Books

Exposing the Corporate Media's Big Racket

An excerpt from the book "The Racket: A Rogue Reporter vs. the Masters of the Universe."

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Zed Books

The following is an excerpted afterword from the new paperback edition (Zed Books, April 2016) of the book The Racket: A Rogue Reporter vs. the Masters of the Universe by Matt Kennard:

Our world is ruled by a racket. This racket is an amalgamation of different players, including transnational corporations, banks, hedge and mutual funds, and insurance companies; in effect, the many different concentrations of private wealth we have in our society. We often don’t know the names of the people who run these institutions, but they hold the real power in our world, and are backed by the U.S. government, and as a last resort the U.S. military. But the racket is nothing without the media. They give this network’s rapacious actions a moral sheen and maintain the potent ideologies whereby theft from the poor by the rich is translated into altruistic projects for the world’s poor. In the aftermath of The Racket’s publication, curious people asked me why—if what I was saying was true—this mafia-like elite got away with it so easily, and everyone was missing the real story. The answer is the media, and I will try in this afterword to show how it works in practice.

The most important consideration at the offset is that the media is, of course, owned by the racket, so there is no surprise that it reflects the racket’s priorities. In the U.S., six companies own 90 percent of the media. In the U.K., Rupert Murdoch’s News International media company, even after the closure of the "News of the World," still comprises 34 percent of newspaper circulation in the country and, had it not been for phone-hacking revelations, it would almost certainly have acquired 100 percent of broadcaster BSkyB. Secondly, everyone arrives at the top thinking the right things. At the Financial Times I learnt quite quickly that the racket and the media are in essence the same thing, and journalists do its bidding without conscious effort. There’s no need for an intensive program of brainwashing. As a journalist, by the time you reach the heights of these ideological institutions your editors assume you will already have internalized what you can and can’t say. You will know, for example, that the West is not like the rest of the world. The U.K. and U.S. are noble, even if we sometimes make mistakes we are allowed to criticize. At the end of the day, when all is said and done, we are the Good Guys. That is another facet of how the charade is maintained: the media system in the West doesn’t work by active censorship. The beauty of the system is that you don’t need to tell journalists what to write—they support the status quo as a reflex. The proprietors work on the ethos that “you say what you like, because we like what you say.” If you start testing the boundaries of our “free press” you will know about it. And be out of a job. As Rosa Luxemburg put it: “those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” Very few journalists in the corporate media are moving, so they believe our press is free. I can confirm it is not.

As I saw young journalists coming up in the industry I noticed opinions changing or moderating as they became acclimatized to the institutions. A famous Winston Churchill phrase goes roughly that if you’re not a socialist in your 20s, you’ve got no heart; and if you’re not a conservative in your 30s, you’ve got no brain. Churchill was half right, but he got the reason wrong. In terms of the media, if you’re not a conservative by your 30s then it doesn’t mean you haven’t got a brain; it merely means you haven’t acclimatized to the conservative media institutions that have been set up for you to enter. It’s no coincidence that people get less idealistic as they get older. That’s how the system works to root out ideas dangerous to it, maintaining control of those that sit at its apex. So, slowly, you stop expressing opinions that are different from everyone else’s, shed any previously held idealism. If you do carry on thinking as before, you quickly become a “maverick” or, even worse, “immature” and “childish.” It’s hard to go into work every day for a whole career under this kind of groupthink pressure and stay sane. Few try for long. From my experience, it’s not Machiavellian—people don’t actively think, I’m going to become a neoliberal warmonger so I can get higher up the hierarchy of my newspaper. But people slowly temper their opinions, gradually shaving off their “rougher edges” in order to become part of the institutionalized thinking. If you enter somewhere like the FT, everyone has a very rigid idea of how the global economy works and if you don’t share that idea, you’ll be out. That’s, of course, how power systems all work. They don’t work by promoting dissidents or people that think differently from everyone else; they wouldn’t last long if they did.

Inhumanity

Because of the central role of the business press in greasing the cogs in the economic system, following newspapers like the FT dedicated to covering the inner workings of the racket is probably the best way into understanding the capitalist id. For me, the specialist financial media, especially the less polite parts of it, are the best means to understand the sickness that festers at the root of our world. In his landmark work The Sane Society, the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote: “That millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.” A CBS News report from the aftermath of the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez is a perfect example. It reveals so beautifully the inhuman priorities of the racket’s media, and by extension of our whole economic system. After talking about the reaction of the oil market on news of the death of Chávez—the democratically elected leader of Venezuela who had made massive successes in reducing poverty and destitution—the journalist continued (and bear in mind this is not satire): “Chávez invested Venezuela’s oil wealth into social programs including state-run food markets, cash benefits for poor families, free health clinics and education programs. But those gains were meager compared with the spectacular construction projects that oil riches spurred in glittering Middle Eastern cities, including the world’s tallest building in Dubai and plans for branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums in Abu Dhabi.”

In the capitalist id, way deeper than all the useful ideology about poverty reduction through economic growth and liberalization, lies this kind of calculation. Free health clinics and education for the poor majority who for centuries have been locked out of their own country’s mineral wealth are irrelevant, unimportant. In this understanding of the world, the human being is second-class. What is important is the object, the flashy building where the rich can feel important and puffed up with status. This continues across the board, although the priorities of the racket media are not often so casually exposed. The day after the massacre of 34 striking mine workers in the South African town of Marikana, for instance, I was writing a market report for the FT, and the newspaper posted a blog entry about the company for whom the workers worked, headlined “Lonmin: killings cast a long shadow.” But the long shadow wasn’t the impact on the families of the dead, or the criminal responsibility of the company that the workers were striking against. Instead the post noted the tragedy that “Shares in Lonmin, the platinum mining group at the centre of the dispute, plunged by 10 percent in Johannesburg early on Friday as details of the shootings at the company’s Marikana mining complex near Rustenburg were revealed.” It continued that, even worse, “A tragedy of this scale will have a political, economic and social impact—which seems certain to affect the investment climate.” Ladies and gentlemen: the highest of crimes in the business press. Murdered workers, well, that’s life. But hurting an investment climate—that’s a crisis! In South Africa’s Business Day journal, concern in the aftermath was similarly focused on what the massacre would mean for investors. “Deadly Marikana shootout could deter investment, economists warn,” they cautioned.

Examples of this inhumanity are legion. The Wall Street Journal, publishing an article on the death of mass-murdering U.S.-armed Indonesian dictator General Suharto, noted that “The positive contributions of the man who made Indonesia a respected member of the international community deserve … emphasis.” This is a man who carried out, in East Timor, one of the worst genocides of the 20th century. He was, though, good for business, which is all we ask of him to qualify for a good write-up. When the conservative Colombian president Alvaro Uribe left office, the Financial Times ran an article with the headline “After the saviour, what happens next?” This is a man who presided over killings on a mass scale and allied with hyper-violent right-wing paramilitaries in his war against the FARC, but also dissidents on a wider level. “He … leaves a very big pair of shoes to fill,” the FT concluded. Certainly true—if your gauge is how many kills you can rack up as president.

Often you can track the positive reaction of the financial press, and the wider press, too, by how nice leaders are to transnational corporations and foreign capital. Luíz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, the president of Brazil from 2003 to 2010, became the darling of the Western press during his tenure because his social reforms—while good in themselves—did not challenge the rule of capital in his country. Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez, however, as we have seen, took power and gave it back to their people through nationalizations and cancellations of exploitative contracts. For that they were vilified as dictators and terrorists. One of my favorite Wall Street Journal articles, titled “Bolivia’s descent into rogue state status,” noted the country has become “a petri dish in which a culture of organized crime, radical politics and religious fundamentalism festers.” That’s the punishment waiting for you in the racket’s media if you put the interests of your people ahead of the bottom line of the 1 percent.

I recently picked up a copy of the Economist on holiday. You might think that having just written a book about the dodgy dealings of the American racketeers I would be used to such examples, but I was still shocked by the lack of any attempt at a cover-up. An article on Angola, the “economic wunderkind that comes a cropper,” was lamenting the slowdown in the Angolan economy. The pathologies of the capitalist id were out on show as the magazine stated that “On May 7 the government announced an end to fuel subsidies, which used to consume a whopping 4.5 percent of GDP. This generally sensible move—the subsidy distorted markets and encouraged smuggling—will hit the poor especially hard in an already highly unequal society.” Unpacked, that sentence says that a policy that “hits the poor especially hard in an already highly unequal society” is “generally sensible.” And it is—if you’re a rich investor or local oligarch, because the state helping its poorest citizens to be able to afford fuel to run their cars or homes is not important. In fact, the ideology of the free market—which holds that any state intervention on the side of the poorest is “market distortion”—makes such a move not only “sensible” but also necessary. Death for the poor is necessary. In a piece on Egypt in the same issue, with reference to the “successes” of the brutal mass-murdering Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Economist could barely hide its glee about the killing that had been made not just by his troops—but by investors too! The article was entitled “The lure of Sisi,” and stated that Egypt’s stock market delivered the best returns for investors in 2014. So, yes, a fantastic year for investors. But according to Amnesty International, the previous year wasn’t so great if you were a peaceful protestor. In the six months towards the end of 2013 nearly one and a half thousand people died in protests—most at the hands of Egyptian security forces. Yet the Economist went on to say that “Sisi has consolidated power and ruthlessly crushed dissent. His firm rule and programme of economic development have also attracted much-needed investment. Freedoms must be sacrificed in the service of progress, the president argues. For now, at least, he may feel vindicated.” Vindicated.

In some ways I admire the Economist’s honesty. The New York Times or Washington Post either ignore that the U.S. is integral to upholding many deeply repressive, mass-murdering regimes, or they find some way of spinning this truth to make their liberal readers feel good about it—in Egypt’s case, most likely the “threat” of the Muslim Brotherhood. At least the Economist has the honesty to say what it’s really about—investors’ ability to make a killing. The Wall Street Journal is similarly honest about which team they are batting for. In an op-ed after the coup in Egypt which bought Sisi to power, the writer claimed that “Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took over power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy.” That “transition” the Wall Street Journal talks about took a coup d’état against a democratic and constitutional president, Salvador Allende, and 17 years of fascist dictatorship, alongside thousands dead, to implement. But, hey, a lot of people got rich.

The Fig Leaf

When I left the racket’s media and tried to write for other newspapers I thought would be more reflective of my political outlook, I realized something even more disturbing than what I’d seen on the inside—that the racket’s stranglehold on the mass media is total. The liberal and left parts of the mainstream media are as compromised by corporate money and private interests as their conservative rivals, perhaps even more so. And it is these progressive outlets that are vital to maintaining the façade of a free and fair media. They give the impression of fighting against the racket when in fact they support it in the fundamentals. I learnt that, in fact, newspapers like the U.K.’s Guardian—probably the most influential left-wing journal in the Western world—are among the most biased and self-righteous institutions around. They are full of private-school-educated Oxbridge graduates who see themselves as crusading liberals fighting against corporate and state power. But if you step a bit to the left of them, you will know about it. They guard their left flank religiously, instructing the world that anyone operating there is beyond the pale. The same is true of the New York Times in the U.S.

When I started looking into it I saw that the Guardian is actually intimately involved with the racket, and relies on the racket to run its day-to-day reporting operations. If you click on the Cities section of its website, you will find the whole section is sponsored by the neoliberal Rockefeller Foundation. If you go to the Global Development section, you will see it’s sponsored by the equally neoliberal Gates Foundation. And this goes on and on. Corporate power has its claws deep into the Guardian. Delve deeper into the website and you will find the Sustainable Business Zone where its Social Impact section sponsor is the mining giant Anglo-American and its Sustainable Living section is sponsored by consumer goods giant Unilever. There, these companies are given free rein to publish Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) nonsense—an effort to improve their image so they have less trouble exploiting the countries where they make their profits. The Guardian itself officially says that this sponsorship has no impact on how it reports news. But I had my own experience of this maybe not being wholly true when I reported from a town in El Salvador called Nejapa where many residents could not afford clean drinking water for themselves and their families, despite the fact they lived on top of a huge aquifer.

When I was preparing the story with my colleague, the brewing company SABMiller, when asked for a quote, started getting heavy about what we might be putting in the article. They sent me a joint report on Nejapa they had authored with Oxfam (showing, in the process, how the racket has its tentacles in NGOs now as well). In the end, SABMiller were only briefly mentioned in our article, and one of their spokesmen was quoted in the piece. But just a few days later I noticed that the Guardian was carrying a news article, sponsored by the Gates Foundation of course, on its website. It was a 900-word interview with Karl Lippert, president of the Latin American division of SABMiller, which read like a corporate press release. He was given long spaces to expatiate on his company’s commitment to water security, without any pushback at all. Then he responded at length to the criticism in our article over corporate control of water in Nejapa. I thought this was a weird thing for the Guardian to run as a news story. Lippert is completely unknown and in much of the article he spoke about the story we had done. The Guardian, I later learnt, had a “partnerzone” sponsored by SABMiller on its website.

The Guardian’s sister paper in the U.S. is no better; in fact, it’s worse. At least the Guardian didn’t support the anti-democratic coup against the Hugo Chávez government in 2002. The New York Times did. Two days after the coup it described the overthrow of democracy, suspension of the constitution and installation of a millionaire tyrant like this: “The man in charge in the presidential palace went from a strong-willed populist known for his rambling speeches to a mild-mannered businessman who chooses every word carefully.” It continued in another article: “With yesterday’s resignation of President Hugo Chávez, Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator. Mr. Chávez, a ruinous demagogue, stepped down after the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader, Pedro Carmona.”

What hope do we have if this is the progressive extreme of the mainstream media in the U.S. and U.K.?

The racket that rules us is enabled even more forcefully by the Guardian and New York Times than it is by Rupert Murdoch or the Financial Times, because they define what is acceptable progressive opinion, and tell us how far we can go and still be “respectable” and have a mainstream journalistic career. This restricts our imagination, forces us to worship our oppressors, and creates the illusion of fighting for justice while undermining the leaders and popular movements that will bring it about. The racket is deep in every crevice of the mass media, and we won’t be free until that hold is broken. But thankfully that hold is, indeed, breaking. Sprouting up around the world is a media independent of corporate control, unhinged from the fatalities of the racket’s talking points. We are living through an exciting time for the media, but not the traditional media. What is happening now is a massive and irreversible shift of power to people. For two centuries, the upper class has owned the means of intellectual production, from the newspapers to the printing presses and everything else you needed to project your views on to society on a mass scale. But now, with the advent of the Internet, there are many more ways to circumvent what has become a truly stagnant system. Be in no doubt: it scares the establishment senseless. They’ve had control over this for so long, and really don’t want to let it go.

From Spain to Greece, the birth of people’s movements has ushered true progressives into power, and it has been done largely by bypassing the stale old world media systems. Podemos managed to gain 21 percent of the vote in Spain’s December 2015 elections—just two years after the party was founded, and in the face of a hugely hostile mainstream media. A few months before, in the U.K., Jeremy Corbyn was voted leader of the Labour Party with an overwhelming mandate, galvanizing a long-dormant progressive current in Britain, again in the face of the most intense media political assassination campaign in recent history. Senator Bernie Sanders has similarly scrambled the political spectrum in the U.S. with his hugely successful campaign for the Democratic nomination, even while the corporate media threw as much mud as possible on his self-avowed “socialism.” Meanwhile, Syriza, a party of the left, has actually taken power in Greece, and remains popular, again despite the traditional oligarch-owned media being out for its throat. The realm of the possible is being stretched. People are looking outside their traditional outlets for news, and seeing that the truth does not lie in the “respectable” institutions they had previously trusted. The breakdown of the political center in the West is being paralleled by the breakdown of the media center. When both jobs are complete—and they will work in unison—we will be able to stare long and hard at the rotting machine that turns our economy, and dispatch it to the dustbin of history. The center cannot hold.

 

Excerpted afterword from the new paperback edition (Zed Books, April 2016) of the book The Racket: A Rogue Reporter vs. the Masters of the Universe by Matt Kennard.

Matt Kennard is a Fellow at the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Irregular Army (2012) and has worked for the Financial Times in London, New York and Washington, D.C. He has also written for the Guardian, New York Times and Chicago Tribune.

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