People often wonder why activism is necessary in a country that has a “free press”; people often think that action outside of the voting booth is unnecessary, because the media would point out any injustices, if there were any, and people would subsequently “vote away” their problems. Likewise, many focus on the “spectacle” of Black Lives Matter protestors or the outrageously “stupid” comments made by Republican politicians, as if this is somehow merely a statement of their behavior–and not behavior imposed on them by the media if they are to be successful.
The media in the United States has a structure, and it’s a structure that one must “react” to in order to achieve political success. The major media outlets are very large corporations (NBC, CNN, etc.) which, like other corporations, seek, first and foremost, a profit. Like other corporations, they have a product and a market: their product is people–especially more affluent people, as this improves advertising revenue–and their market is advertisers, themselves, very large corporations.
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the information they present would reflect the interests of the buyers (large corporations,) the sellers (large corporations,) and the product (audiences,) as this would improve their profitability. The result is a corrupt information system that’s skewed towards the interests of wealthy sectors of the society. Media outlets regularly rely on official sources as well as press conferences in order to cover an issue, as investigative reporting infringes on profits.
I experienced this when I was an activist at Texas Campaign for the Environment (TCE.) All of the work at TCE was necessary simply because of the flawed information system. Campaigning door-to-door is necessary because we can’t rely on the media to organize us around injustices. Many don’t understand this. It’s the origin of the mistaken belief that we were “selling something” or that freedom of assembly should be limited–kept out of their neighborhood; the “extreme” method of going door-to-door wasn’t necessary. Quite simply, the media is no replacement for this archaic mode of popular expression. Every action that we did as a group, from sending thousands of letters to politicians and corporate boardrooms, to social media campaigns and public displays, were attempts to shore up the gap left by the media. The press releases that we did are necessary because we can’t rely on the media to research the facts and place injustices on the public agenda. We must go outside the box, and adopt a particular mode of functioning, because the media does not galvanize public opinion around injustice and create a movement to redress these injustices.
TCE has adjusted to the realities of the media.
Donald Trump, and every other politician that games the system by uttering outrageous soundbites, understand the information system, the media system. Trump is famous for his central campaign issue: eradicating “illegal” immigrants by whatever means necessary, a promise that strongly resembles fascist Germany. Not only will Trump build a “wall”—the subject of delusional racists everywhere—he will do one better; in grade-school-one-up-you fashion, Trump will even make the Mexicans pay for it! Trump says these things because that’s how you make the media work for you. No matter how impractical—no matter how outrageous—the media will report on it sheading no insight whatsoever onto the morality of the enterprise. In a world where the media allegedly exercise a “Jeffersonian check on power,” this practice turns that notion on its head. To loosely quote economist Dean Baker: “In principle, journalists have time and resource to get to the bottom of things, voters do not.”
Donald Trump has adjusted to the realities of the media.
So much of the obvious “stupidity” of our politicians is actually symptomatic of the outrageous structural flaws in the information system in the United States. Few correctly make this diagnosis, favoring instead to treat the symptoms, not the disease. This is the line between a “liberal complaint”—treating the symptoms—and a “radical analysis”—delivering ourselves from the disease. We must move beyond the liberal complaints in favor of a radical analysis.