People in the land of the free generally believe in the need for freedom of the press. But what good, really, is a free press? I’m calling into question one of America’s most sternly-held values because it’s clear to me that it needs to be understood differently. It needs to be understood for how the principle operates in reality. The real question is: what good is a free press when information is asymmetrical?
Let’s narrow the examples down to situations of extreme social unrest, and ask what good was a free press for, and whose interests it followed. For example, what good was a free press to strikers during the 1910 Philadelphia transit riot? What good was it to American blacks during the 1965 Watts riots? The answer is that the free press ends up becoming the elite’s press every time the elite are threatened by social unrest.
Isn’t what’s so scary to good American people the thought that not having a free press will make important information about the political and social situation extremely difficult to uncover? But wouldn’t it be even scarier to the good American people if a free press still existed and that information was just equally difficult to uncover? For example, if a free press existed in Iran, but information about the election and the riots was just as difficult to publish as though there were not a free press.
From the liberal democratic point-of-view what characterizes non-free presses in dictatorial regimes is the inability to access important information that will help overthrow “corrupt regimes,” like in Iran. This is why Twitter was hailed by Hilary Clinton as a great gift to protesters in Iran during the election riots. The State Department even asked Twitter to postpone its scheduled maintenance of the site so that information could be processed out of Iran during the upheavals. The US government then turned around and outlawed Twitter the next month when it was being used by anti-G20 rioters in Pittsburgh, 2009.
I heard someone on NPR recently say we “always hear about countries failing when they have no free press; but no country is ever failing when it has too much free press.”
But consider the United States.
This is a country failing from a condition in which a free press exists, but only in principle, not in reality. The opportunity exists to publish anything a publisher will be pleased to accept, but the tendency under capitalism is to publish information that will not damage the reputation or long-term capital interests of the publisher. Information asymmetry: the rich get more informed about what the other rich people are doing and the poor get informed about nothing, unless it advances the interests of capital.
In this condition, the allegedly “important information” that’s supposed to help us overthrow corrupt regimes is still in fact unpublished, but not because some dictator is issuing proclamations against it. It’s because it’s not a tendency of capital to publish material deleterious to its own health.
For this reason, I have been fascinated with situationist uses of the media. One very basic motivation for using situationism is to enhance revolutionary struggle with revolutionary information. The task is to put revolutionary information out there for others to see. In this way, the interpretation of world events — especially spontaneous acts of “the mob” or the riotous acts of everyday people — become key moments to analyze, explain, critique. For, if we cannot see how their lives and our lives are transformed and manipulated by this information — all information — and if we cannot see what’s wrong with the information that is used to control vast amounts of people in these societies, then we cannot begin to talk about controlling our own lives apart from them.
In retaliation to its own labor disputes and its asymmetrical handling of world labor strikes, the LA Times was bombed in 1910 by iron workers, and its printing press destroyed in a fire. At the time it was called “the crime of the century.”
They bombed the free press. What could those dirty prole bastards be complaining about, so much that they went along and destroyed a news corporation (which at the time had offices internationally)? On the contrary, those events exposed the heavy tension involved in the labor struggle in the early 20th Century, with the news media overextending its capitalistic narrative.
If we asked the LA Times why the 1965 LA Watts Riots occurred — not just how it happened event-by-event — but fundamentally why there was so much racial tension, their news corporation would not be able to answer “objectively”. Comprehending that event was utterly beyond the scope and ability of the LA Times. It was and still is only able to understand the Watts Riots as it relates to the LA Times’ own standing in the racial and hierarchical structure of society. That is, from the narrative and social situatedness of the LA Times’ itself. Accordingly, the LA Times simply cannot see any other interpretation of the Watts Riots other than describing it as a series of independent, senseless acts of violence.
What else but the Situationist International (artist magazine and newsletter) simultaneously undermined the objectivity of the elite newspapers of the time, and then defended these potentially revolutionary elements that were under attack with its own analysis of the Watts Riots.
The role the Situationist International created is one for revolutionaries today to re-discover. Events are quickening and their time in the spectacle is more brief than have ever been before. This role to be occupied today is an even greater role occupied by the SI. Today information can be many times more particular, where a situationist use of the new “news” media can go so far as to provide lightning-quick updates about police locations, advancements, and so forth.
I leave you to ponder these examples/scenarios.