Imagine having a cousin who insists on drinking a bottle of vodka and smoking three packs of cigarettes each day. He eats the majority of his meals at fast-food restaurants and never exercises. He lurches from one terrible health crisis to another, something he likes to talk and complain about at great length, again and again.
He’s happy to hear about medications and treatments for his endless ailments. But he ignores and shuts out anyone who raises fundamental questions about how he lives. He won’t discuss the deeper cause behind his symptoms, which will recur and expand until and unless he makes some deep changes. His doctors and pills will patch him up. Until they can’t anymore. But “hey, that’s life…Life stinks and then you die,” your cousin likes to say, “but we get to have a little fun at least along the way.”
The Never-Ending Onslaught of Really Bad News
“Mainstream” United States “news” reporting and commentary is like this imaginary cousin. The reigning US corporate media diet is loaded with ceaseless symptomatic tragedy. The Really Bad News never stops. There’s been another gang or police shooting in an urban ghetto or barrio. Tens of thousands of Central American child refugees are piling up at the US southern border. Thousands more jobless people lined up to apply for a handful of low-paid positions at a local Wal-Mart. Another factory closes its doors, costing hundreds of livable wage jobs and destroying the tax base that sustains basic services in a local community.
Another river or lake is polluted by corporations. Another chunk of the Arctic or Antarctic breaks off under the pressure of climate change. A giant crater is created by the leakage of carbon-rich methane from melting not-so permafrost in Siberia. Another deadly storm and flood has resulted from global warming. Another species becomes extinct thanks to pollution. Another widely consumed product contains cancer-causing chemicals. Another automobile defect killed hundreds.
A study shows that we have entered a New Gilded Age of extreme inequality and plutocracy. Another scandal demonstrates how the nation’s “democratically elected” officials are captive to the top 1% that owns more than 90% of the nation’s wealth. Another analysis determines that the US isn’t “an actual democracy” anymore(if it ever was) – it’s an oligarchy .Another study shows that majority public opinion is now irrelevant on numerous core policy issues. A paper shows that the so-called War on Drugs has made the United States the world’s leading incarceration state and exacerbated violence in Central America. Another investigation shows that mass imprisonment and the rampant felony marking of minorities deepens the nation’s savage racial inequalities. Another study shows that millions of US citizens are hopelessly alienated from “their” basic institutions and view “their” political system as a dollar-drenched racket. Another analysis shows that US citizens know shockingly little about US or world history.
More breaking “news”: childhood obesity is even more rampant than previously thought. Children’s brains are being scrambled by too much television, too many video games, and too much time online. Human capacities for empathy are under assault from corporate advertising and so-called social media. Juvenile suicide is on the rise. Personal finance experts report that stagnating wages, weak employment prospects, and rolled back benefits mean that most Americans now need to develop “freelance side-gigs” on top of full-time jobs [1A]. Millions of grade-schoolers are zoned out on prescription psychotropic drugs. Another mass shooting at a school, shopping mall, or movie theater. Another vital public service or benefit has been shut down or privatized. Another promise to the citizenry has been broken by a fake-populist, pseudo-progressive president. Six Walmart heirs possess more wealth between them than the bottom 42% of US citizens. Another few trillions of dollars are lost to corporate subsidies and military (“defense”) spending while 16 million children live under the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. Two billion people live on less than a dollar a day.
Another report of government and/or corporate spying on citizens (and even political leaders) at home and/or abroad. Another new tool of mass destruction (the latest Stealth Bomber), mass surveillance (PRISM) or planetary Ecocide (horizontal drilling for hydraulic fracturing) is unveiled. Another murderous right-wing Latin American coup (e.g. Honduras 2009) or coup attempt (Venezuela 2002) is backed by Washington in the name of “democracy.” Another earthquake kills thousands who would have survived if their homes has been up to rich world standards. Another story about rampant child trafficking, labor, and/or prostitution. Another openly criminal, civilian-targeting attack on innocents is launched in Gaza by US client Israel (you can see the clip of an ambulance being attacked over and over again on CNN).
The lungs of the planet (the rain forests) are being felled in the name of development. Another lower class neighborhood is razed to make way for an Olympic or World Cup stadium (the arena will briefly be filled by affluent spectators and then sit empty for decades). Another US drone attack kills dozens of innocent civilians, recruiting untold numbers of youth to militant Islamism. Another reckless US military or political action (e.g. a US-encouraged coup in Kiev, a US missile ship entering the Black Sea, and the US Seventh Fleet blustering through the South China Sea) provokes nuclear-armed Russia and/or China, harkening a “new Cold War.” Another atrocity occurs in a nation (e.g. Iraq or Libya) where the US Armed Forces blew up the previously existing government, fomented ethnic divisions, and caused massive damage to social and technical infrastructure. (I am aware that I am advancing interpretations that are often not included in US “news” – especially with regard to US foreign policy, which US media uniformly treat as benevolent and democratic). I could go on.
That’s the nightly television “news.” Then it’s on to the game shows, sit-coms, reality shows, crime dramas, and the endless barrage of quick-hit commercials that appear every six minutes during both “news” and entertainment broadcasting, which are increasingly merged. “And that’s the way it is: another crazy day in the unending and ongoing record of human folly. Stay tuned to OHBN (the Orwell Huxley Bradbury Network) for an Entertainment Forever report on Megan Fox’s new figure-hugging mini-dress. But first some clever and happy automobile, insurance, and anti-anxiety pharmaceutical advertisements.”
In the official “mainstream” news and commentary, it is sometimes possible to discern reflections on some of what should and could be done to prevent and/or alleviate some of the pain connected to all this really bad news. Especially if you pay attention to the more highbrow sections of the media spectrum, you can discern occasional calls for job training programs, gun control measures, cease fires (at home and abroad, from the West Side of Chicago to Gaza and Syria), refugee shelters, United Nations efforts, community policing experiments, water purification technologies, carbon taxes/credits/caps/sequestration methods, alternative energy experiments, “ex-offender re-entry” and prison diversion programs, endangered species protections, tax reform proposals, campaign finance reforms, class-action law suits, police training measures, minimum wage laws, capital controls, environmental rules, financial regulations, charitable contributions, non-profit interventions, and the like. Every two and four years, you can glean glimmers of manipulative policy discussion from corporate-funded political candidates who try to sound like they care about current disasters in short and usually negative campaign ads focused mainly on superficial matters.
Still, most of the interminably appalling “news” reports come without the hint of solution. The “news” is rarely accompanied by any serious inquiry into why the problems reported exist in the first place. Those difficulties confront media consumers as overwhelming evidence of the dark and painful reality of “life” and “the human condition.” The viewer/reader/listener is left with the definite impression that the species has very little to say for itself. (It can feel like quite a relief when escapist pleasures like “Wheel of Fortune” and “American Idol”– some of the aforementioned “fun along the way” – come on after all the really bad news.)
At the same time, the reforms and other often well-intended responses that do receive mention are painfully narrow and limited. They do not rise above the level of temporary and partial symptom-alleviation. Like the intermittent campaign commercials, they do not come remotely close to getting at the root of the rampant societal injustice and dysfunction embedded in the nation’s reigning authoritarian institutions and ideologies. They do not relate the endless parade of contemporary chaos and calamity to what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the triple evils that are interrelated” – capitalism (now largely financial capitalism), racism (deeply understood), and militarism/imperialism. They steer clear of what today might be more comprehensively termed “the six great evils that are interrelated”: King’s great triplet plus patriarchy (deeply understood), managerial-ism or coordinator-ism (the authoritarian rule of professionals, managers, and other members of “the coordinator class” atop hierarchical corporate divisions of labor such as those prevalent in the old Soviet Union and countless private and public workplaces in the US and around the world today), and Ecocide (humanity’s capital-driven war on livable ecology and other species).
Corporate Media’s Mission
The corporate conglomerates that own “mainstream” media perform as we should expect. In the fairy-tales of US high school Civics, the “free press” provides the vital democratic “fourth estate” function of keeping citizens richly informed on current events and their meaning and context. In the real world, the dominant for-profit media behave in anti-democratic accord with their corporate charters. They are dedicated to three core overlapping goals: pleasing advertisers; selling content to media consumers with money to spend; and generating mass obedience and powerlessness in relation to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of class, race, gender, state, and empire. They are fulfilling their core propagandistic and consent-manufacturing roles within the broader inequality and power system. They are doing their jobs when they work to keep the populace dazed, divided, overwhelmed, confused, ignorant, depressed, diverted, frightened, and cynical.
No Mere Coincidence
The chain-smoking, booze-guzzling, and pill-popping cousin I mentioned at the outset of this essay is almost certainly going to die short of his natural lifespan. He will, that is, unless he breaks through his denial and changes the unsustainable way in which he lives.
Something similar can be said about Homo sapiens as long as so much of the species remains captive to the constant denial, fantasy, ignorance, pessimism, division, and infantilism imposed by reigning ideologies and institutions, including especially corporate media. As Noam Chomsky observed in an interview with Chris Steele last year, “There’s a major problem that the whole species is facing. A likelihood of serious disaster may be not far off. We are approaching a kind of tipping point, where climate change becomes irreversible. It could be a couple of decades, maybe less, but the predictions are constantly being shown to be too conservative. It is a very serious danger; no sane person can doubt it.” The most interesting part of the interview came when Chomsky reflected on those who are acting to prevent and reverse the catastrophe and those who are furthering it:
“…the ones who are trying to make it better are the pre-industrial societies, the pre-technological societies, the indigenous societies, the First Nations. All around the world, these are the communities that are trying to preserve the rights of nature…The rich societies, like the United States and Canada, are acting in ways to bring about disaster as quickly as possible…we make sure that every bit of Earth’s fossil fuels comes out of the ground and we burn it. In societies that have large indigenous populations, like, for example, Ecuador,..people are trying to get support for keeping the oil in the ground. They want funding so as to keep the oil where it ought to be. We, however, have to get everything out of the ground, including tar sands, then burn it, which makes things as bad as possible as quickly as possible. So you have this odd situation where the educated, ‘advanced’ civilized people are trying to cut everyone’s throats as quickly as possible and the indigenous, less educated, poorer populations are trying to prevent the disaster.” 
It is no mere or minor coincidence that the “educated” and “civilized” – that is, rich and powerful – world is also homeland and headquarters to the modern mass consent-manufacturing and populace-deadening corporate media. The core institutional purposes of that media is clear as day: to keep people in a state of fragmented powerlessness and unreality in relation to contemporary evil and to keep them buying more of the idiotic, purposefully wasteful stuff that helps ruin livable ecology. It is not surprising that those most removed from the influence of that media would stand in the vanguard of the struggle to save the commons and a decent life on Earth.
Author and historian Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (order at http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810)
1. Brendan James, “Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer an Actual Democracy,” Talking Points Memo (April 14, 2014), http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/princeton-experts-say-us-no-longer-democracy
1A. Gregory Karp, “Moonlighting is the New Money Maxim,” Chicago Tribune, December 15, 2013), http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-12-13/site/sc-cons-1212-karpspend-20131213_1_personal-finance-big-money-job
2. See Mike Albert. PARECON: Life After Capitalism (London: Verso, 2003).
3. John Bellamy Foster et al., The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).
4. Noam Chomsky, Occupy: Reflections on Class War, Rebellion, and Solidarity (Westfield, NJ: Zucotti Park Press, 2013), 150-151.