JOHN TAN. How the corporate media is helping Biden and normalising neoliberalism.

Mar 16, 2020

The corporate media is sneaking opinion into news reports, masquerading as fact. Not too subtle but a very effective form of propaganda now saturating our lives; changing what we believe to be normal; and playing on our insecurity and fears.

News reports and commentaries here and in the US have taken to referring to Joe Biden as “moderate” or “centrist” and to Bernie Sanders as “socialist” and “unelectable”.

Biden is a status quo candidate. He will not upset anyone with power if he is elected. Not the Wall Street elite, nor the core of the 1%. They like him.

Sanders once described his beliefs as democratic socialist, which is the policy of the most socially successful European liberal democratic countries. His policies are more egalitarian than neoliberals can live with. They call him “socialist”, which in America is code for “communist”, and is certainly not the equivalent of democratic socialist.

By using such loaded descriptors, the media is avoiding having to discuss the merits of their policies; even avoiding having to identify their key policies. It’s part of the process of dumbing down politics.

Planting the idea that neoliberal economics is “centrist” or “moderate” establishes firmly in public minds the new normalcy; that the poor and disadvantaged have only themselves to blame; that the people at the top deserve it because they are smarter and work harder; small government is best; and politicians should get out of the way of markets; all ideas that have cemented privilege and power at the apex.

And this normalisation of neoliberalism is happening here as much as in the US.

This political-media project to re-shape public minds has been made easier by a growing culture of fear and insecurity in the 21st century, as pointed out by sociologist Frank Furedi, in his latest book “How fear works” (2018):

“The power of the media is illustrated by its capacity to influence language usage and popularise the rhetoric of fear. Through the sheer repetition of terms such as superbugs, pandemics, extinction or toxic, a lexicon of doom helps endow threats with an existential quality.”

He wrote that the media has a role in “popularising and normalising a language and a system of symbols and meaning for interpreting society’s experience”. He believed that media can help “to render our fears palpable, visual, dramatic and intensely personal”.

Furedi noted that it takes more than just the media to bring about this growing fear: “Accounts of the public fears are often represented as artificially manufactured by highly manipulative media moguls. ‘Fox News Fear Factory’ is the term used by one journalist to capture the image of a media devoted to the invention of scare stories. Commentators sometimes go so far as to hold the media guilty for turning its audience into fearful, even brainwashed, subjects.” Such a conception is exaggerated, according to him.

Furedi wrote that media can only amplify what is in the culture. But isn’t is equally true that the culture is also a product of the media? And isn’t it also true that the greater the concentration of media in narrow hands, the greater the concentration of ideas and opinions that voters are exposed to; and the greater the propaganda effect?

Furedi wrote that there is a moral dimension in fear. “Fear” and “evil” are closely linked with one another in people’s minds. “They are the moral equivalent of ‘Siamese twins’; what we fear is evil what is evil we fear,” he wrote.

Within such a frame, it follows naturally that Sanders’ description as “socialist” and “unelectable” could lead in some minds to equal “communism”; and also to “evil” because of two current greats “threats” to America in the public discourse, namely Russia and China.

Not everyone will draw such a conclusion of course but enough could, especially those most vulnerable to subliminal messaging, to make a crucial difference in the current primaries.

(John Tan was a deputy editor in the Straits Times newspaper in Singapore. He has been foreign editor and business editor.)

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