Klaehn, Jeffery - Editor: The Political Economy of Media and Power, Peter Lang Publishing, March 2010, ISBN-10: 1433107732, ISBN-13: 978-1433107733, paperback, 376 pages.
(Swans - October 18, 2010) As David Miller and William Dinan write in the introduction to this edited collection, the book "represents a welcome return to centre stage of debates about ideology and social interests, after a period of distraction across media and cultural studies with the displacement of power on to individualised consumption promoted by the cultural turn." The mainstream media is of course central to the propagation of power, but while the "critical scrutiny of power" is essential to the ongoing project of challenging capitalist hegemony, this is not enough on its own, as criticism must be linked to action. So we can be thankful that one "unifying feature" of Jeffery Klaehn's text is its "focus on connecting ideas and action, a positioning that can often be seen as problematic in academic circles, where a rigid isolation of values and avoidance of commitment is often mistaken as a proper form of objectivity." (1) This is a commendable scholarly action, and his book provides a useful overview of the latest critical media scholarship in an accessible and relevant form for a wide audience. With some twenty-four other contributors to this volume, this review will delve into just a few of the chapters that I found particularly interesting, and highlight one understandable, though still significant, omission from this book.
Sylvia Hale's contribution provided a valuable synthesis of the role that the media played in legitimizing war, particularly in the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia and the war on Iraq. Drawing upon the excellent work of writers like Edward Herman and David Peterson, her summary of the manner by which the media facilitated the humanitarian war on Yugoslavia was a stark lesson in manufactured journalistic ignorance. This is because as Hale writes: "Any mainstream journalist who... [countered the official media narrative of the evil Serbs] in the mid-1990s might expect to be castigated, and to have his or her reputation for respectable journalism destroyed." (2) Yet despite recognizing the imperial nature of such so-called humanitarian interventions, Hale remained puzzled as to why "Even left-leaning liberal papers that are routinely critical of US militarism represented the intervention in Yugoslavia as legitimate." (3) Sadly, Hale's partial explanations for such news outlets' serviceable propaganda owed much to the fact that she failed to problematize the strong level of influence that powerful liberal elites have on the humanitarian imperialism of such left-leaning media ventures. This leads her to repeat the time-worn trope that the mass media's close ties to the military-industrial complex help explain their imperialistic proclivities. By way of an example she writes, "General Electric which owns the media network NBC ranked as the 14th largest defense contractor in the United States in 2008." (4) Yet, as I have demonstrated elsewhere, General Electric's board of directors is dominated by "humanitarian" liberals, not just right-wing war mongers. Therefore, Hale misses the point that the liberal elites that finance the mainstream and the left-leaning media are likewise also leading representatives for the military-industrial complex. Nevertheless, this criticism aside, her chapter presents an excellent exploration of an important subject.
Richard Lance Keeble's chapter provides a "Critical History of the Links between Mainstream Journalists and the Intelligence Services in the UK," a troubling subject that is largely neglected by media scholars. (5) As Keeble surmised, "While it might then be difficult to identify precisely the impact of the spooks (variously represented in the press as 'intelligence,' 'security,' 'Whitehall' or 'Home Office' sources) on mainstream politics and media, from the limited evidence it looks to be enormous." (6) On some issues, like for example the long-running hate campaign against Slobodan Milosevic, the media is awash in reports derived from deliberate misinformation campaigns, many likely originating from intelligence sources, which makes it all the more important to take such interventions seriously. Unfortunately however, as Keeble concludes:
One of the main problems with intelligence is that anyone attempting to highlight its significance is accused of lacking academic rigour and promoting "conspiracy theory." Jeffrey M. Bale commented that, "serious research into genuine conspiratorial networks has at worst been suppressed, as a rule been discouraged and at best looked upon with condescension by the academic community. An entire dimension of political history and contemporary politics has thus been consistently neglected." But given the close links between politicians, journalists, and the intelligence services some conspiratorial elements have to be acknowledged to be behind the mainstream media's reporting. (p.105)
Following Keeble's contribution, Gerald Sussman contextualizes "The Systemic Bases of Promotional Political Culture" in what he describes as A Regime of Propaganda. Moving away from the idea of propaganda as lies, Sussman suggests that although it may contain a combination of false and misleading information along with accurate information, "The point of propaganda is not necessarily to deceive but rather to internalise or reinforce in the audience deference to the authoritative status of a particular advocacy bearing a clear or implicit rationale or policy prescription on some level requires the audience's participation or consent." In this way, propaganda has become an integral "part of a larger programme of social regimentation." (7) While Sussman briefly traces the historical trajectory of such "instrumental conceptions of communicative practice" within academia -- drawing attention to the intimate connections between the psychological warfare (often run by intelligence agencies) and the refinement of propaganda techniques -- he totally ignores the involvement of liberal elites in driving this agenda. This neglect is indicative of my critique of Hale's earlier chapter. This is not, however, to suggest that Sussman is unaware of the manipulative interventions of liberal elites, as his own research in other areas clearly demonstrated how the means by which the West intervened in the electoral processes in Yugoslavia were a critical part of NATO's media-backed interventions in the region. Indeed, summarizing the nature of such electoral engineering in a broader sense, he observes how:
Contrary to the claims of political consultants, the ideological management of elections and public policy within their professional circle shows no evidence of improving the participatory character of electoral politics. On the contrary, it has tended to consolidate the control of politics by big moneyed interests, which expands disproportionately with each election cycle, by interlinking the corporate rolodex -- through consultants who work with industry in polling, PR, advertising, marketing, media consulting, spin doctoring, and lobbying -- with political parties and candidates. New technologies provide private consulting groups with the means for steering politics from citizens to professionals and redirecting public attention from issue debates to simplistic representations of "character" and other visceral matters. (p.123)
On the interventions of the imperialist democracy-manipulating community in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), Sussman acknowledges the central role played by liberal elites like George Soros and bipartisan institutions like the US Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy; (8) yet no mention is made of Soros's equally anti-democratic activities in manipulating US-based media outlets. Either way, Sussman continues:
Starting in 2000, the CEE region became the focus of local and globally inspired and foreign-aided "colour revolutions" (a term referring to oppositionist party emblems) -- initiatives to overthrow elected but contested heads of state by extra-legal means. The first to come under the crosshairs of U.S. and E.U. regime change monitors was Slobodan Milosevic whom they failed to destroy after a NATO bombing campaign in 1999 but which killed thousands of civilians and created more than a million refugees and displaced persons. Milosevic's eventual removal through a foreign-funded and partly managed electoral event instigated other foreign-supported coups in Georgia, Ukraine, and, in a failed effort, in Belarus. Although the oppositionist uprisings in these countries represented the initiatives of social movements at some level, the tactics heavily relied on U.S. training and promotional activities with pre-tested, modular techniques and technologies designed as a template for regime change. The use of the term "revolution" was part of the arsenal of propaganda that Western governments and the mainstream media deployed, along with false references to targeted leaders as "dictators," in order to rationalise foreign intervention and unconstitutional means of deposing heads of state. Indeed, if these were in any way revolutions, as some observers noted, they were failed revolutions. Transitions to stable, rule-of-law, participatory democracies have yet to occur in the region. (pp. 130-1)
Counter to popular demands for more participatory forms of democracy: "In the ideal neoliberal world order, 'transition' governments do not disappear; rather they are downsized to reduce the social welfare functions of the state (subcontracted to private agencies or NGOs) and facilitate the objectives of transnational capital." (9) This echoes an observation made by Joel Bakan in an earlier chapter, whereby he observed how: "Even activism is being privatized, as NGOs, often funded by private wealth, and in alliance with major corporations, are increasingly relied upon to solve the world's public problems." (10) NGOs are now a key agent of neoliberal conquest, at both home and abroad, and often partake in what has been referred to as participatory militarism. Thus as Henry Giroux points out: "Unlike the old style of militarization in which all forms of civil authority are subordinate to military authority, the new biopolitics of militarization is organized to engulf the entire social order, legitimating its values as central rather than peripheral to American public life." (11) Likewise, the limited gains made by the second wave feminism are being rapidly eroded by the ongoing pornographization of culture as documented by Richard Poulin and Melanie Claude. (12) As Giroux writes:
Democracy does not come cheap and one step in creating the conditions for young people and adults to imagine different and more democratic futures lies in trying to understand how power and politics come together in diverse media while simultaneously developing a language of critique and possibility that makes visible the urgency of politics and the promise of a vibrant and radical democracy. (13)
Or as Robert Jensen puts it:
[W]e should not be talking about critical thinking in the abstract, but applying it in the real world in a way that focuses on how power operates at the ground level. (14)
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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work. (back)