A million dollars and a monster truck, and I won't expose the greatest crimes of the empire
How corporate media has made us less free, absorbs the blows from the public for the state, and our fictions lionize it to carry on
In 1998, it was revealed that a great number of Stephen Glass’ contributions to The New Republic (27 of 41) were, either, partially or wholly fabricated or otherwise misleading. In the film, Shattered Glass, these events are dramatized, and I think to great effect; they ascribe a likely motive, and in doing so, whether or not it applies to Glass, himself, it speaks to the prototype of an incredibly logged-on media personality you might find on Twitter in 2020. In short, a brand; sort of a postmodern Gonzo journalism, except with the media-pervert-ideological angle of being, somehow, above or apart from the the fray, while very much being the center of the meta-narrative, fully steeped in the pseudo-ethos of objectivity, not a participant contaminating sociological study by becoming the prism through which the projected image of a public figure refracts into visible depth. Stephen Glass wanted to be beloved, not just as a journalist, of the sort who spends idle time in the press clubs of major cities, but renown for pathologically weird humbleness (which takes on a creepy bent when he’s humbling himself to sell his peers on the idea that if the story is incredible, he knows how it must sound). Most importantly for the media, this case is a study in how fact-checking, objectivity fetishization, and the capitalistic ethos of anointed individuals make systemic/cultural truthseeking and validation far from a consistent science with an almost incalculable number of discrete visions of what it means for a fact to have truth value.
The value of this movie is that there’s nothing but contempt for Glass, even the characters representing his peers who defended and supported him through this, even after his firing and the exposures that depict it, are characterized as childishly devoted to Glass, rather than the deep responsibility an outline like TNR has to the public, and an obligation to own up to mistakes like bad processes that don’t filter out Glass’ fabrications. This moral repugnance being depicted as only, well, moral repugnance is, I’d argue, the only correct response if we’re to believe a non-publicly funded media is supposed to be the superior framework for receiving our news; the reality is that the corporate media libertarian fever dream is the prevailing economic and sociopolitical model for corporate interests in every industry, and we, the public, are paying the price for this material demonstration of the completed descent into corporatist authoritarianism.
Aristotle wrote in his Ethics, “Without friends, no one would want to live, even if he had all other goods.”— for journalists of the sort Glass was, the “other goods” were things like integrity and reliability; the film, for example, depicts him as being incredibly untrustworthy, and even with stories passing fact-check, his editors (played by, first, Hank Azaria and then Peter Sarsgaard) seemingly had no trouble being open to investigation when inconsistencies and contradictions and evidence of outright fraud begin to present themselves, they just hadn’t, until that point, had cause to openly suspect him. For Glass, in this dramatization, it was about being beloved for what he does, and as a storyteller, nothing more, and that’s the extremity of the problem when people like Glass pursue journalism for its political cachet, but commit malpractice against the public in perverting its purpose to service him, as an individual, rather than telling a larger truth about the society he’s writing about and, if these stories had been true, coercing the revelation of, and the acknowledgement of, a covertly held truth in the process. Again, as Aristotle says, “Moral experience—the actual possession and exercise of good character—is necessary truly to understand moral principles and profitably to apply them.”
What made Glass’ situation exceptional is that the things he invented were published as fact, because they couldn’t be disproven, but would’ve, objectively, been good reporting had they happened, so it’s not even like his methods could be taken to task in the absence of corroboration. This is how easily selling the public on an idea is when it comes from a place of authority, or institutional greatness, and thus its component individuals must share that authority in credibility—something they demonstrated was the case in firing Glass and thoroughly accounting where they, as an organization, had gone wrong in allowing it to succeed- but more often are other types of journalistic malpractice, and it’s not so cut and dry, or even as easy to understand as the difference between lies and the truth when it’s not simply a wholecloth fiction to begin with.
A criticism of much of the investigation into, for example, the CIA, US institutional power (i.e. the millionaires and billionaires who own and operate, and use as cudgels, the multi-national corporations that, demonstrably, shape our laws and the operation of the United States government) conglomerated in the first time is based on, less demonstrably than the evidence of it having happened or what the outcomes were, is highly dependent upon hearsay and innuendo out of necessity for investigating and report on it at all (This is the defense of such journalism made by, among others, but notably Chapo Trap House most recently, and pretty straightforwardly, in doing a round-up on George H. W. Bush’s early career) . My conclusion, however, beyond it being necessarily dependent upon including hearsay and innuendo in your perception of the facts, is that this, in and of itself, is crucial context; if no evidence exists, positive or dispositive, of the validity of a given theory, but the outcomes are consistent with said theory, that it’s designed with making investigating it impossible in the first place, and thus the absence, itself, becomes a valid target of scrutiny as well— I consider this the main metaphysical proposition of forming a journalistic ethical standard, and that one that acknowledges a lack of forthrightness, but assumes one when reporting on that which is not forthright and actively obfuscating and dissembling to, either, derail reporting or influence it otherwise, is a framework sabotaging itself.
This, I believe, mirrors the broader trend of conspiracy theories more easily going mainstream, and because the critical lens cannot exist in such a condition, I would also argue it is valid to say it’s positive that more skepticism, even if misled or misinformed, is becoming viral—you can fix misunderstandings and misinformation with the correct understanding based in the evidence than can check you; you can’t correct disinformation where valid information has been suppressed or dismissed purposefully to service a political or ideological agenda (i.e. we’re fed Russiagate conspiracies in the news 24/7, but the findings of Wikileaks or that of Ed Snowden are dismissed because of protocol or because they’re not “real” journalists, or the leak did not cast a popular figure in the correct light given the featured villain in the news cycle not being a party to it at that particular moment). Excluding and actively censoring what can be considered legitimate, despite established truth value (or lack thereof), means, necessarily, that the objective reality has already been altered and made subjective, leaving a finite number of outcomes for a narrative that might pass a fact check, but doesn’t pass having those facts, themselves, evaluated for truth value. Russiagate is, again, a perfect example— it makes sense if, and only if, you accept certain basic facts about its premise are true, and that the evidence for it is solid, which it is not, but the exclusion of the data impeaching the truth value of those facts means that no dispositive evidence can exist, and thus the finding would stand, no matter how frequently, as a lens on foreign affairs analysis, it fails to explain much of anything about the world as it truly exists.
But, is this really news to any consumers of corporate media, big or small, that this is not only the established way of doing things, but that like any other industry that pits individuals against each other in unnecessary service to individual pursuit rather than that of the meaning of why one purportedly does this work, it’s become a race to the bottom for its industry constituents? Brian Springer’s 1995 documentary Spin captures exactly this. Composed entirely of satellite feed captures, in the media’s own words, it demonstrates how everything from presidential primaries to global events are curated even before a single shot is recorded, and then formally edited into a consumable product; you get your sax-playing president, but not after you get Larry King acting as Ted Turner’s ambassador to the likely president-elect as an ally during a commercial break in-studio, rather than a journalist responsible for cross-examining a politician making bold promises to the public, which the network then broadcasts.
One particularly telling segment—alongside one about CNN helping George H.W. Bush stage his home to improve his public perception following having vomited on a foreign diplomat- and I think effectively demonstrates how minute and precise these factual inclusion and exclusions are in what passes for simply reporting the news: the presidential campaign of Larry Agran. Almost universally ignored by the media, it’s no wonder few remember Agran’s 1992 run, however, what makes this unusual is that with candidates he outperformed in early polling, for example former California governor Jerry Brown, receiving more coverage, to the exclusion of Agran entirely— the press did not publish details of his participation in events with other candidates, his answers at forums omitted, and ultimately, the DNC disqualified him from debates, and even had him arrested to prevent him from participating in one such debate. He was often cropped out of photos of the candidates. Even the public’s ability to participate in its own democracy is filtered through the lens of corporatism, and the 24 hour news cycle being operated by these same interests with their own disparate agenda from that of the stated agenda of a news bureau is notable here, as much as any other area where corporatism has fully undermined democratic principle (everything from the Supreme Court to monetary policy to foreign affairs to the ability of the Senate to act discretely from the interests of the largest donors).
It’s a symptom of a much larger problem, and our leaders have the audacity to call foreign state-funded press less free than our own.
We’re in a world where even our idealists are ethical and ideological frauds— consider Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. In Season 2, there’s a story arc about the station reporting an expose about the US using chemical weapons (purportedly destroyed, and even once confirmed not destroyed, the Pentagon assures have never been used, which is demonstrably false, and this is known even at the time of the making of the episode).
So, the premise of the reporting is multi-tiered:
Based on a tip, they investigate this incident.
They receive witness accounts from on the ground (an anonymous, but evidently local twitter account), from an infantryman on the ground who reported that the named weapon was actually sarin gas, and a report that discloses the location of a mass grave written by an NGO staffer (and the NGO was believed to have been shutdown by the government over this report), as well as a classified source with a materials manifest
These actions conflict with stated US policy about the existence and usage of chemical weapons— to report on this requires using the above circumstantial evidence, barring an on-the-record admission by a named source, which they do ultimately find, with one big problem.
The team intends to report what they believe to be a thoroughly-investigated, vetted story, with a few inconsistencies that don’t necessarily discredit the story more or less, but cast doubt upon the level of involvement from the US military: For example, the twitter user stops reporting for 32 minutes, and resumes tweeting at the conclusion of the attack whereupon he claims everyone is dead. This is attributed to frequency hopping to jam communications (implying a very high level of intentionality on the part of the military), but a counter explanation is offered, cell data plans are often prepaid and unreliable in this part of the world, and it’s possible data needed to be refilled, however, given the circumstances, which actually is the more or less credible assertion? The institutional violence of black ops by the US, or that a citizen under a gas attack would have the presence of mind to prioritize refilling a data plan, knowing several years later his tweet would be the difference between this being reported or not. It’s not really as cut and dry as Sorkin’s writers want to make this out to be—one is a real possibility, the other is a theoretical possibility, which only serves to undermine that these are facts, with or without truth value, but are being framed to dismiss the validity of an investigation into their truth value.
The conflict of this whole thing, however, comes when they do locate a source, a high-ranking official looped-in to the storage and declaration of chemical weapons— he confirms off-the-record to the produce that this occurred as described, however, when the time comes to go on the record, he hedges, and says “it never happened.” The producer, Jerry, feeling like he was robbed of the opportunity to expose a grave injustice at the hands of the US military, covertly edits the recording to imply that it did occur, the official of course objects, and is only proven to have manipulated the video when his boss notices a TV in the background flicker with an inconsistency (a basketball game in the background) as he makes the affirming statement. I won’t defend the action, but I will defend the question such an action begs: Is the burden of corporate news to play by rules that protects the oppressors, or to informing the public of what it does, or does not, suspect? If Jerry had not done this, the story would have died— there could be no partial reporting, no presentation of the contradictions, and letting the public decide, it just wouldn’t play when it came time to quantify ratings.
The moment, in this series, that I believe Sorkin/the writers make clear what the position of the show is, and that of the corporate media (who absolutely see themselves as heroically, cowering in the shadow of the military-industrial complex, as its own useful idiot constituency, for the commensurate influence in the public sphere): Jim and Jerry spar over whether or not the military would even do something like this. Jim says he “knows” these guys, Jerry says Jim “fetishizes” them, only for Jim to go on a rant about how neither of them wanted to “dirty” their hands doing what they are overseas, then the discussion pivots to how revealing the truth about war crimes actually puts troops in danger; the protest is the problem, never the crime, apparently, in Sorkin’s estimation. As Michael Parenti said, “the goal of US foreign policy is to make the world safe for the Fortune 500”, and that includes the media conglomerates to make a buck from protecting the military from criticism and suspicion. This is fiction, but reflects the reality of what producing a story like this takes— you don’t lose credibility if it fails, but you lose viewers.
The network saw the facts, didn’t tally them into a profitable sum, and decided this wasn’t worth knowing without a satisfying conclusion— the problem? the news isn’t narrative, it’s not supposed to be episodic. This is precisely how we arrive at a place in 2020 where all politicians’ terms are viewed in a vacuum, ongoing continuity of the ruling class interest, that of the elite, that of the corporations, are not observed or reported at all. Sorkin, in producing a show like this, defends all of that which it entails: being adjacent to power is more important than challenging it, which exposes the true loyalties of corporate media, which is to the networking capability, and not the people it’s being sold to as a consumable. Jerry is sold by Sorkin’s writers as a monster for trying to report on something he believed he was lied to about by the powerful while the network was right to suppress it because of this, without the context for why the lie was necessary—would he have lied if he knew the rest of the evidence could have been presented alongside this interview where it is not only not denied, but weaseled around (“If we used sarin…”) to avoid confirming either, and the public could be left to decide. The corporation that wished to suppress factual information, and steamrolled Jerry in the end (he did deserve the firing, but the villainous nature depicted in the fall out tells a story about who the good guy is supposed to be here— those predisposed to withhold information rather than disseminate it to a public they insist are unqualified, but if 2020 has taught us anything, the public is hungry).
I think the explanation for the current state of affairs works in a micro, and macrocosmic infinite loop; we see this reflected interpersonally as much as we do organizationally. Who succeeds in media? Who succeeds in politics? Who succeeds in Intelligence? There’s an adjacency to power, that for example Sorkin is no stranger to, that can inform the output of even those not of the Ivy League or of backgrounds aligned with these interests (someone like Anderson Cooper, for example, or Keith Olbermann, even; Sorkin, himself, was a liberal arts student at a perfectly fine, but not elite school, the grandson of a union labor leader—Will McAvoys do not exist). I believe there is potential from even the well-connected and establishment reporters with extraordinary access to challenge power, a successful example being Vincent Bevins, the author of The Jakarta Method. Bevins, and London School of Economics graduate, has spent his career reporting on foreign affairs and to great impact; for example, his reporting in Brazil having an impact on how unchecked corporate interests in the Amazon had revived a slave trade as well as incursions onto indigenous land, which his reporting brought enough attention to that it resulted in an admission and a change in practices. Bevins did his job, notably absent? The state’s prosecution of corporate criminal conduct, Bevins chose not to soften it for political allies to make a compromised version of this outcome that served no one.
In The Jakarta Method, Bevins says, “They are living out their last years in a messy, poor, crony capitalist country, and they are told almost every single day it was a crime for them to want something different.”
Just something to consider as we weigh the difference between ourselves and the places and people we’re supposedly liberating (without a discussion of from whom, and for what reason, and under what circumstances), and the role of the media to depict the material reality of how this is a systemic, universal failure of critical physical and ideological infrastructure. Without a complete picture of what the facts are, and while they are up for debate, how can a society call itself informed and critical? As Aristotle wrote, “The beginning seems to be more than half of the whole.”
Some things I’m reading, watching, or listening to that I am now recommending:
In Praise of Idleness - Bertrand Russell
Spring Breakdown - Stephen Glass
Fidel Castro facing Bobby Fischer, 1966
Habibti Please - Episode 10, Noam Chomsky
The Code That Controls Your Money
Life is Long - David Byrne & Brian Eno