Reporting, propaganda and the Internet-enabled New Deal for journalism

There’s a provocative new opinion piece by Marc Andreessen on the future of the news media.

He envisions a “golden future” for journalism, one in stark contrast to how industry insiders view the trajectory of their once-rich personal gravy train.

You can read it here: Why I’m bullish on the news – by Marc Andreessen

My comments on Andreessen’s article follow…

Why post World War II news media in the US was so squirrelly

As someone who has been playing with these ideas and generating financially viable if modest Internet-based alternatives to the now-fading news media regime since 1994, here are some thoughts about how the news media ended up where it did…

Andreessen nails the transition point for US news media with precision: Post Word War II.

Before that no person with adult mental capacities believed that news media was “objective” – or expected it to be. Point of view reporting was the norm and was accepted, as was sensationalism for sensationalism’s sake.

However, I think rather than call journalism’s post Word War II phase “objective” as Andreessen does, I think it would be more accurate to call it “pseudo-objective.” Indeed much was done by the news industry to perfect the appearance of objectivity, but a study of the history of reporting post WW II reveals it had a highly orchestrated, propagandistic quality to it.

The themes were: Buy lots of stuff, fear the Red Menace, government and corporate authorities always have your best interests at heart, don’t rock the boat, conform.

Is it really reasonable to suggest that post World War II news media in the US operated like a top-down propaganda system?

Yes, and there’s some compelling evidence to support this view.

Christopher Simpson makes this deeply researched case in his book The Science of Coercion:

The leadership of the post World War II news media was jammed packed with alumni of the wartime Office of War Information (OWI). Just like massive intelligence was focused on creating an atom bomb during the war, massive intelligence was focused on how to obtain military objectives (domestically and externally) using “communication.”

The war ended, but the impression this experience made on its participants and the manner of thinking and working it generated lived on – for decades.

Here’s a short list of the graduates of the military’s psychological warfare operations who went on to set the tone for news media in the 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond:

“The publishers of Time, Look, Fortune, and several dailies; editors of such magazines as Holiday, Coronet, Parade, and the Saturday Review, editors of the Denver Post. New Orleans Times-Picayune, and others; the heads of the Viking Press, Harper & Brothers, and Farrar, Straus and Young; two Hollywood Oscar winners; a two-time Pulitzer prizewinner; the board chairman of CBS and a dozen key network executives; President Eisenhower’s chief speech writer; the editor of Reader’s Digest international editions; at least six partners of large advertising agencies; and a dozen noted social scientists.”

The economic monopoly position the news media occupied pre-Internet enabled a system where “news” could be homogenized, sanitized, and made “safe for democracy” yet still make money because even if people didn’t particularly like the product it was the only game in town.

Dissenting voices were not only not encouraged, they were also sometimes aggressively discouraged. (See the story of George Seldes and In fact, his print newsletter which had hundreds of thousands of mail order subscribers in the 1940s.)

Now thanks to the Web there is a place for people like George Seldes. And now that news consumers who’ve been restricted to the journalistic equivalent of a diet of Twinkies and Diet Coke are discovering the pleasures of real food, there’s no turning back.

Details about how post World War II media in the US was shaped by a psychological warfare outlook here:

“Worldview Warfare” and The Science of Coercion

Here’s the first in my still-unfinished series of articles on the much-shorter-than-people-realize history of what is called journalism: “Dismantling the romantic fantasy of journalism and welcoming a frank future of sponsored research”

-Ken McCarthy
Internet visions from 1994

P.S. For over 25 years I’ve been sharing the simple but powerful things that matter in business with my clients.

If you’d like direction for your business that will work today, tomorrow and twenty years from now, visit us at the System Club.

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