Walter van Rossum on truth in the media, why journalists are often fire accelerators and adhere to current language regulations, norms and conventions
Noam Chomsky, the most cited intellectual in the world, has worked out and proven in numerous publications that the media in bourgeois democracies also and above all have the task of "controlling the mind" of the citizens. This function of the media is becoming evident for ever larger sections of the population, primarily due to the increase in wars and social segregation. They call the media the "lying press", insert program complaints and "tinker" their information more and more from the few independent media and on the net.
But how is "our" media actually doing? Which processes and effects are emerging? And is the word "lying press" stupid criticism and therefore taboo? Walter van Rossum explains this in an interview with Jens Wernicke for the book "Do the media lie? Propaganda, pack journalism and the struggle for public opinion". An excerpt from the book that has just been published by Westend Verlag.
Mr. van Rossum, you are an "insider" and a media critic at the same time: You have written for WDR, Deutschlandfunk, for "Zeit", "FAZ", "FR", "Freitag" and others and have also been for your sharp criticism for a long time known for media brainwashing through formats such as the "Tagesschau" or, at the time, "Sabine Christiansen". So I want to get on with it as quickly as possible: Are you saying, are the media lying or not?
Walter van Rossum: I want to explain the problem with a simple example: Let us imagine the fictitious report of a fictitious "daily show" for a real event. In May 1943, for example, the following message could have been issued: "Yesterday, Polish Jews attacked members of the Wehrmacht and members of the German administration in Warsaw. Several German soldiers were injured in the process. The 7,000 rebels in the Jewish quarter of Warsaw were immediately taken under strict security precautions by the Gestapo transported to the Auschwitz prison camp. "
What would be "untrue" about this message? Without any element of this report being completely wrong, this message produces - from today's perspective - a distortion of the context: What is the Gestapo doing in Warsaw? Wasn't the "Jewish Quarter" a ghetto into which thousands of Jews had been locked up in order to leave them to certain starvation? And after all, Auschwitz was not only a German prison camp in Poland, but above all the largest German death camp.
This example could spell out the whole problem of media disinformation. It would be very easy to show how the majority of reports today make connections in exactly the same way. This is actually a truism. But nothing seems more agonizing for journalists than thinking about the basics of their trade.
I just quote what Peter Scholl-Latour said shortly before his death in an interview about the current state of our media as such: "If you look at how one-sided the local media, from taz to the world, about the events in the Ukraine report, then you can really report disinformation on a large scale. Something similar has happened and is still taking place with regard to Syria and other trouble spots. " And if you read Scholl-Latour's last book, The Curse of Evil Deed, you will find dozens of places where the man accuses and convicts his own branch of propaganda and brainwashing. He just leaves it open whether the media propaganda comes from his own convictions or whether the journalists themselves have become victims of organized brainwashing. Indeed, that is the question. And one that is not that easy to answer.
But whoever spreads lies spreads lies - isn't it irrelevant whether he does this on purpose or not?
Walter van Rossum: No it is not. Media criticism runs the risk of becoming trivial itself again. "We are the good! And the other the bad guys. That can not be. I can describe very well how reporting on Ukraine, for example, steers the gaze in a certain direction and only represents certain interests. But the trap is that the criticism then pretends to have the "real", the true truth. It doesn't get us any further to sort journalism according to truth and lies. That necessarily ends in dogmatism.
"Mouthpiece for the prevailing consensus among the elites"
Let's just take your introductory example. Was this fictional editor of 1943 lying or not?
Walter van Rossum: He fully adhered to the language regulations of his time and therefore did not even critically inform about their premises and his time, but rather included them in the language regulations. The real message of this message is the language regime. You don't know what "really" happened, but you know how to see this and that - whatever really happened. Anyone who takes their reporting at face value and therefore the truth is subject to massive manipulation, which at least in sum can be called a lie.
So all in all, journalists tend to be more followers than doers of conviction?
Walter van Rossum: Yes, and to come to this conclusion, it is sufficient to take a look at the history of the last two hundred years: mass media have always been part of the game and thus the mouthpiece for the prevailing consensus among the elites. As a rule, they acted as fire accelerators.
And if leading men in the industry still like to proclaim "objectivity", "independence" and "non-partisanship" as the ethos of the guild, then they do not lie directly, but show a terrifying degree of inability to reflect and indirectly mock reality. This is not meant in a polemical way, but rather a description of the current professional profile.
In this sense, journalists cannot be objective and independent at all?
Walter van Rossum: It means yes. But therein lies the problem. The lopsidedness of the branch has a lot to do with the fact that one not only does not insure oneself about the fundamentals of business, but rather that one keeps oneself safe from such considerations in the routines of the media apparatus.
Sounds like you've thought about the business fundamentals yet to be found.
Walter van Rossum: I think this is one of the most exciting tasks of all. I would like to briefly indicate a central point: the self-questioning. Journalists like to pretend they can explain the world. It would be nice if they would at least admit to themselves that they are, or should be, absorbed in the effort of deciphering it. Every handbag thief has the right to a detailed record of his crime. However, when a poison gas attack occurs in the almost grotesque turmoil of the Syrian war, our quality journalists have no trouble finding the perpetrator within seconds and pronouncing a verdict. This is the cheapest excitement journalism that has reached truly staggering proportions.
It would also be far more interesting for the audience or readers if they showed which actors on this crazy battlefield would be interested in a poison gas attack. Journalism that could be fascinated by the vagueness of our realities would be far more exciting than fortune tellers, whose coffee grounds are now clearly seen by critically untrained readers and viewers. Investigative processes can and should be more informative than the instant truths derived from lousy "the good and the bad" narratives.
"Coordination with the pack"
Sounds a bit as if they assumed that the media had less manipulative intentions than something like systematic and habitual operational blindness. How can such a "bad journalism" spread and assert itself across the board?
Walter van Rossum: Just think of the opening example: The editor responsible wrote roughly what he saw. In other words: the journalistic pack regularly succumbs to the language rules that it helped to create.
There are the immortal words of the ARD correspondent Udo Lielischkies, who, in response to criticism of the current Ukraine reporting, declared in all seriousness: "Well, it really is that this massive Russian propaganda creates an enemy image that we Western journalists in in fact, tendentiously reporting against Russia, and that is of course complete kokolores. (...) All the correspondents I meet in Moscow, we exchange ideas, namely the Spaniards, the French, the Belgians, the Dutch, the Canadians, we all have a similar perception of what is happening, including in Ukraine, and I just find it difficult to imagine that we will all be caught by an anti-Russian virus as soon as we are sent to Moscow not very credible. "1 So it can only be the others who have been infected by a virus - from Russian propaganda.
And in passing, the star journalist also shares the secrets of his type of journalistic truth-finding: coordination with the pack. Could one better explain why from Helsinki to Madrid, from Dublin to Athens, variants of the same message can be read everywhere and without gaps? The fact that there can be different readings of events and conditions, yes maybe there must, is out of the question for such an expert in quality journalism.
The joy of the herd saves him having to deal with the mostly meticulous criticism. And of course with the editorial team. They like to have it uniform - what would that look like if there were two opinions in the "Tagesschau" at once? Where would the noble aura of objectivity go? If Udo Lielischkies should have her own view of things, then she would have no chance. And neither does he.
Journalism likes to spread a noble picture of its tasks. It sounds like the journalist gets up in the morning and ponders how he could explain the world. Nonsense! Go to Hamburg and see how such a "Tagesschau" is produced. The production routines swallow almost everything. Language regulations organize the incoming agency reports. Poison gas in Syria? Can only have been Assad. You do not need a journalistically founded author to make such claims. In a sense, they write themselves.
The journalistic mainstream produces pretty much the ideology of the so-called "political center" - and you are now depoliticizing it as the work of a dull conformism ...?
Walter van Rossum: Yes, it is - however, this conformism is not only gloomy, it is downright pedantic. Incidentally, the operating system of our society as such is based on an almost closed conformism - most people do things all day long that they actually don't want to do, and "justify" and justify them to themselves and to others day in and day out. They work in stupid businesses, do nonsense to other people, and everything only flows if everyone follows exactly the codes and rules that one likes to describe as "culture" or "conventions", but which are nothing more than the manifestations of domination … Manifest and internalized ideology that nobody questions anymore and that corresponds to the interests of a few.
In the meantime, modern man has apparently learned that one has to say "yes" to all these constraints, that one has to put oneself at their head in order to be able to carry them out "with conviction" and thus to get ahead.
In contrast to earlier systems of rule, bourgeois people are now positively identified with their own oppression. And that journalism is supposed to be the last bastion of uncontrolled freedom just because it is in some laws seems pretty fantastic.
What would the systemic conditions of this highly political conformism be?
Walter van Rossum: There are quite a few. For example the mentioned production routines. Journalism is a commodity in neoliberally optimized companies. From an economic point of view, the vast majority of journalistic products are packaging for advertising, on which the newspapers and broadcasters live. If the media currency consists of quota and profit, all the talk about quality is just pure ideology. If you will, this is the "lying press" - endless deceit and self-deception about your own business fundamentals.
Another point: up until about twenty years ago there was still a remarkable pluralism in the media public. Together with parliamentary pluralism, this has disappeared more and more. And that leads us to the cardinal sin of real journalism: its alignment with the prevailing political interests and programs. In the course of this development, one should first of all say goodbye to the idea that most journalists even have something like a independent Conception of the course of things - of stubborn not to mention
Such is in no way desired. Using the example of public service, I could show you how to "clear" entire corridors of stubborn journalists. Nobody needs to tell the editor of the new style what to do and what not to do. He knows exactly the border posts within which he can write what he wants. And now he only wants what is wanted.
And I want to mention a third point: the disappearance of media criticism in the last few decades. That is why the uprising of a significant part of the audience caught the makers so unprepared. At the same time as the major upgrade towards a so-called media society, media reflection has almost completely disappeared.
On the part of the professional and critically exhausted intelligence, there was an important keyword here: Niklas Luhmann - phenotype of the new expert intelligence. His treatise "The Reality of Mass Media" was read as an exciting new media theory in the 1990s. Luhmann explains:
"You cannot understand the 'reality of the mass media' if you see their task in providing accurate information about the world and measure their failure, their distortion of reality, their mass manipulation - as if it could be otherwise." In other words: Forget all media criticism, because the function of the mass media consists "in the constant generation and processing of irritation (...) - and neither in the increase of knowledge nor in a socialization or education in the direction of conformity with norms. As a factual effect This circular continuous activity of creating and interpreting irritation through time-bound information (...) gives rise to descriptions of the world and society that modern society uses for orientation within and outside the system of its mass media. "2
A fine example of how systems theory gets rid of reality. And apparently that was exactly the intended effect of this theory. To see the task of the media in providing the masses with material for the production of their worldview is a peculiar abstraction - but it allows one to pretend that the "content" of the material plays no role at all.
Self-alignment and self-submission of journalists
Aren't the journalists themselves jointly responsible for the prevailing situation?
Walter van Rossum: Many people are talking about the media being brought into line again today. I can understand that in a way - that's what it looks like. It is not that simple. How does this synchronization work? And who is switching?
Using a specific example: Why do journalists mess about reporting on Ukraine in such a way that the simple viewer falls out of the TV chair? First of all, we have the already mentioned tradition of contempt for Russian interests and realities. In addition: In the last fifteen years certain media have practically brought about a new Cold War - some editors from Spiegel and a few public service correspondents have made lasting contributions.
Add to that this irresistible narrative structure: here the pure democratic world community and there the Asian despot. In truth, however, the situation in Ukraine is extremely complicated and difficult to communicate. A bit like in Russia, an oppositional avant-garde called Pussy Riot was invented without further ado - sexy girls and great action, while the real opposition to Putin mainly consists of much less telegenic people and programs. And what does it matter that hardly any Russian knows Pussy Riot and that the vast majority of the Russian opposition do not want anything to do with this kind of spectacle?
On the other hand, it has also been shown that there is not only a fairly large audience for a certain criticism of Western Ukraine politics, but even prominent political cover. In this respect, I don't think that people would have really been kicked out who would have allowed themselves a slightly different perception and representation of things. But there are certainly no structures that would have rewarded this. And there are hardly any staff left who have their own point of view and time for one.
The typical media person today believes that he can best fulfill the task of objectivity if he adheres to the guidelines of the middle class. What we have to state here is more of a self-alignment and self-submission of the journalists than something like a concerted action.
Or let me put it this way: As a rule, journalists are not people who expose themselves to the tumult of the real and to the risk of their own analysis. In my experience, journalists are more likely to be people who are downright afraid of the dark restlessness of the real and who prefer to adhere to language regulations, norms and conventions that are somehow applicable and who look desperately for salvation in simple and binary explanatory models, i.e. thinking in terms of good versus Evil, friend versus foe, and so on. In this respect: yes, you share responsibility.
And if the people now wake up and get angry and defend themselves and thus begin to question the media more and more clearly: What do you think the best strategy would be?
Walter van Rossum: There is already a clear effect. Pages from Bild to FAZ sometimes have circulation losses of more than ten percent. But all in all, I don't think the old public system can be rehabilitated, I don't even consider it desirable.
Somehow, society is currently going through a media-critical crash course - which was urgently needed after years of media-critical wasteland. We have already learned one thing that I think is great, namely improvising in the media. We are currently tinkering - each in his own way - together the information we need. And in my eyes there is something like a sketch of the media future in it. I find the odds more exciting than complaining about the losses.
Walter van Rossum is an author, media critic and investigative journalist. He studied Romance studies, philosophy and history in Cologne and Paris. He received his doctorate from Cologne University in 1989 with a thesis on Jean-Paul Sartre. Since 1981 he has worked as a freelance writer for WDR, Deutschlandfunk, "Zeit", "Merkur", "FAZ", "FR" and "Freitag". For the WDR he moderated, among other things, the "radio house talks".
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