Parecon and Journalism

The following is excerpted from the new book from Zed Press, Realizing Hope. See: http://www.zmag.org/realizinghope.html

The idea of journalism is not overly complex. Societies involve huge ranges of activity and possibility. Each day events occur and processes unfold. The quality of our lives depends in two senses on news of these events and processes.

First, there is the simple benefit of knowing and vicariously enjoying or feeling solidarity with or otherwise partaking of information about events beyond the relatively narrow scope of our daily lives. If there is a new insight, achievement, or benefit, or if there is new suffering, struggle, challenge, or possibility – whether we are talking about scientists unearthing news about human origins or cosmic foundations, or about inventors scaling new heights of speed or size, or about a disease or a natural disaster, or about new medicine or energy provision, or about new national policy, interpersonal conflict, social possibilities, or social problems – people benefit from knowing about it. There is curiosity. There is vicarious pleasure. There is edification.

But second, what happens in the world and knowledge of it can also affect what we can do, wish to do, or need to do because of the ways events change the world around us or because of the ways events call on us to do things to affect conditions, policies, choices, and other matters.

The above refers to news, of course, but also to analysis of events, trends, and possibilities, and to what is called commentary, and even fiction, entertainment, etc., at least to a degree. It refers, that is, to everything that is included in a good news program or newspaper.

By journalism, in other words, we refer to information transferred from people who investigate and accumulate data and who also have time to think about it and make predictions, evaluations, and judgments about it, to other folks.

Capitalist Media

In a capitalist economy, information-conveying media such as newspapers, periodicals, TV, and radio, are, like other corporations, profit-seeking firms with corporate divisions of labor and products to sell to consumers. Oddly, however, in many cases, what media institutions sell isn’t always precisely what it seems.

Information firms sell information to their consumers, yes, but more so they sell their consumers to advertisers. And the information that flows is often highly contoured to purposes other than meeting consumers’ needs. In examining capitalism’s journalistic institutions Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky developed what they called the Propaganda Model to explain its main features and operations.

“What is the propaganda model and how does it work?” Herman answers his own question by telling us that the model’s “crucial structural factors” arise from the fact that “the dominant media are firmly imbedded in the market system.” Newspapers, periodicals, TV news, radio, and the rest are all profit-seeking businesses, “owned by rich people (or companies)” and “funded largely by advertisers who are also profit-seeking entities, and who want their ads to appear in a supportive selling environment.”

“Media institutions … also lean heavily on government and major business firms as information sources.” Operating in society both “efficiency and political considerations” as well as “overlapping interests, cause a certain degree of solidarity to prevail among the government, major media, and other corporate businesses.”

Like all institutions, media are affected not only by internal requisites but also by demands and impositions from without. “Government and large non-media business firms” are best positioned (and sufficiently wealthy) to “pressure the media with threats of withdrawal of advertising or TV licenses, libel suits, and other direct and indirect modes of attack.”

Internal profit seeking and external stability maintaining factors “are linked together, reflecting the multileveled capability of government and powerful business entities and collectives (e.g., the Business Roundtable; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; the vast number of well-heeled industry lobbies and front groups) to exert power over the flow of information.”

Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda model emphasizes five factors involved in constraining and determining media output: “ownership, advertising, sourcing, flak, and anticommunist ideology.” The last of the five factors was influenced in its description by the time at which the model was developed. It could be called “prevailing ideology” to make the list more general, or nowadays, it could be called “antiterrorist ideology,” to make the list more timely.

The five factors, as Herman expresses it, “work as ‘filters’ through which information must pass, and that individually and often in additive fashion greatly influence media choices.”

The model stresses “that the filters work mainly by the independent action of many individuals and organizations; and these frequently, but not always, have a common view of issues and similar interests.”

“In short, the propaganda model describes a decentralized and non-conspiratorial market system of control and processing, although at times the government or one or more private actors may take initiatives and mobilize coordinated elite handling of an issue.”

The point is, in contemporary society journalism and information are constrained by capitalist economic dictates and a concordance of interests between the state and other powerful social institutions. That journalism reflects imposition of content by corporate and state power is evident every day all around us.

In American media, for example, news is routinely delimited by what is called contextual spin, verbal and visual coloration, and contextual biasing. Some matters are emphasized to the point of endless repetition. Some are excluded to the point of literal disappearance. Much is “misstated.” As one analyst, Danny Schechter of Media Watch, put it in his book of the same name, as a result, “the more you watch the less you know.”

In the U.S. it is not unusual for people to believe what amounts to fairy tales about the issues and information of the broader society and even their own daily lives. The average citizen may believe the government budget spent on poor people’s welfare dwarfs the government budget spent on armaments and other subsidies to rich corporations, or that more foreign aid and police and military aid goes to countries that are free and that care for their citizens than to countries that are repressive and routinely violate the rights of their citizens. Or the average citizen may believe that crime is rising when it is falling, or that guns in the home protect citizens, or that danger from street thugs should be their main worry, or that blacks receive an unreasonable percentage of social aid at the expense of whites, or that Iraq, or earlier Nicaragua, Libya, or Grenada, are serious threats to U.S. citizens that must be stopped lest our population suffer.

Here is the way media critic and linguist Noam Chomsky summarized the information problem some years ago:

“An academic study that appeared right before the presidential election reports that less than 30 percent of the population was aware of the positions of the candidates on major issues, though 86 percent knew the name of George Bush’s dog. The general thrust of propaganda gets through, however. When asked to identify the largest element of the federal budget, less than one fourth give the correct answer: military spending. Almost half select foreign aid, which barely exists; the second choice is welfare, chosen by one third of the population, who also far overestimate the proportion that goes to blacks and to child support. And though the question was not asked, virtually none are likely to be aware that `defense spending’ is in large measure welfare for the rich. Another result of the study is that more educated sectors are more ignorant – not surprising, since they are the main targets of indoctrination. Bush supporters, who are the best educated, scored lowest overall.”

Due to the tireless and relentless efforts of dissidents, it is no longer the case – particularly among the less wealthy and powerful sectors – that there is as much confusion about the basic character of U.S. society and life as in decades past, though the problem is still extensive, especially in times of crisis such as when the government is building up to a war. And the dictates of capitalist journalism have only intensified another problem that more than offsets moderately diminished public confusion – the feeling on the part of the public that horrible problems are a part of history and society that we cannot avoid. There may be more understanding of what’s wrong than in the past, and at some deep level everyone may even realize that everything is broken, but there is also much more cynicism about the possibility of things becoming sane and whole. Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that “there is no alternative” is believed because what the media reports and ignores and what it ridicules and celebrates daily hammers home the viewpoint that horrible problems are a fact of life.

How would media differ in a parecon?

Parecon and Journalism

First, in a parecon within journalistic and information handling institutions there are no hierarchies of wealth and power. Those working in the industry, whether writing or otherwise, do not occupy dominant and subordinate positions that they rationalize and justify. They work at balanced job complexes. They have self managing power. They earn for socially valued work according to the duration, intensity, and onerousness of their labors. They have no structural reason to see themselves as systematically morally better or worse than others, and no hierarchical position to defend. They have no elite class allies and advantages to hide or to defend or enlarge against subordinate classes. Parecon removes the key biasing variables present in capitalism by eliminating personalities and consciousnesses systematically bent on protecting and defending elite interests at the expense of subordinates. Parecon has no privileged class.

Second, the education people experience does not curb their curiosity or systematically bias their knowledge of history and social relations. In this dimension, too, there is no social structural force bending people’s experience against the honest portrayal and assessment of events. There is no myopic and elitist education to limit those writing or disseminating information.

Third, in a parecon, there is no paid advertising, no sale of audience to advertisers. Media workplaces do not seek profits or other surplus, either. The media don’t sell audience to producers. They amass, generate, and disseminate information, analysis, and vision.

The media’s motive is communication. Incomes are earned for work socially valued by free and capable audiences. Media workers earn equally with everyone else throughout the economy.

Finally, there are no centers of disproportionate power that bend events to their will and compel coverage to accord with external requirements.

At the same time, there is no reason to expect ideological uniformity.

In a good society with a parecon and other innovative structures, different people will no doubt have different views, and sometimes there will be alignments of groups that have socially contrary beliefs and desires, and similarly, journalists and other information workers will have conflicting views, too. Information consumers will sometimes prefer magazines or shows more about science than about sports or vice versa, but will also sometimes seek writers who share values and conceptual frameworks they respect as compared to writers with views they disagree with or find abhorrent.

Values of journalists and of media institutions will certainly affect what they cover, judge, and propose, and how they do all three, and why a given individual will favor one commentator over some other. The difference in a parecon isn’t that conflict disappears, or subjectivity for that matter, far from it, but that its roots are in honestly different perceptions and values not in structural biases imposed by massive centers of power and wealth.

Still, there is another special feature that will most likely characterize pareconish media: diversity in valuing dissident views and minority opinions. Pareconish media can be expected to allot space and resources for viewpoints that are not widely, or are even only very marginally supported.

In fact the logic and methodology of fostering diverse information flow is not much different than the logic and methodology of research and exploration in any field. Just as consumers negotiating with producers can know that they want to allot significant amounts of social productive potential to innovative investigation in technology, science, and art on grounds that work that isn’t understood yet and that hasn’t demonstrated its intrinsic worth yet is worthy in any event because in sum total such work generates what will be worthy in the future, so too consumers can understand and support the importance of diverse and as yet even individually seemingly unworthy information sources on grounds of the need for overall innovation and exploration and continual diversity of journalistic content.

Pareconish journalists may make mistakes, of course. They will misunderstand events at times, or miss things that are important, or exaggerate things that aren’t important. One pareconish journalist will see things one way, another will have a different perception. The two will often be at odds and not both fully correct. Readers will pick and choose their sources, of course, and time and experience will clarify accuracy and even values or competence. But the key point is that variations won’t manifest external pressures or even internally generated inclinations aimed to please particular constituencies regardless of evidence and logic.

Bias induced errors will be far more unusual in a parecon than under capitalism because in a parecon there is no income or power motive to bend perceptions. There will be no way to parlay readership or popularity into increased income or power. The impetus in journalism will be to capture reality accurately and to comment on it wisely. It isn’t that people will all agree, or always be brilliant, or always escape personal habits or biases. It is that such problems will not be systemic and will therefore be less damaging.

In other words, the really key change is that in a parecon even when bias does rear its head, it will have no particular structural longevity and will not be replicated widely. Bias due to the idiosyncratic views of particular writers rather than due to socially imposed interests emanating from structural centers of power is far less likely to spread throughout the media industry unless due to widespread honest error. In that respect, pareconish journalism and information handling becomes much more like science at its best. It is undertaken without commercial pressures. The test of evidence and logic aggressively curbs escalating divergences from truth and sensibility regarding what is and what isn’t the case.

The pareconish New York Times will print all the news, all the analysis, all the prescription, that its many writers choose to focus on, in a self managing manner, with its resources governed by social negotiation in accord with the population’s desires for news, entertainment, diversity, and dissent. And beyond the pareconish New York Times there will be diverse other sources of information, including, one would guess, some that operate privately via volunteerism.

Instead of each writer being at risk of losing employment for being insufficiently profitable, and in self defense becoming acclimated to the constraints of reproducing hierarchies of power and wealth as defined by owners and editors who try to sell maximum receptive audience to advertisers – each writer examines events and conveys what he or she finds important in light of feedback regarding the needs and desires of very diverse constituencies of readers, listeners, and viewers, as well as in accord with the collective constraints of budgets and the desire to stay in high regard among fellow workers.

Will all periodicals and TV shows operate identically? Not at all. Some will feature entertainment, others news, and others commentary or investigation. Some will feature sports, others international relations, economy, polity, family issues, science, and so on. But even more, parecon doesn’t dictate the internal decisions of workplaces about their specific approaches or priorities. Parecon dictates only that there will be workers councils, self-managed decision making, and remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of work, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning. Different media institutions, like different restaurants, research institutes, schools, playgrounds, distribution centers, hospitals, and assembly plants, will have different ways of implementing these structures and of pursuing their endeavors. This is particularly true for media, where product differentiation is greater than for many other domains and the different choices made by workers’ councils will affect not only who wishes to work in which institutions, but also who finds them a desirable source of information and insight.

The main point is that in the future as now information media will remain part and parcel of the elaboration, protection, and correction of social practices and structures. What will change is the character of those practices and structures which in turn will change the internal dynamics of the information media and their product.

In sum, parecon’s requisites for working in and organizing media prove consistent with what are likely to be desirable media’s needs regarding information product and process and vice versa. Parecon is an information economy.


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