is that the government most lasciviously seeks control over most private spaces — including the most private space called our brain, our intellect, our conscience. We must be free to follow our interests down whatever path they may lead us so that we may reach our own conclusions and then perhaps test them ourselves in the marketplace of ideas.”
The attack on RT (and another Russian network, Sputnik, which evidently has not yet been given a deadline for registration) is a milestone in the degeneration of the American official (call them what you want – corporate, legacy, mainstream) media into PR agencies for the governing establishment and its ideological imperatives. We’ve been moving along this path for a while now, and it’s going to get worse.
Long gone are those halcyon days of yore when Americans could just sit back and watch CBS’s Walter Cronkite with total confidence they were getting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. (For youngsters who have no idea who the hell Cronkite was, just Google “most trusted man in America.”) Back in the naïve infancy of the TV age, from about the 1950s until the beginning of the 1990s, there was a common national media culture that reflected the established, generally liberal, mainly Democratic tilt of the American inteligentsiya that was almost uniform among the (then only) three networks and a handful of major newspapers and magazines. To be sure, that was also a ruling class media of a sort, but it reflected a broad and deep social consensus.
Those days are no more. Perhaps the unraveling of media trust and social consensus alike started in earnest with Vietnam. But still, for decades afterwards there still seemed to be plenty of empty cranial receptacles for government and corporate propaganda of the first Gulf War under Bush 41, Bill Clinton’s phony humanitarian wars in the Balkans, Bush 43’s Iraq War, and Obama’s Libyan and Syrian imbroglios. Sadly, there are many such cranial receptacles even today.
By its attack on RT, the US government is officially telling us that only the mainstream media (MSM) can be regarded as are purveyors of Truth (with a capital T) and that anybody not on the approved list is fake. How do we know? Why, the MSM themselves tell us! The Washington Post’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” CNN’s “Facts First.” The New York Times’ “The Truth is Hard.” (The fact that certifiably authoritative and truthful media are militantly hostile to Russia, not to mention to Donald Trump, is purely coincidental.)
A lot of Americans don’t buy it anymore, though. Some of the skepticism falls along purely partisan lines reflecting increasing moral and political polarization: our media (which I exclusively consult) tells the truth, but your media (which I don’t consult) are liars. About one-third of Americans get their talking points from, say, Michael Moore, and from Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, with their related internet echoes, while another third gets theirs from Rush Limbaugh, and from Sean Hannity on Fox News, and their internet echo chambers. Increasingly, there is nothing like a national dialogue on anything, but rather two entirely separate, diametrically opposed ideological cultures – and alternate realities – each demonizing “them.” This is why when after Barack Obama’s election the Tea Party appeared, the GOP fell over itself trying to co-opt them, while the Democrats denounced them as a mob of racists and subversives. When later the “Occupy” and Black Lives Matter movements broke out on the Left, the Democrats tried to figure out how to channel it while top Republicans denounced it as gang of commie anarchists and losers.
With the election of Donald Trump the divide intensified further to one of latent civil war.
At some point the false picture of pseudo-reality (as Alain Besançon called it in the late Soviet propaganda context) diverges so far from real reality that the official media narrative becomes useless and even counterproductive. While a majority of Americans probably are still glued to the partisan outlets of “their” side of the political divide, there is a growing sense across the spectrum that not only the MSM but even partisan media like Fox News and MSNBC are untrustworthy.
In the past, notably in the totalitarian societies of the 20th century, maintaining the credibility of official media required the physical repression of alternatives. Today, such a crude approach is unnecessary and almost technologically unfeasible, even for such undemocratic countries as Iran, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia (though North Korea may be successful through the sheer unavailability of modern communications technology to most of the population). Instead of suppressing dissent, is it sufficient to maintain major media’s role as gatekeeper and certifier of reliability.
Which brings us back to the impact of foreign media like RT, Sputnik, Strategic Culture Foundation, Al-Jazeera, CGTN, Press TV, often in parallel with alternative media like Zero Hedge, Lew Rockwell, Antiwar.com, Ron Paul Institute, and others, to break through the information firewall but arguably then being influenced by the agenda of the sponsoring foreign governments. In any case, a growing segment of the American public is discovering a skill once well-honed by the citizens of the former communist countries: reading between the lines of the official media (which is assumed to be full of lies) and making informed comparisons to samizdat alternative media, foreign sources, and the rumor-mill to guess what the truth might be.
Make no mistake – what has started with RT won’t end with RT. Our betters have decided they need to protect our minds from “propaganda” penetration that might cause us to doubt the truth of what CNN and the Washington Post tell us.
Citizens! Be grateful for such wise leaders and dedicated information workers! Smash the enemy voices that seek to undermine our democracy as we march boldly into the radiant future!