Freedom of Press: What Have We Learned From History?

In an interview not long ago, Noam Chomsky highlighted the comparison between the rise of fascism in the 1930s with the rise of right-wing conservatism today. In particular, he spoke of how the popularity of Donald Trump echoed the climate of fear of Weimar Germany:

“The progress of Trump can be attributed to fear, along with the breakdown of society during the neoliberal period. People feel isolated, helpless and victims of powerful forces that they do not understand and cannot influence. It’s interesting to compare the situation in the ‘30s, which I’m old enough to remember. Objectively, poverty and suffering were far greater. But even among poor working people and the unemployed, there was a sense of hope that is lacking now, in a large part because of the growth of a militant labor movement and also the existence of political organizations outside the mainstream”

In 1988 Chomsky co-authored a book called Manufacturing Consent, which offers the following thesis: that the mass media exists purely to serve the interests of the political economy. It is an ideological institution, that is driven by market forces, containing systemic biases, and manipulative content. This directly contradicts the central tenant of freedom of press – declared in the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights as “the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”

How this theory could still be applicable today rests on the idea that mass feelings of isolation, fear, and being the victim of powerful forces are fodder for media outlets. Recessions, wars and their resulting societal inequalities have historically turned societies to political extremes on both the left and the right, and the modern day zeitgeist is no different. For not the first time in history, the mass media can openly criticise a minority group that is unable to, for example, sue for libel in instances of subtle defamation. Therefore there is a problem in the media’s disproportionate interest in Islam. Sensationalist stories on Muslims are, whilst journalistically cheap, easy to write, often unregulated, and prey on the deep fears and prejudices that readers will already have. This is nothing new. In Chomsky’s 1988 theory, there are five different types of news: ownership; funding; sourcing; criticism; anti-communism. After 2001, Chomsky updated the fifth to ‘the War on Terror’.

To test this out, and for a bit of food for thought, take a look at the following headlines, excerpts from newspaper articles and quotes by journalists and politicians. Can you guess which are antiSemitic from 1930s Germany, anti-Irish from 1990s England, anti-communist from cold war America, or anti-Muslim from the present day?

1) We Must Drive Them Out
2) [This country] Has Nuclear Bombs
3) Wherever [these people] walk, they will leave a trail of destruction
4) The Rape of Europe by [this group of people]
5) “They have made use of the weapon which most readily conquers reason: terror and violence”
6) “These people need to be wiped off of the face of the Earth”
7) No surrender! Smash the [this group of people]
8) Tens of thousands of [them] will be coming into our country
9) “Some of the absolute hatred is coming from [these people]. Their hatred is incredible. It’s embedded. The hatred is beyond belief. The hatred is greater than anybody understands.”
10) We Must Ban [these people, from our country]

What shifts the parameters of Chomsky’s argument is the reality of modern day mass media consumption. In the revised version of Manufacturing Consent he notes that Twitter, RSS feeds, ‘likes’, vines etc are successful social media channels because they support our need for the immediacy of information, and encourage our enjoyment of short, sharp pieces of information. This teaches the younger generation to skim read in lieu of holding their attention to a topic – and therefore be satisfied with headlines and soundbites like the ones above.

Also, in case you were wondering where the previous headlines came from, these are the original and if you look closely, you’ll see how we have barely learned from history.

1) McCarthyist headline from 1956
2) “Russia has a Nuclear Bomb” – Headline from 1950s
3) Antisemitic poster from 1930s Germany
4) “The Islamic Rape of Europe” Polish headline, 2016
5) Quote from Mein Kampf, Chapter II
6) Daily Mail article excerpt, 2016
7) No Surrender! Smash the Irish! England, 1990s
8) “Tens of thousands of Muslim immigrants will be coming into our country” – Ted Cruz, 2015
9) “Some of the absolute hatred is coming from Muslims. Their hatred is incredible. It’s embedded. The hatred is beyond belief. The hatred is greater than anybody understands.” – Donald Trump, 2016.
10) “We must ban Muslim Immigrants from Britain” – Daily Mail headline, 2015

Written by Rabya Mughal

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Rabya Mughal is a teacher living in London. She is passionate about politics, education, philosophy and design.