The Denial of Hierarchy: The Billionaire or Multi-Millionaire behind the Media Curtain
After winning the lottery, many people end up bankrupt. Why? They can’t handle the money. Imagine that.
Now pause to consider the other side of the coin — the top of our hierarchy — the people who earn or inherit large amounts of money. They usually have a different problem. They can’t handle reality. Super wealthy people often surround themselves with sycophants — sometimes called psychophants . These are yes men and yes women, whose job involves massaging the wealthy person’s ego, telling the wealthy person that every dumb idea they have is brilliant.
Since most Americans deny the consequences of hierarchy, we may not realize that being wealthy means never having to be wrong — or at least never having to find out you are wrong, since the people around you won’t tell you.
Being wealthy also means never having to worry about destroying the planet’s ability to be a home to humans. If you destroy the planet, you just go on to the next planet. Your sycophants tell you this is a great idea.
You want for nothing. You even get to be immortal — or you think you do.
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Why Should I Care?
“Why should the rest of us care?” you may ask. We must care because, in order to get to the bottom of situations, we have to go to the top of them. That’s where the power is. Our culture gives super wealthy people control of our government and our whole society. For example, without our society’s worshipful attitude toward the super wealthy, there is no way someone as unqualified and incompetent as Trump could have been elected.
Also, even those of us who disapprove of people like Trump, still passively support billionaires who spread propaganda and bribe government officials, in order to run the world. That is, most of us fail to face what they are doing and fail to take effective action to prevent it.
Some people have become super wealthy through transnational organized crime. These super wealthy people also wield a lot more power over government than middle class or lower class citizens do.
Humans are herd animals, following leaders. If we want to understand where our world is going we must look frankly at the people we’ve been placing at the head of the herd — the top of the hierarchy. What they do and believe affects us all.
Many of super wealthy and powerful people already hide their money from the IRS in offshore tax havens. Many of them also hide their influence in politics through dark money contributions. That’s already far too much hiding. We shouldn’t tolerate their also hiding when they’re making decisions about what information or disinformation citizens of our democracy will receive.
Once we open our eyes, we are in a better position to stop the harm and go in a constructive direction. To map the journey to our goals, we have to be aware of where our starting point is.
Propaganda, Media and the Super Wealthy
The propaganda in which the U.S. is currently immersed is expensive. The super rich are the ones who can afford to buy it. They also donate to political candidates. But the U.S. is a representative democracy. So the donations have to create votes. Propaganda makes it so.
Propaganda uses already existing beliefs and tendencies in U.S. culture, to influence us.
For example, one myth in American culture is that we are all equal before the law. Many people have only recently discovered that we aren’t — that super wealthy people are far more likely to get away with crimes for which people of other classes would receive harsh punishment. The extent of economic inequality has also been little known until recent years.
It’s been easy to believe that there is meritocracy in the economy. And there is — mostly within the middle class. There are also many people who have a lot of money mostly because of having inherited fortunes or because they constantly commit crimes and are allowed to get away with it.
There is hierarchy in media too. At the New York Times, we don’t know how much the company chairman, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., or Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor, have to do with the both sides policies in the New York Times. For all we know, Hiatt and Baquet may be required to enforce such policies in order to keep their jobs. They may be told “You and your writers are not the Resistance.” Or maybe they aren’t told that.
Yet it’s unwarranted to assume, as most seem to, that the New York Times policy of “covering both sides” as if they are equally believable, originates with Baquet or with Hiatt.
One of many reasons not to assume we know where the policy originated is that Sulzberger has met with Trump, although Baquet apparently has not. I wonder if Sulzberger promised Trump that NYT would “not be part of the Resistance.”
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At social media companies, it’s more obvious “where the bucks stops” because owners generally manage their own companies. In traditional media companies, it’s not obvious. But it ought to become so. Citizens have a right to know who is deciding what kinds of information or disinformation we receive. Having “the man behind the curtain” decide this, as in The Wizard of Oz, could be the death knell for democracy.
The most common form of propaganda in mainstream media is “both sides” propaganda — for example, treating Democrats and Republicans as equally credible, and equally corrupt, even in situations where the facts show this is very much not true.
An old quote that applies to both sides reporting is “All that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.” That includes good men and women in media who are so intent on not taking a side, that they are neutral even about truth, justice and democracy.
In TV land, Andy Lack of NBC may be the one telling Chuck Todd he must invite constant liars on Meet the Press, because the show is structured as a conversation between politicians of both parties — and because it’s nearly impossible to find Republican politicians who tell the truth. Or maybe he isn’t telling Todd that. Or maybe the owners of NBC are saying this to Andy Lack. To find out where this policy originated, we have to do some investigative journalism on journalism.
Why We Need to Stop Being Blind to Hierarchy in Media
The only reason to automatically assume that the highest person on the totem pole didn’t make these decisions, is that we are blind to hierarchy. Reporters ought to be interviewing Sulzberger, Lack and the owners of NBC, and asking whether their media outlets’ “both sides” policies originated with them.
Those policies include treating lies with equal credibility to truth, failing to confront liars, and continuing to invite on TV politicians who constantly lie — as if they will suddenly become sources of useful information. Whoever instituted such policies should take responsibility for them.
Why do we need to know who decided on these policies? Because they destroy democracy.
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Most high status people who are financially well compensated have spent their lives pursuing the kind of success that Todd and Baquet have. Each super successful person is looked up to, often with jealousy, by many other people in their field — people who would love to replace them.
Almost no one who has worked hard and finally gotten financial and career success, wants to give it up — or even wants to take a risk of losing their job by doing it in some new untested way, just because conditions have changed.
It’s mostly startups that innovate. Large corporations on the whole are some of the most conservative — in the nonpolitical sense — organizations on earth, in terms of keeping everything the same as it’s always been. Generally, their executives find a way to make money that works and then try to do it that way forever, if they can. One way that works for media is to report in ways that are acceptable to — ways that don’t get many complaints from — their big corporate advertisers, who tend to be conservative also.
The big corporate advertisers are not necessarily pro-GOP. It’s just that they definitely do not want Democrats to gain enough control to be able to raise corporate taxes. They don’t need the government to be dominated by Republicans. They are quite comfortable with a government that is close to half Democrats and half Republicans. They seem to have always gotten that wish fulfilled in recent years. That is probably not an accident.
Wealthy people are the same as the rest of us in most ways, but are in a different situation. They’re not on the whole higher risk takers or more innovative or more industrious. Media owners and managers tend to follow their same old ingrained institutional habits forever . In fact, many wealthy people show all of the the laziness that wealthy people sometimes project onto poor people.
The situation is not as simple as the common accusations made on Twitter, that “Corporate media support the party of mega-corporations, the Republican party.” The both sides problem seems to also have a lot to do with the fact that large corporations tend to be lazy rigid creatures ruled by ingrained habits — creatures that are not very responsive to change in their environments.
Another aspect of the problem is that, regardless of whether they are Democrat or Republican, billionaires and multi-millionaires are generally Right of Center in their politics. I’m labeling as the Center, the place where most ordinary Americans are. Wealthy people definitely don’t want to pay what ordinary Americans think is the wealthy person’s fair share of taxes.
However, it’s not great public relations for wealthy media owners to admit this. So they don’t. One way they avoid admitting this — and keep their publications or TV stations from admitting it — is by hiring staff who are willing to do “both sides” journalism and by rewarding and promoting staff who do it.
If one ignores concerns for truth and democracy, and paints both Republicans and Democrats as extreme, wealthy media owners’ views no longer appear to them to fall at the Right of Center place on the spectrum. Now wealthy media owners think they’re solidly in the “Center “— somewhere between an insurrectionist Trump supporter and what they falsely label as “the other extreme” — the Democrat’s views, which actually include most views favored by ordinary Americans. Like many biases, people holding them may not be consciously aware of their bias. It may just feel comfortable to them, for reasons they don’t want to look at too closely.
Journalism professor Jay Rosen is one of the media critics who has written interesting essays on the both sides problem in media. Here is his comment on Rolling Stone’s interview with Chuck Todd of Meet the Press.
Rosen makes the point that Todd has been told often over years by well known experts like Jay himself and political scientist Norm Ornstein, that the Republican party was focusing itself on spreading disinformation. Todd chose not to listen.
Here is an article by Dan Froomkin, about a recent interview of Executive Editor Dean Baquet of the New York Times that describes how little Baquet has learned from mistakes in reporting in 2016, and how he intends to continue the “both sides” policy.
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In our poorly regulated hyper-capitalist economy, it is common for people to not listen to experts whose salaries are below their own. It wouldn’t be surprising if Baquet and Todd see their jobs as bringing eyeballs and money to NYT and NBC. Perhaps they think they know how to do that better than anyone else, and that concerns about matters like truth or democracy are irrelevant. Here is a statement from the head of a different TV network that expresses just such a view.
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One of the traits that wealthy humans share with the rest of us is that we can be fairly cowardly and passive toward others who have a lot of power. The Republican political and media machines have a large amount of power. The Democratic political machine is reluctant to exercise what power it has. And there is no large organized Left Wing media machine — despite the fantasies of Right Wingers about one.
The powerful Right Wing machine constantly challenges mainstream media owners and managers to prove they are not Left Wing — to prove they are not part of the Resistance to Trump. Media folks oblige. The Left Wing and Democrats seem to never challenge mainstream media owners to prove they are not part of the Trump and McConnell re-election campaign — despite the fact that there is a lot more evidence for that than for the charges made by the Right Wing.
I’ll write more later about other aspects of how we deny hierarchy in the U.S. My main point here is that we deny it in media. And that our denial keeps us from solving the problems of media disinformation and bothsidesism.
If we want to find out who is responsible for media policies that do harm to the public, we have to go all the way up to the top of the totem pole, to the owners of the media companies — to the people who either instituted these policies or who allow them to stand. These people should be interviewed — not just people like Baquet and Todd. Knowing what to do about a problem involves knowing who decides to do the actions that cause the problem.
Few of us are very free in our jobs. There are usually hierarchies, where some high person on the totem pole has the power to control a lot of what we do. It’s time to open our eyes and see the full picture — not only what’s going on but who decided to do it. In the case of media, the highest people in the hierarchy should be interviewed, to ask them the reasons for their policies and to confront them with any harm done by those policies.