The Censorship Industrial Complex is the Revolt of the Elites
The political establishment has constructed a new apparatus of control
In 2002, the Bush administration, desperate to sell its planned invasion of Iraq to the American public, turned to the mainstream media. Every evening on Fox News, White House officials invoked Hitler allusions and darkly insinuated fictitious ties between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
Fox, however, allowed them to preach only to the converted. To forge a working national consensus, they had to reach doves as well as hawks.
So the Bush administration zeroed in on The New York Times. With reporter Judith Miller, they hit pay dirt. With breathless headlines such as “HUSSEIN INTENSIFIES QUEST FOR A-BOMB PARTS, Miller stamped the President’s mythmaking about aluminum tubes, mobile weapons labs, and Weapons of Mass Destruction with the imprimatur of her illustrious employer. So critical was her reporting to the spinning of American aggression as self-defense that it’s conceivable that the White House’s entire drive to war may have failed without it.
By the time Miller’s stories were exposed as so much laundered propaganda, they had served their purpose: American soldiers were already occupying Iraq.
The invasion of Iraq marked the last time the political elite would wield the power to mobilize an entire nation merely by manipulating a handful of journalistic elites. The era of mass media, during which just a dozen or so giant print and broadcast corporations enjoyed hegemonic control over the national public discourse, lasted about eighty years, beginning roughly a century ago, when modern television was born. The incestuous relationship between the government and the media during those decades was depicted in Steven Spielberg’s movie The Post, in which Defense Secretary Robert McNamara tries and fails to leverage his cozy relationship with Washington Post editor Katherine Graham to compel the media to fall in line with the government’s suppression of the Pentagon Papers. The story is heroic because it’s so unusual; Graham’s decision was the exception that proved the rule.
That era ended two decades ago, when social media networks emerged. About a year after the invasion of Iraq, Facebook was founded. The year after that YouTube was born; the following year came Twitter. With the cheap, targeted advertising their technology enabled, the new tech platforms destroyed the business model of the mass media. Unable to compete for advertisers, the media mammoths of the twentieth century floundered. The entire industry was thrown into crisis, bleeding revenue and laying off staff.
At the same time, social media began sorting news consumers into hyper-polarized digital silos, shattering the broad political center that the traditional media catered to and relied upon to sell advertisements to a mass audience. The New York Times, CNN, and even Fox News saw their broad national readerships and viewerships contract into smaller and evermore partisan echo chambers, even as ordinary people began to forge horizontal connections with one another online, exchanging information laterally. The public began generating their own, autonomous narratives about world events, typically cobbled together eclectically from reports by various news outlets, but beholden to none of them in particular. The power to shape the national narrative devolved downward, becoming increasingly fractured in the process.
This anarchic new media ecosystem has defined the public discourse ever since. For both elected politicians and the administrative state, it has constituted a perennial crisis. Bureaucracies manage populations by striking bargains with leaders; you can’t negotiate with a mob, much less a thousand of them. From the perspective of the state, this new information landscape was essentially ungovernable. An entire regime of social control, helmed by the most powerful politicians in the country in partnership with the titans of the media industry, was felled. In the age of social media that the new platforms jump-started, the state’s ability to control world events by playing reporters like Judith Miller like pawns on a chess board withered away, as the influence of the media corporations they worked for dissipated.
The political elite stumbled through this bedlam for two decades. But over that time, new gatekeepers emerged to replace those that had faded away with the decline of the mass media. The state created a new apparatus of control over the public discourse, one whose existence most Americans are still oblivious to.
THE REVOLT OF THE PUBLIC