For those present, it has been my delight to be welcomed into the pages of Zeit-Fragen and its English and French translations for some time now, and it’s equally my honour to be invited among you today to spend a little time with you.
I want to begin by mentioning the German anarchist and writer Rudolf Rocker and his noted book Culture and Nationalism. I imagine you know of him and his 1937 work already. I have no idea what you think of him, but I imagine you know the book. I don’t accept everything Rocker had to say, but I find him a very fascinating figure. He was a person of singular dedication. He was of a Roman Catholic family, but he learned Yiddish. The Yiddish-speaking communities on the Continent and in England and eventually in United States had been an important part of his milieu for most of his life. Culture and power are antagonists: This was Rocker’s argument, if I don’t oversimplify. As a state accumulates and projects its power it will require all cultural institutions in one or another way to serve it. In other words, the state insists that culture must be national. To me, museums and universities are excellent examples of the cultural institutions Rocker was talking about.
Media are forced to serve power
But I’m talking about journalism, as, I would say, we can consider journalism among our cultural institutions. The institutions of journalism, the press and broadcasters, will be increasingly forced to reflect the perspectives of their nations. In our time they will be required to serve power if they are to survive, just as Rocker suggested. American media, and I mean corporate-owned, “mainstream” media, have been a case in point for a very long time. This is what I am going to talk about.
And the first thing to say is that today didn’t happen yesterday. By “our time” I mean more or less the whole of the post–World War II era. Anyone who knows the history of the Cold War is likely to have an idea of how subserviently the American press and broadcasters supported the new national security state, which began to accumulate extraordinary degrees of power soon after it took shape in the late 1940s.
No integrity in reporting on the Ukraine conflict
This problem is much worse now, in my view. The Ukraine conflict brings not only our media but our public discourse altogether and our polity to a point of crisis. In its coverage of this conflict what we call the mainstream press seems to me close to the point when the damage it inflicts upon itself by betraying the principles of democratic media maybe irreparable.
We Americans like to think propaganda is a problem that besets other, supposedly lesser societies than ours. This is one little corner of our exceptionalist ideology. The word is simply not permitted in any conventional discussion of the American press. But the reality is the Ukraine crisis has tipped over the correspondents purporting to cover it into what is in my estimation – strong language here – out and out propaganda with no shred of integrity to be found in it.
I look at this two ways. I think it’s important to understand the broader context here. In one dimension it reflects a larger domestic American crisis.
9/11 – consequences for the press and broadcasters
I have long argued that the events of 11 September 2001 marked the abrupt end of the so-called American Century. There was a psychological collapse on that day. As we watched over and over the footage of the falling towers in New York, they seemed to me an objective correlative – I am borrowing a literary term T.S. Eliot and others have used – an external manifestation of an internal phenomenon, in this case a fatal disintegration of America’s conventional beliefs about itself. America assumed a defensive crouch on this day. I wonder if those of you who have visited here might have been able to detect this. America became an anxious, uncertain nation. And as we know, those suffering from anxiety and uncertainty are typically inclined to an insecure and often aggressive insistence on their righteousness.
Media are important instruments in this post-2001 national condition. If reality did not suit America’s leadership after 2001, and it has not, the press and broadcasters would have to set about making up an alternative reality.
Consequences of defeats in Indochina
Another way to look at this question is by way of April 1975 and the defeats in Indochina. The Vietnamese won the Vietnam war, but the American press, along with the antiwar movement, did its part. The lesson in Washington ever since is that a domestic consensus is absolutely mandatory to wage wars. And to achieve this, the press would have to be more thoroughly controlled and act with more dedication in the state’s interest than it was and did in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. That’s the first way I look at our topic today – in its historical context.
The second way to look at this is by way of the crisis in Western liberalism altogether as we Americans use this term. I again relate this to 2001, but it also has to do with the rise of non–Western powers such as Russia, China, and India. Half a millennium of unchallenged supremacy is coming to an end, taking my date from Vasco da Gama’s arrival in Calicut in 1498. Once again, we find anxiety and uncertainty to be prevalent.
Only one officially approved perspective
And in consequence we confront a vigorous insistence that a single, officially approved perspective on any given question is all that is permitted. There can be only one way to look at events. One version of what purports to be the truth. All other ways of seeing things acquire derogatory, dismissive labels. I take this as a sign of weakness, not strength.
These various factors as I outline them much too briefly combine to make Western media conduct themselves so poorly and corruptly as they purport to cover the Ukraine crisis. They deliver us to the grave and, as I say, possibly irreparable mess we find as we try to understand events. The liberal West cannot lose this war. It would be too serious a blow to its ideology of supremacy. And would mark too consequential a turn in human history. The problem here is that – so far as I can make out – Ukraine and its Western sponsors appear indeed to be losing this conflict, gradually but inexorably. In consequence, Western correspondents cannot cover this war as other wars have by tradition been covered.
This may be the first war in modern history when there is virtually no sound reporting to tell us what is going on. Correspondents, with few exceptions here and there, do not go anywhere near the front lines. They witness very little, taking the words of Ukrainian officials for the progress of the war – without, time and time again, telling us they are taking the words of Ukrainian officials and reporting the accounts of those officials as objective truth.
The “imaginary war”
We get instead two things.
We are fed a series of images permitting of no context, no causality, no comprehensive day-to-day accounting of things, so that we may truly understand this crisis and the direction of the fighting. Images, written or photographic, are infinitely manipulable and are used to give the appearance of telling a story without actually telling us anything. Hannah Arendt was very good on this topic in the years before her death. Along with the manipulated images we get what I have called “The imaginary war.” Russian plundering, atrocities, incompetence, failures. Ukrainian valour, Ukrainian victories, and so on. If you make up things up out of whole cloth – a Russian effort to take Kiev, – e.g. – you can write all about Russia’s defeat when it does not do so. We are getting this over and over.
I offer you a grim picture. It is as if we are at a historic turning point when we in the post-democracies – as I prefer to call our nations – no longer have anything even resembling a free press dedicated to the ideal of objectivity. No healthy society can survive if it insists on keeping its citizens in a state of ignorance.
Independent journalism and independent media – the antithesis of power
But if we look out ahead, things do not look so grim as all that – not to me, anyway. There is the unmistakable emergence of independent journalism and an independent press such as Zeit-Fragen [Current Concerns], an excellent example, and independent broadcasters, webcasters, and what have you. I have great faith in these media and I hope not too much. To me they are where the dynamism in my profession is to be found. This confers on them responsibilities far outsized to their resources.
But I have confidence that over time they will rise to the occasion, as we say. They are implicitly a reply to Rudolf Rocker in that they are antagonistic to power and hold themselves apart from the powers they report upon. They are under attack, which demonstrates the pertinence of Rocker’s thesis plainly enough. But the new digital technologies available to these media permit the independent press, at least so far, to maintain themselves as an independent pole of power. The term “Fourth Estate,” dating to eighteenth-century England, has fallen so far out of favour it resembles a neglected antique accumulating dust, or in an object of a museum. But the posture of independent media is precisely to stand in this fashion. It is in part their work that has prompted the mainstream’s resort to outright propaganda, in my estimation. They, too, are fighting for their power of information – the narrative as we call it – in a way they never previously had to do.
I said “so far” just now, because our independent media rely on the powers that control the digital platforms they use. And it has been evident for some time that access to these platforms can be denied at any moment. I don’t know whether you are aware of the battle royal going on over here about censorship. A few months ago, my Twitter account was permanently censored by their “content moderators” – a case in point. So, there is vulnerability and we have to watch how this war – an information war – is waged.
But in closing I would say the spirit of integrity and independence these new media display, the human commitment, is to me far more important than any clever use of this or that technology. This is where the strength of independent media truly lies, as I understand them.
Thank you. •
* Presentation at the annual conference of the working group “Mut zur Ethik” (“Europe – what future do we want?”) from 2–4 September 2022
Patrick Lawrence is a writer, commentator, a longtime newspaper and magazine correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the “International Herald Tribune”. He is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer and writes often on Europe and Asia. Patrick Lawrence has published five books; his most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His Twitter account @thefloutist has been permanently censored without explanation. His web site is patricklawrence.us. Support his work via his Patreon site.
pl. I distinguish between powerful nations and strong nations. In this nomenclature America is a very powerful nation, but let’s not be mistaken: It’s also rather a very weak nation. Social fabric, the integrity of institutions, self-confidence, and so on: These determine whether a nation is weak or strong, and in all such respects America is very weak.
pl. We can’t look at this crisis in the media – and I assume we are all in agreement that we are in one – we can’t look at it without reference to the larger context – that’s the point I wanted to convey. It reflects a social, political, and ideological crisis. The censorship question here as it has begun to emerge: I think this is among those things I count as post-2001 phenomena. I can’t stress enough how much I think those events changed the complexion of this country and have driven events since.
And the Russiagate fable made this all the worse. In 2016, as those present may know already, it was absolutely a given that Hillary Clinton was going to win the election. There was no debate about it whatsoever. I don’t think even the Trump people expected to win. And I think they were as shocked as anyone else when Trump did win. What happened then?
We have to go back to the 1990s, what we call the triumphalist 90s, encapsulated in that noted book The End of History by Francis Fukuyama, who argued that post-Berlin Wall liberal ideology, market economics, and so on would thenceforth face no challenge, it was the only alternative for human society to proceed.
Well, 2016 was supposed to be the inauguration of a more or less eternal liberal supremacy in America. Politically, ideologically, in the economic sphere, etc. And so, Clinton’s loss was not simply the loss of one rather odious politician. It was the collapse of a whole system of beliefs held by liberal Americans. And at that moment they aggressed very vigorously to fight their corner on this question. And I think the censorship... and it is then, well, Russiagate goes to this point: It was in those moments that we entered this time when only one version of events would be permitted in public discourse. Those advancing alternative versions of events, as I said in my remarks, were labelled Russian assets or extremists or what have you.
We all know what labels do. If you label something – at least in this country – you preclude all discussions of it. And I think the censorship phenomenon grew out of that, and with the simultaneous emergence of independent publications, which have grown very rapidly and in visibility and influence: I don’t want to overstate the case, but it is quite plain that Americans are losing faith in corporate owned media. The most recent polls from the Gallup organisation just in July – some shocking numbers here: The percentage of Americans who believe what they read in mainstream newspapers is 16%. The percentage of Americans who believe what they hear on broadcast news is 11 %.
So, there is a war going on between these traditional media and independent publications. And censoring the latter is a major strategy of these companies, of the media, of the government. As some of you may know, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, all these social media platforms have been hiring former CIA agents, former National Security Agency officials, former FBI operatives to serve in their censorship programs. In their censorship programs it’s called “content moderation,” but let’s not be mistaken – content moderation means censorship. They “moderated” my Twitter account, claiming that I broke their rules. What are the rules? Well, you can’t advocate violence and so on and so forth. But I never did that. You can’t impersonate other people; I am not an impersonator. So, they have algorithms that pull out social media entries with certain words in them, “Ukraine,” “Putin,” “Syria,” and so on. Then these Twitter notes are inspected by human beings and judgements are made. They are being made by former CIA agents among others.
That’s the story over here, and it’s getting very critical. My own case is rather minor but the worry at the moment is that we are going beyond just singling out one or another person, one or another publication such as myself or Consortium News, and they are going to instituting a sort of across-the-board digital censorship by way of wholesale websites, e-mail-systems operating systems, and so forth. It will become totalised. That’s the front edge of it now. We are heading toward a totalisation of censorship. Who can predict how quickly it will come? But events are moving forward far more swiftly than one would wish already.
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