Is the American Press the Enemy of the People?
19 January 2018
The reason why people these days are being forced to confront the title question is that Donald Trump has resoundingly asserted that the blackguards are, indeed, guilty as charged. Our bellicose and rather crude and inarticulate president would probably be surprised to learn that what he has discovered was observed more than a half-century ago in numerous writings by the extraordinarily well-spoken, anti-war Roman Catholic monk, Thomas Merton:
Nine tenths of the news, as printed in the papers, is pseudo-news, manufactured events. Some days ten tenths. The ritual morning trance, in which one scans columns of newsprint, creates a peculiar form of generalized pseudo-attention to a pseudo-reality. This experience is taken seriously. It is one’s daily immersion in “reality.”
The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds and makes all political and social life a mass illness. Without this house cleaning we cannot begin to see. Unless we see, we cannot think. The purification must begin with the mass media. How?
The real violence exerted by propaganda is this: by means of apparent truth and apparent reason, it induces us to surrender our freedom and self-possession. It predetermines us to certain conclusions, and does so in such a way that we imagine that we are fully free in reaching them by our own judgment and our own thought. Propaganda makes up our mind for us, but in such a way that it leaves us the sense of pride and satisfaction of men who have made up their own minds. And, in the last analysis, propaganda achieves this effect because we want it to. This is one of the few real pleasures left to modern man: this illusion that he is thinking for himself when, in fact, someone else is doing his thinking for him. (Merton’s emphasis)
The hardest people to propagandize are those who are not interested in the news…
We need, then, to know true history, not history corrupted by propaganda.
All of those quotes are from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, published in 1966.
But in addition to the sheer volume of information there is the even more portentous fact of falsification and misinformation by which those in power are often completely intent not only on misleading others but even on convincing themselves that their own lies are “historical truth.”
That one is from Faith and Violence, published in the year of Merton’s untimely death, 1968.
The world is full of great criminals with enormous power, and they are in a death struggle with each other. It is a huge gang battle, using well-meaning lawyers and policemen and clergymen as their front, controlling papers, means of communication, and enrolling everybody in their armies. Letter to Ernesto Cardenal.
This last quotation is from Courage for Truth: Letters to Writers, published posthumously in 1993. We know of no instance in which Merton actually used the expression, “enemy of the people,” to characterize the press, but that is certainly the gist of these collected quotes.
The idea of our wonderful “free press”—the one conjured up by Senator Jeff Flake in his ballyhooed floor speech on January 17—Merton saw clearly even in the 1960s to be believable only because people so badly want to believe it. The realization that our news reporting organizations, including the entertainment industry centered primarily in Hollywood and New York, are collectively only a more sophisticated and effective version of the Soviet Union’s Pravda is very unsettling. The fact of matter is that the image presented by the hapless Flake, speaking before a virtually empty Senate chamber, of valiant warriors for the people and for truth in danger of being ground beneath the heel of the second coming of Joseph Stalin is precisely opposite from reality. For quite some time, as Merton realized, the real power in the country has been held by those who control the organs that mold public opinion. The Trump phenomenon has simply caused a lot more people to realize that fact than before.
That is to say, they now realize the perniciousness and power of the media up to a point. Trump only applied his “enemy of the people” label to those major news organizations that seem to have written it into their mission statement that their primary reason to exist is to bring down Donald Trump and everything that he purports to stand for (except more militarism, more foreign adventurism, and a more fervent embrace of the Jewish-supremacist state of Israel). Excepted from the charge, for sure, would be the increasingly popular Fox News, conservative talk radio, and many of the more prominent conservative web sites on the Internet. The ones Trump calls the enemy of the people, Rush Limbaugh labels the “drive-by media,” and millions nod in agreement. But just examine that list of things that the “drive-bys” give Trump a pass for, and you will find Limbaugh and his crowd giving him a pass for exactly the same things. And with Colonel Robert McCormick no longer owning the Chicago Tribune, the American press has spoken with a monolithic lying voice when it comes to one major outrage after another, from the attack on Pearl Harbor, the James Forrestal death, the Kennedy and King assassinations, the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, the Charlottesville violence, and on and on.
- Q. McInerny on Merton and the Press
In his short 1974 book, Thomas Merton: The Man and His Work, a very thoughtful and honest man whom I greatly respect, D. Q. McInerny, took issue with Merton concerning his observations about the press:
[Merton] held the theory that very little “news” is what we are led to believe it is. It is not something that happens independently of the mass media and which the mass media then dutifully reports. On the contrary, most of what we call “news” is the fabrication or the manipulated result of the mass media. There are very few true reporters; most of them are simply, in Merton’s special use of the term, newsmakers. This idea may not be entirely original with him, but he elaborates on it in very clever and engaging ways, making applications of it which are singularly convincing. It definitely contributes to a more balanced view of the media in this country. But, juxtaposed to such contributions are sweeping judgments of those media which simply will not hold water. For example, he could not divest himself of the idea that the mass media was in conspiratorial cahoots with the governmental establishment and consequently the insidious means by which the citizenry was kept in its impotent place and brain-washed into accepting the establishment line on every important issue. This analysis ignores what was probably the biggest instance in American history of the mass media and the governmental establishment being at loggerheads. I refer to the fact that during the 1960s the most trenchant and persistent opposition to the Vietnam war emanated from the mass media, and there is no doubt that the gradual widespread disillusionment with the government-backed war among the American people was due primarily the media opposition.
The picture that McInerny paints of the mass media as the prime moving force behind popular opposition to the Vietnam War is certainly one that Hollywood is now selling heavily with the new Steven Spielberg movie, The Post, but it is somewhat off the mark. First, it ignores the role that those same media played, as it has done for every war in my lifetime and before, in pushing us into the war in the first place. Second, writing in 1974, with the sources of information available at that time, McInerny could hardly have been aware of how much the press was covering up of the full foulness of U.S. participation in the war, from the reversal of JFK’s policy by LBJ, which was a major likely reason for Kennedy’s assassination, with Johnson’s connivance in it, to the full criminality of the methods employed by American forces in prosecuting the war. The press coverage of the war really belongs under #9 of the Seventeen Techniques for Truth Suppression, “Come half clean.” It helped them buy credibility, which they have been exploiting ever since.
McInerny could hardly have known what I learned from my participation in the North Carolina Veterans for Peace at the University during my period in graduate school there 1968-1972. When it came to “trenchant and persistent opposition” to the war, the press was not even in the same league with the actual veterans of the war. The first two paragraphs from Wikipedia on the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigation sums up the difference between the two groups:
The "Winter Soldier Investigation" was a media event sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) from January 31, 1971, to February 2, 1971. It was intended to publicize war crimes of United States Armed Forces and their allies in the Vietnam War. The VVAW challenged the morality and conduct of the war by showing the direct relationship between military policies and war crimes in Vietnam. The three-day gathering of 109 veterans and 16 civilians took place in Detroit, Michigan. Discharged servicemen from each branch of military service, as well as civilian contractors, medical personnel and academics, all gave testimony about war crimes they had committed or witnessed during the years 1963–1970.
With the exception of Pacifica Radio, the event was not covered extensively outside Detroit. However, several journalists and a film crew recorded the event, and a documentary film called Winter Soldier was released in 1972. A complete transcript was later entered into the Congressional Record by Senator Mark Hatfield, and discussed in the Fulbright Hearings in April and May 1971, convened by Senator J. William Fulbright, chair of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
The full section on the Wikipedia page, Media coverage, is also well worth reading, but the opening paragraph says enough:
Mainstream media all but ignored the Winter Soldier Investigation. The East Coast papers refused to cover the hearings, other than a New York Times story a week later. The local field reporter for the Times, Jerry M. Flint, commented with uninterest, "this stuff happens in all wars." In a February 7, 1971 article he wrote that "much of what they said had been reported or televised before, even from Vietnam. What was different here was the number of veterans present." Several of the VVAW representatives speculated that there was an "official censorship blackout," and they would express this theory later in their newsletter.
The well-meaning McInerny also could hardly have known about the CIA riot of mass torture and assassination in Vietnam known as the Phoenix Program from his academic vantage point in 1974. Merton, through his network of correspondents, his complete independence from the news media, and his great nose for truth, was able to learn a good deal more. Unless he is a regular reader of my web site, thanks to the lack of media curiosity, he is doubtless unaware to this day of what was possibly the biggest U.S. war crime of the whole Vietnam debacle.
There was a lot more that Dr. McInerny did not know in 1974 that is very significant. Consider what he has to say about Merton’s mysterious death at a monastic conference outside Bangkok, Thailand, on December 10, 1968:
At the conference in Bangkok he gave in the morning an informal talk on the relationships between Marxism and monasticism. He was scheduled to return that afternoon for a panel discussion on the subject, but he never did. Around 4 p.m. he was found dead in his room. Though the fact that he died alone makes it impossible to establish beyond the shadow of a doubt the exact cause of death, all indications seem to point to the conclusion that he was killed accidentally, electrocuted by a defective electric fan.
How could McInerny know that Merton was alone when he died when there was no proper police investigation? And even if he was alone, it should hardly have been impossible to determine the exact cause of death. That’s what autopsies are for. As it happens, none was performed on Merton, probably the most famous Catholic cleric in the world next to the pope, and you won’t believe the excuses that have been trotted out for that. Stay tuned.