As I stated last time, there are three key factors that come into play in when the media becomes a tool for propaganda: the access relationship between certain reporters and high-ranking government officials, the selective leaking of information by these officials, and the emergence of “scoop” journalism.
The first thing to understand is that the media is not a monolithic entity. It is a system made up of individuals. For the most part, people try to do well, while doing good. But the system compels people to act a certain way. One of the goals of the system is to persist and grow.
The established media’s presence has been threatened with the advent of the Internet. That isn’t to say that it is a bad thing. However, the Internet represents a transition. I think it is a fair conclusion that the Internet has been eaten into newspaper sales, as more people get their news online. However, establishing new revenue streams to replace existing ones in the new medium is tenuous to start, and nobody knows exactly how it is going to work.
During this transition period, there tends to be a contraction, as old medium feels the pinch and before the new medium establishes itself. This leads to the need to reduce costs. However, I agree with Dan Rather, that there has been a cultural shift also, and some of egalitarian principles that surrounded news bureaus has been lost. The corporate heads are looking for ways to make a profit off of the news. Invariably, one of the ways tried is cost cutting.
Cost cutting usually leads to “scoop” journalism, that is obsession with celebrity, scandal, and fear. There was a lot of fear generated from 9/11, much of it irrational. The media was willing to play off of it, and the government was willing to feed it in order to gain support for its policies.
High-ranking officials at any large organization have a significant reality distortion field. They have agendas. They fundamentally make policy, which also means they aren’t necessarily the most informed on the subject. The information part is for good reason, as it turns out too much information actually hinders the ability to act on it, as people discover how much they don’t know. The more information that is gathered, the more it becomes obvious that there are still unknowns, causing the need for more information. Good executives are ones that make informed decisions, but don’t get weighted down in endless information gathering. But, as a reporter, the most valuable source probably isn’t the high-ranking official with an agenda, but rather the lower-level information gatherer.
However, the high-ranking official also tends to be somewhat of a celebrity. Mid-level officials don’t give sourced interviews because A) no one would know who they were B) they would probably lose their job if the boss found out about it, or said something out of line. Nevertheless, these leaks inside the organization are the most valuable to actually finding out what the actual information was, and how the decision came about. Unfortunately, the journalist can rarely use the information directly because it behooves the journalist to verify all the information from the source since it has no authority otherwise. It merely puts them on the right track. On the other hand, a high-ranking official can be directly quoted. No further examination is really needed, since the official, by default, has authority. The mid-level sources are more expensive, we’d expect newspapers to abandon more informed, analysis stories in favor of “<insert high-ranking official> says “X”.” The second form is certainly news, but it usually lacks proper context. So, it is worse news than the analysis stories.
The final aspect is the power relationship. The government official needs a mouth-piece. However, they can choose the mouth-piece for their message. The same isn’t true for reporter who needs to get a comment from a high-ranking official for whatever reason. The secrecy aspect also helps, since it makes it harder for the reporter to get information through alternative methods. This combined with the strong sense of patriotism that swept the nation after it had been attacked: the attitude of the country in a time of crisis to put partisanship aside and do what needs to be done, also aided the manipulation culturally. The fact that this particular noble character of the nation was manipulated for private ends will be one of the enduring legacies of this administration if the history of their fiasco is written honestly.
In sum, propaganda works in America when high-ranking officials are given unchallenged venues to present their views. They can do this by manipulating aspects of the culture and by selectively distributing what they talk about and who they talk to. Although, particular pressures that seem omnipresent with progress or circumstance, present new context, challenges and opportunities to fail or to rise above them. Social progress isn’t something that just happens by default, and occasionally we move backwards, but the first steps are to recognize the failures and try to fix them.