The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote those words in their 1846 book, “The German Ideology,” two years before the publication of “The Communist Manifesto.” They were arguing against different philosophical views of where the dominant ideas of any age or society emerge. Did they come from heaven or from outside of this world, as religion argues? Did they emerge as the logical development of progressively better ideas, as the German philosopher Georg Hegel and his school argued?
Marx and Engels laid out for the first time the outlines of historical, dialectical materialism. Ideas do not exist on their own, nor do they determine the development of history. Rather, ideas are rooted in material reality—they are the products of humans who live in material and social reality not completely determined by themselves. The dominant ideas and morals of society are dominant because the ruling class in society imposes them on the society as a whole, including the oppressed classes.
How does the ruling class impose its ideas on society? What are the mechanisms by which the ideas and values of a tiny few can be absorbed by millions with diametrically opposing interests?
For thousands of years, religion played an essential role. What better ideology to pacify the masses of people than one that teaches the need to be obedient and respectful of the laws of an all-powerful being? Where religion teaches that humans are created in a god’s image, and where earlier philosophical materialists taught that gods were created in the image of “humanity,” Marx and Engels would argue that the prevailing image of god in a society is created in the image of the idealized member of the ruling class: the powerful king under feudalism, the fair and industrious businessman under capitalism.
Today, the dominant role of religion in imposing the ideology of the ruling class has been usurped by the media. That is not to say that religion does not still play a role in instilling ruling-class ideology. It also does not mean that religion and media do not overlap, as in the case of the televangelists and “super-churches” that attract millions of workers in the United States.
But nothing pervades modern capitalist society as much as television, radio, mass-circulation newspapers and their Internet counterparts. The fact that the media are not run outright by the government in most capitalist countries gives the illusion of objectivity, freedom and choices. During election years, for example, one would think the news media are performing a civic duty by “informing” prospective voters about the candidates—and especially the candidates handpicked by the big-business parties.
Promoting capitalist interests
But the same capitalist ruling class that controls the means of production, such as corporations, factories, banks and other profit-generating institutions, also controls the means of communication: the media. Because the media are corporate owned, they are bound to express the interests of their owners and the capitalist class in general.
Today, the flow of international information is in the hands of a few large media conglomerates. Just 20 years ago, there were 50 U.S. news organizations that controlled more than 90 percent of the international information flow. Today there are only five.
Of those five, four are U.S.-owned and one is German. Rabid right-winger Rupert Murdoch owns News Corporation, the parent corporation for media outlets such as Fox, the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, Marketwatch, British Sky Broadcasting, TV Guide, Vogue—the list goes on. Murdoch admits that he “considerably” influences the editorial perspectives of his personally controlled media outlets.
Murdoch’s subjective editing practices are the norm, not the exception, for the big-business mass media. For the tycoons that sit on the boards of directors of these corporations, the newspapers and news shows exist to make profit. As the bosses of these profit ventures, they approve or disapprove of the “product”—in this case news or information—from the perspective of whether the product advances the interests of the corporations.
In the words of Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, the face of the news anchor is designed to make people believe that “the media are independent and committed to discovering and reporting the truth, and that they do not merely reflect the world as powerful groups wish it to be perceived.”
And it is not just the corporate media. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a progressive media watchdog group, routinely documents the reporting of “public” broadcasting network PBS. For example, a study published in the September/October 2006 edition of FAIR’s Extra! documents the sources relied on in “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.” It found that only 14 percent of sources featured were members of the public—working people or “in the street” interviews. Only 4 percent of sources were from “public interest” groups, liberal or conservative. Three in four featured sources and guests were what FAIR called “elite”—government officials, corporate guests or professional academics or journalists.
Media and elections
For the ruling class, bourgeois elections are not just about choosing the political leadership of the country. In some ways, it is not even the main purpose. Most important decisions are not made by these politicians anyway.
A crucial role for the every-four-year election ritual is building the illusion in the eyes of millions that the elections matter. It is a time for trying to rebuild hope in a system that every other day yields nothing but misery and exploitation for millions. In that role, the corporate media play an essential role.
The media do not just report on election campaigns. They frame the issues. They make decisions about what to cover and what not to cover. They create staged debates, where the format and themes are designed to craft a particular message.
During the 2000 elections, for example, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader won 2.9 million votes nationally, about 2.7 percent of the popular vote. Clearly his campaign was more than a “fringe” effort, as most media presented. Yet in the crucial weeks leading up to the election, from Labor Day to Oct. 22, 2000, Nader received a grand total of one minute of air coverage on the nightly news of ABC, CBS and NBC combined—compared to 23 minutes for the Democratic Party candidate and 22 for the Republican.
Of course, that changed after Democrat Al Gore was edged out of the presidency. Then Nader became a household word—as a whipping-boy for the Democratic Party leadership trying to deflect blame for the loss.
Nader ran a campaign that was “outside” the two-party framework but completely “inside” the bounds of capitalist politics. His program was a collection of modest reforms. Imagine the task of a candidate propounding a revolutionary program in breaking into the big-business media coverage!
Activist and writer Michael Parenti describes the way that the vast majority of people is reassured of diversity and openness in the media by what he calls “false balancing,” through hearing two media-approved sides of an argument rather than all sides or even truly opposing sides. This reassurance of diversity allows people to feel like they can learn and make informed choices based on two sides of an argument. Instead, people are presented with choosing between rightwing and slightly less right wing.
Parenti’s point about media presentation could be extended to the whole bourgeois elections.
The big-business media have been the critical instrument in neutralizing anti-war sentiment when the ruling class decided to take the country to war.
From the time that Randolph Hearst of the New York Tribune sent illustrator Fredrick Remington to Cuba in 1898 to create propaganda images that would overcome anti-war sentiment, right up until the Iraq war, war makers consistently rely on the media to sell their military adventures.
On April 20, the New York Times revealed that the Pentagon, in the months before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, organized a large-scale program that placed and provided talking points and scripts to retired generals, admirals and colonels on CNN, MSNBC, CBS, ABC and FOX News. All postured as “independent analysts” of the coming war. But their message was completely orchestrated. At the same time, starting in November 2002, anti-war voices all but disappeared from the mass media. The officially retired military figures became the dominant “independent voices” for the 24-7 news coverage leading up to the war.
It was the same role that the establishment media played in 1964 during the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident. The Johnson administration and the Pentagon wanted to send 500,000 troops to Vietnam to defeat the communist-led liberation movement. They used the media to create a hysteria asserting that North Vietnamese patrol boats carried out an unprovoked aggression against a U.S. battleship in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam.
The report was ludicrous and is now conceded to have been a fabrication. But the media dutifully ran the story. Congress wrote a political blank check allowing Johnson to expand the war. Nine years later, the Vietnamese people emerged victorious. But 58,000 U.S. soldiers were dead, along with more than 1 million Vietnamese.
Media campaigns to demonize the targets of U.S. aggression have become a virtual art form. Saddam Hussein was demonized in the mass media when the Pentagon was ready to conduct war or justify its genocidal economic sanctions on Iraq.
Then-President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia was given the same treatment in order to soften up public opinion for the unprovoked bombing of a country that was being systematically dismembered by western imperialist countries following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Between March 24 and June 3, 1999, the Pentagon and NATO dropped 23,000 bombs and missiles on Serbia until Milosevic finally agreed to let NATO soldiers occupy the Serb province of Kosovo. Watching the mass media, however, one would have concluded that it was Milosevic who was the aggressor rather than the victim of aggression.
Every time Israeli missiles and bombs strike Palestinian neighborhoods in Gaza, the U.S. media reports that Israel struck back against terrorists. Whenever the Palestinians seek to defend themselves and their people it is labeled as terrorism against Israel.
Despite the domination of the big-business media in U.S. society, many have fought for space to bring the voices of progressive activists to the public. Some have tried to work within the framework of liberal radio networks like Pacifica, although progressive and especially Black and Latino progressive activists have to fight for space even in these liberal networks. Others have tried to take advantage of public-access cable stations to spread an anti-corporate message.
Many hoped the Internet would serve as a new and democratic media source. In fact, the Internet has provided a medium for accessing vast amounts of information that was previously inaccessible—the reason why the U.S. government is spending so much effort in trying to develop ways to monitor and restrict this traffic. A March 10, Wall Street Journal article titled “NSA’s domestic spying grows as agency sweeps up data” detailed the National Security Agency’s monitoring of Internet communications, the subject of a 2006 lawsuit.
Internet spying networks are coordinated between U.S. and European spy agencies in a program called ECHELON.
Despite all the efforts to break the capitalist stranglehold on ideas, it is impossible to gain “equal time” as long as the economic system of exploitation remains in place. The battle for the ideas of society cannot be won in the realm of ideas.
Nevertheless, because the capitalist system is built on contradictions, every day more people face the chasm between capitalist propaganda and reality. It is among these people that the seeds of social change begin.
The ideas of a society are the ideas of its ruling class—until, as history has shown, the society enters into a crisis in which the old ideas cannot gloss over the system’s exploitation and contradictions. That opens the door for a revolutionary situation.
By seizing the means of production, by expropriating the capitalist class and by reconstructing society based on the needs of the many instead of the property of the few—in other words, by becoming the new ruling class—the working class lays the basis for media that express its interests.
Then, instead of Section C of the newspaper being the “Business” section, it might be the “Workers’ Issues” section.