The ‘New Media’: from freelancer to mercenary

The following talk by journalist Taryn Fivek was given at a May 20 Workers World forum in New York City on “Black lives matter, Trans lives matter, USA out of everywhere!”

Human beings are extremely sensitive to propaganda. It’s how we make sense of the world around us — by receiving input from other people. If I’m having a hallucination that there’s a pink elephant hanging out here in the back of the room, the only way I’ll be talked down is when everyone else confirms to me that there is, indeed, no pink elephant in the room. Sure, we can run tests, but in general this is how we orient our reality, by interacting and consulting with others, by receiving information.

With this input comes the ideology of the ruling class. It’s really clear what that is in this country. You see it every waking moment of every day on the subway, on the internet, on television, just walking down the street: white supremacy, misogyny, LGBTQ phobia, xenophobia, dehumanization, shame, war.

As Marxists, we understand that everything happens for a reason. So why have the bourgeois media been so totally complicit, so criminally negligent about the war against our class both at home and abroad in recent times?

First, we should understand that when we speak about the media, we are not speaking of a single entity or concept. We are speaking about hundreds of thousands of people worldwide who depend on the media for their livelihood. Whether they are working in sales or, rarely, reporting from the front line, they need to eat and, well, it doesn’t hurt that everyone wants to be famous nowadays.

But my point is that just as there were many who worked in the Detroit car industry, it was the bosses who cashed in on selling out the workers. A sliver of superrich, of superpowerful capitalists, made the decision for the rest of us. They were driven by what always drives them, the need to maximize profit.

When the internet came around, print media got scared. When high-speed internet arrived, television media got scared. Raise your hand here if you own a TV. OK. Raise your hand if you bought a magazine in the last week. My point.

So these huge conglomerates got scared and have been scampering ever since to try and figure out a way not to close shop. But the news media will never go away. They are a de facto arm of the government, what’s called the fourth estate. The state and the capitalists need the media to jam all this racist, sexist, warmongering bullshit down our throats so that we’ll keep working, keep spending, keep living life in fear and anxiety.

But the media are supposed to be privately owned. Sure, we have a few public entities rolling around out there, but in general they are supposed to be independent or whatever. People turn up their noses at the idea of “state-run media” but it doesn’t really matter all that much anymore, as no media are independent.

In 2012, a major news magazine was facing serious financial ruin. This publication has been around since 1843. It’s a seriously important organ for ruling class ideology, even if it’s not widely read. But, after the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the creation of the internet, even they were scrambling. Enter content marketing.

The Economist was saved by a huge, multimillion dollar cash infusion from both a major multinational and a government from the Gulf part of the Middle East. In return, they would write stories that their patrons asked for (albeit with disclaimers), write and deliver white papers, even internships.

The only thing is that The Economist doesn’t use bylines. So who can be sure if the person writing the story for pay is the same one who’s supposed to be doing journalism on the same subject? What does it matter even? You’ll certainly feel the pressure either way.

So the media have always taken money from sponsors who run ads, but this was different.

I’d like to bring up another aspect here: the freelancer.

With the advent of “New Media,” layoffs ensued, bureaus closed and suddenly a salaried position turned into a $200-a-pop deal, if that. Major publications were even trying to not pay a dime to journalists. And I ask you, how are you supposed to do good, honest investigative journalism on $200 a story?

Enter the PR [public relations] firms.

Role of White Helmets

White Helmets are a great example and can help us segue into our main subject here.

Shortly after the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947, the U.S. Congress passed what was called the Smith-Mundt Act, which outlined what the U.S. government was allowed to do in terms of directly propagandizing to people who live in the United States. In 2013, it was repealed. Months later, the Syria campaign was set up in London, run by a PR firm in New York. It targeted young, Occupy-era journalists who were eager to make more than $200 writing a story. Suddenly, they had plane tickets across the world, exclusive access to people who, the PR firm said, could give them the real story.

Anecdotally, a journalist I know told me of another journalist who had been approached and offered more than $10,000 per month to move to Turkey and write PR for the U.S.-backed “Free Syrian Army.” There are no editors to make them disclose this information. There are no funding inquiries that these PR firms are required to answer.

If you’re a freelance journalist, you suddenly find yourself competing in a very different job market. Now you’re a mercenary, and you better stay on the boss’s good side to keep getting paid. While journalists are supposed to ask questions, suddenly you’d better not, to keep your job.

Last December, before Barack Obama left office, he repealed the rest of the Smith-Mundt Act.

What we have now are more and more journalists working in an intense state of anxiety and fear. They are either freelance, in which case they have to constantly appear marketable while firing off tweets and Facebook updates, making sure they appeal to potential clients. Or, they are institutional and watching freelancers face life in prison for doing their jobs, like on January 20 [the inauguration of Trump] in D.C., making them ever more eager to please their bosses, who are now dependent on what amounts to block grants from governments and major corporations.

This is a serious challenge that needs to be tackled: how to spread socialism in this day and age, when journalists are too terrified to report the truth and their editors focus more on money than integrity? Social media represent a dead end, unfortunately, as we simply create all these feedback loops. We are preaching to the choir when what we need are new audiences. We need to reach out to the people somehow, sidesteping this craven bourgeois media, new or not.

Workers World newspaper is more important than ever, as is “in your face” sort of propaganda. Hopefully, that’s what we’ll be discussing in the next section of our meeting. There’s a need to agitate within people’s field of vision. We need to get people off of their phones, where the science of getting and holding their attention has pushed people deeper into isolation and fear, and we need them to start paying attention to what real socialism looks like.