Media: The Lying Machine
By Satya Sagar
I have finally managed to do it ! Quit the habit ! The horrible,
horrible habit of reading the newspaper and watching news on
television EVERY DAY !
Let me quickly tell you the results of giving up my addiction. In
just two months of ignoring the daily news I breathe better, sleep
better, eat better and can think clearly for the first time in many
years. Kicking the daily media dose, I can assure you, is like
getting over the mother of all modern bad habits.
Of course the disgusting mainstream media coverage of the invasion
of Iraq with its (ahem!) bedded journalists, hype and lies has got a
lot to do with my decision to quit the habit. But that is not the
There is something else about the way the modern media has taken
over my mind so completely that I am revolting against. The daily
involuntary switching on of television news channels. The daily rush
to the gate to pick up my morning newspaper. The frantic surfing of
internet websites in search of those sensational headlines.
Sorry, I think there is something terribly wrong with the velocity
at which all this is happening. In fact, the more I think about it
the more I am convinced that if we are to get to the bottom of why
the MEDIA SUCKS we should figure out the very physics of wind, heat
and matter in motion that combine in deadly fashion to produce this
There is something structurally flawed with the modern media
industry. So it is just not enough anymore to complain about the
media's hypocrisy or deceit without seeing the roots of such
behavior in almost every other aspect of our world too.
But first let us take a look first at the usual reasons why the
media machine peddles sensational half-truths and sly lies much of
the time. Nothing less than outright lies- is what we have been
getting from the media about the US/UK invasion of Iraq all these
days. What is it that makes an average journalist lie for a living?
Let me attempt an answer by telling you about the strategy, related
to me once by a senior Indian bureaucrat, to keep the media lying on
behalf of the establishment. According to him there are three
distinct approaches adopted by those in power to keep the so-
called 'free' press completely pliant.
The first way to deal with a journalist getting close to the truth
is to bribe him/her with money, favors of different kinds, promises
of plum posts etc., Many journalists, underpaid as they are in the
developing world, succumb to the temptations of such baksheesh.
In a profession where information is the main commodity being
marketed, the more sophisticated journalists routinely get bribed
with 'scoops' and other special bits of 'insider' information from
their sources. While these journalists pretend that they are the
ones who are 'cultivating' their sources, it is very often the
clever source who is 'planting' stories and reaping an
entire 'harvest' of lies through the scribe.
If the journalist persists with telling the truth the second tried
and tested method used to silence him/her is to physically threaten
him/her or actually beaten up. Again in the developing world this
happens only too often with many journalists losing their lives
every year. And this is the same tactic that was adopted by the US
coalition forces in Baghdad when they deliberately bombed the Al
Jazeera channel's offices killing their correspondent or when they
shot journalists holed up in the Palestine hotel during the recent
invasion of Iraq. Assassination was once considered the most extreme
form of censorship but in our age it is evidently becoming the
The third and apparently most effective method to get a journalist
to lie on your behalf is to pump their egos and lavish them with
praise in public. That, said the bureaucrat, will keep the scribe
completely servile to your every command for nothing really moves
them more than the delusion that they are somehow very important to
those in power!!
But moving beyond the level of mere individual hacks, an even bigger
obstacle to the profession's ability to tell the truth is the media
establishment itself, which imposes a huge amount of censorship on
its employees mostly for political or corporate reasons.
It could be a media house trying to win concessions and contracts
from the government that kills a piece of news that may adversely
affect its relations with the ruling regime. Or it could be a large
corporate house that threatens the media owners with withdrawal of
lucrative advertising if it went ahead with the broadcast of
Given the overwhelming dependence of the media industry on
advertising revenues such factors can have a devastating influence
on the work of ordinary journalists employed by these media houses.
Advertising, which mostly consists of promoting half-truths and lies
about commercial products anyway, cannot really be expected to
support the telling of truth about anything anywhere.
And what purpose do all these lies serve ? To keep the asses among
the masses under perpetual CONTROL of course. For when we open the
daily newspaper it is not we who read the news but the newspaper
that barks out orders to our subconscious. Think this, think that,
vote X, vote Y, you little man !
When you switch on a 24 hour news channel it gets worse. Much worse.
For the images flickering at high frequency on your television
screen have the power of sheer hypnosis. While you may think you are
the one pressing all the buttons the sad truth is that you are the
one being controlled remotely. Buy, buy, buy, buy, you bozo ! says
the television screen to you relentlessly. And after some time you
say bye, bye, bye, bye to your own consciousness for the rest of the
day (and the next morning it starts all over again).
Have I become a complete cynic after so many years in the
profession? A self-hating hack ? A Judas in the media pack ? Nothing
of that sort please, for I would also defend journalists from being
specially singled out for criticism.
For those members of the public who believe that most journalists
are worthless creatures, who don't have the guts to tell the truth
and constantly suck-up to their political and corporate masters - I
will say you are damn right. But I will also add however that the
proportion of such journalists in the profession is not very
different from the general ratio of worthless creatures in the
society they come from.
After all is this not what most people do in their daily lives in
most professions. Bury the few truths they possess, suppress their
nobler instincts, say YES to every demand their bosses make and yet
come out of it all with a 'clean conscience'? So why should the
media be any different?
Of course, there are those numerous people of courage and character
who stand up for their and other people's rights, who are kind and
human and generous and do many wonderful things. But the journalist
profession too has those who would do honor to the ideals of
journalism. Braving bombs, bribes and barbs of every kind- committed
to telling the unvarnished truth with complete honesty.
If many members of the public believe that the media, which is
supposed to be the fourth pillar of popular democracy has become in
fact the fifth column of corporate autocracy I will say you are bang
on target. I will again however caution that this has become
possible only because as societies we have given up the citizen's
right and indeed responsibility to both inform others and be
informed entirely to the media industry.
Not unlike the way we have given up the task of looking after our
health to the medical industry, our sense of justice and injustice
to the legal industry, the education of our children to the
education industry, the governance of our societies to both
governments and industry. If the media in our times has become
powerful beyond purpose or proportion it is WE THE PEOPLE who are to
blame. So stop complaining.
To really understand the dubious dynamics of the modern media
industry we need to look beyond the fallibilities of individual
journalists and even the 'usual suspects' of corporate control over
and political pressure on the media industry. I feel we need to
understand some of the industry's deeper structural problems to
figure out what is going so wrong. In our era of consumerist
capitalism in many ways we may need to take a closer look at the
idea of modern INDUSTRY itself.
It is my conclusion that the media lies not just due to some
slavish, unscrupulous journalists and editors or even their evil,
corrupt corporate masters but because the media industrial complex,
as it has evolved today, is meant for nothing else except- LYING.
When the media lies it is only doing its job. Like shoe factories
produce shoes, car factories produce cars and bomb factories produce
bombs- the entire media factory is structured to do nothing else but
produce lies- daily, 24 hours a day. The media industry as a whole
is a LYING MACHINE (if a few gems of truth drop from your daily
newspaper consider this a bait for you to swallow the rest of the
Here are some aspects of the modern 'industrial' condition which
forces the media to lie all the time and also allows the daily
newspaper and 24 hour news channels to have so much control over our
lives. These are:
The Time is Money Trap: For long, working as a reporter for several
national dailies and television channels in India and later in
Thailand I have felt severely oppressed by the very idea of 'daily
news'. I understand the need for news per se- to add one more source
of information that the public can access. Whether the 'news' is
good, bad or ugly is a different issue but there can be a certain
value to having a system of public information in any society.
But a newspaper every day ? Why ? What is so 'daily' about news,
which like life itself is so unpredictable and random ? Why not
print a fat newspaper on days when there is lots of 'news' and take
a vacation on days there is none ? Who made the law that says a
newspaper has to be brought out every day and that reporters like me
have to 'file' copy every damn day ? (And if we can't find anything
worthwhile to say 'invent' copy to fill up the daily newsprint.)
The same goes for 24 hour television news channels. Who needs news
24 hours a day except complete lunatics? What else is 24 hours a day
in our lives ? Should we allow the yak-yak-yak-yak of the daily news
compete with the very beating of our hearts and the natural rhythms
of our respiratory systems ? Why have we allowed these maniacal
peddlers of news to take over our lives, our minds and spray-paint
our innermost thoughts ?
This oppressive regularity with which the modern media churns out
its products I believe is part of the larger capitalist syndrome
that seeks to convert all human time into money. The Capitalist
Clock (together with uninterrupted power supplies that turn our
nights into day) has carried out a mechanical coup in most
industrial societies. It has taken over our lives completely. And
who does this really benefit ?
The factory owners, the bankers and the bosses of every kind of
course who need slaves to work round the CLOCK- 24 hours a day. The
newspaper and television industry follows the same logic of 24 hours
of non-stop work for its employees irrespective of the context and
unmindful of the consequences for anybody. 24 hours of the cash
register ringing in the moolah from the advertising industry is all
that they want. Time for the media, like all other industries, is
money- a concept which ironically leaves them little 'time' to tell
the truth !
The Human Zoo: In his celebrated book 'The Human Zoo' Desmond Morris
outlined brilliantly what urbanization had rendered a large
proportion of humanity into. Animals trapped in cages of steel and
concrete, shackled by lack of space- both material and spiritual.
Articulate animals either chattering away nervously to drive away
boredom or listening to others chat away nervously in TV talk shows
and 24 hour news channels. Millions of lonely animals, marching
lockstep to the commands of remote masters- willing to suspend their
own thinking, willing to kill and die- rather than face their
loneliness together, collectively, or even in groups of two and ten.
It is in this context that the media industry thrives. By providing
the non-stop flow of 'analysis', 'information', 'entertainment' to
FILL UP our empty souls, help us lighten the burden of TIME weighing
heavily on our frail clockwork consciousness. To create spectacles
that tickles our tired brains. Tickle us to death if need be.
And as the news media today competes with the movie and
entertainment industries for the hearts and minds of audiences it
has steadily adopted the same techniques, the same colour and gloss.
The glamorous newscaster on your television screen today could well
be the action hero of a Hollywood or Bollywood flick tomorrow. And
because of the intensity of this competition between the two
industries, the news they show you is usually as fictitious too. All
bright, shining LIES.
Cerebral Uber Alles: Is that not the dictum that decides who
dominates our societies - the Intellect Above All? Those who think,
plot, plan, speculate, theorize, manipulate ruling over those who
work with their hands, shed blood, sweat and tears - feet planted on
mother Earth? Ok, I know the priests with their magic and tricks in
ancient Egypt too got away with daylight robbery but I don't think
the political and economic domination of the 'informed' and
the 'informers' over the 'uninformed' has ever been to the extent
that we witness in our industrial/post-industrial societies.
The internet boom during the nineties was one reflection of the way
information had suddenly become the key to all riches. Is it a
coincidence today that the richest man in the world for quite some
years now is someone who deals with 'software'. Mr Bill Gates - who
holds the keys to the gates of information and bills you to open
them for a few hours before the next version of the gate (or window)
I am convinced that the power of the media industry in our societies
comes similarly from its control over the gates of public
information of all kinds from politics to professional crime (same
difference ?). It is because of this skewed distribution of
material/monetary resources in favor of those who 'think' and those
who 'inform' that the media industry commands the great influence
that it does.
(Who the hell was that enlightenment philosopher who claimed ' I
think therefore I exist'. A swift kick on the hypotenuse could have
sorted out his existential puzzle quite certainly besides forcing
him to think about things more tangible, and less tangential.)
Hmmm, so what are the alternatives I have to offer? Is this going to
be a random rant against all modern 'civilization' as we know it?
Not entirely, I would say. There are plenty of things one can do to
subvert the logic of modern media and help create a genuinely
alternative way of informing ourselves and others.
To begin with one can stop reading the 'daily' newspaper or
watching '24 hour' news channels. Secondly get more active in
putting together information, analysis on your own and distributing
it to your networks.
But for the larger and long term battle to rescue the media from the
iron grip of INDUSTRY here are a few things that we need to get
Take back your Time: To begin with we need to challenge the
obsession of modern industrial capitalism with making us work longer
and longer hours for less and less benefit. The massive struggles by
trade unions in Germany, France, Italy and elsewhere to reduce the
number of weekly working hours are a welcome step forward. The next
step is to distribute the burden of all work equally on a global
scale so that no one set of individuals get to do all the 'thinking'
while the rest of us spend our lives slogging our butts off. It is
the hyper mind and not the idle mind that is the devil's workshop.
An idle mind is the beginning of you, me and everyone getting a
life. Babies have idle minds too and it is only in the feverish
imagination of those who make Hollywood horror movies that babies
Once the Capitalist Clock is thrown out of our lives or suitably
bashed up to match human needs the media industry will have to
adjust accordingly anyway. No more journalists (like other
employees) slaving 'round-the-clock' for their capitalist masters.(I
can't guarantee, of course, that we hacks will actually stop lying
but at least the frequency with which our lies hit the reader's face
will diminish considerably.)
Change your Cities: I am actually tempted to say 'Close down the
cities!' Or at least dismantle them and spread out the populations
drastically. Bring back some community life into your alienated
Also, as far as I have seen most Asian cities are simply unlivable
because of the way their sheer concentration of resources sucks in
large rural populations that finally end up in their urban slums.
So, stop the looting of the countryside and give back the resources
already taken from the rural poor. Reverse the terms of trade
between industry and agriculture. Share national revenues more
equitably between the town and the village.
Boy, if that happens anytime I bet not too many people will either
have the 'time' or the inclination to watch 24 hour news channels or
read the daily newspaper. Try reading the Wall Street Journal while
feeding a cow. The cow will love the Journal surely. And the manure
will be very fertile too.
Recover your Reality: It is quite widely recognized that one of the
most dangerous aspects of the so called 'information age' we live in
is the replacement of our sensual understanding of the world by '
virtual reality'. So the military honcho firing his Cruise missile
at a Baghdad suburb thinks he is playing a video game with no
physical consequences for anybody. Or the ideologue with his bizarre
blueprint for a new 'century' goes about the business of creating an
Empire irrespective of its costs in terms of flesh and blood human
If we restore the balance between the physical and the cerebral in
our world, the media industry which does nothing else except
manufacture `reality' for us to consume, will naturally lose its
ability to dominate our lives.
One way to cure this modern disease is to seriously take up the old
debate about how the rewards of any enterprise should be divided
between the so called 'manual' and 'mental' workers. Since the mind
and body are normally inseparable- except while watching 24 hour
television- I would vote for sharing all profits 50-50. Mental
workers who think they deserve better because they are the ones with
all the 'ideas' are recommended to try out living in a concentration
camp. The camps are supposed to be very good for one's concentration.
Ha ! Now that I have just managed to talk myself out of a livelihood-
anyone cares for some curry and Hindi music ?
Satya Sagar is a journalist based in Thailand. He can be reached at
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