The media is increasingly becoming a mouthpiece for elites rather than holding them to account

Image of glasses on top of a newspaper
Alan MacLeod

One of the foundational myths of ‘capital J’ journalism is that the media are plucky underdogs holding the powerful to account. As CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour told talk-show host Stephen Colbert:

We are the BFF [‘best friend forever’] of the people. … We know who we are, who we serve – we’re public servants, and we’re best friends to all of you because we go out there, … go to all the dangerous places, and talk to all the dangerous people, and bring back the truth, and the facts, and the evidence.

But in reality, public trust in US journalism has been sinking since the 1970s, the media is among the least trusted professions in Britain and the US, and the overwhelming majority of journalists see the industry going the wrong way.

There’s also some truth to the stereotype of journalists being out-of-touch elitists. Because today, 44% of New York Times and 50% of Wall Street Journal staff attended an elite university – a higher prevalence than senators, federal judges, or even Fortune 500 CEOs. Meanwhile, most of Britain’s top reporters went to private school and nearly 54% attended Oxford or Cambridge alone. As media critic Reed Richardson writes, today’s journalists “mirror the 1% they cover.”

Media by and for the elite

But worse still, those charged with holding the powerful elite to account very often are integral parts of that elite themselves, undermining the idea of an open, democratic society. CNN’s top host Anderson Cooper is a member of the Vanderbilt dynasty and formerly worked for the CIA. MSNBC presenter Mika Brzezinski, meanwhile, is the daughter of US Cold War planner Zbigniew Brzezinski (the Democrats’ Henry Kissinger). And Amanpour herself is a Commander of the British Empire and was married to Bill Clinton’s assistant secretary of state for public affairs.

Added to this are the dozens of industry and state representatives regularly invited on as experts to promote their interests. It is these sorts of connections that highlight the closeness between deep state and fourth estate.

The revolving door between government and media

In many fields, there exists a revolving door between industry and the government that is supposed to regulate it, including in ‘defence‘, the Food and Drug Administration, and banking. The same phenomenon occurs between government and a media charged with holding it to account.

For example, in May, Obama’s White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel left office as Mayor of Chicago to become a contributing editor of the Atlantic and an on-air contributor to ABC News. Meanwhile in the UK, disgraced former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks was a close friend of both David Cameron and Tony Blair, with the latter offering to defend her during the phone hacking scandal. And George Osborne went from Tory chancellor to editor of one of Britain’s most influential newspapers, the Evening Standard. Is this the media system of a democracy or an oligarchy?

But even if every news anchor or editor were ex-coal miners from Durham or Appalachia, it would not change the structural reality of the system, where both US and UK media is dominated by a handful of enormous corporations, most of which are owned by some of the world’s richest men and get up to 100% of their income from corporate advertising. That’s why the media does not challenge power; it is power.

Independent journalism unwelcome

Journalists in these institutions are not selected for their ability or writing style, but their deference to power. Those that challenge powerful interests will not be promoted, rehired, or commissioned. And so the corporate media system filters out dissenting voices, hence the unanimity of opinion across the spectrum, especially at the top, as Noam Chomsky explained to the BBC’s Andrew Marr:

One way to break out of this structural bind is to support independent, non-corporate media that relies on reader donations for funding (meaning it’s beholden only to those who support it, not its owners and advertisers).

You can’t serve the public and your corporate sponsors at the same time, no matter what people like Christiane Amanpour say.

Featured image via pxhere

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