In his preface to the now-classic Animal Farm, George Orwell described how censorship in the British media worked 80 years ago. There was no need for the blue pencil of the Soviet bureaucrat to make sure newspapers and radio broadcasters stayed on message. The media did that job on their own. They knew what to print and what not to put out on the airwaves. They knew it as if by instinct because they, the reporters and newsroom editors, were all part of the same establishment, had attended the same exclusive schools, subscribed to the same ruling-class values. For more than a century, those men (almost always men) and their relatives had been administering an empire based on a common set of imperialist values. The job of journalists was not to question those values but to preserve them.
The preface Orwell had written for his parable of how political thought is manipulated in a non-totalitarian society was omitted by the publisher of Animal Farm. It was one thing to describe in fictional form a bunch of farmyard animals wresting power from their human overseers and then using it to create a society just as oppressive. It was quite another to demonstrate, as Orwell did in that preface, how Britain accomplished the same goal without an all-powerful Ministry of Truth (as in his novel 1984). Great Britain's educational and class systems did the job on their own without fuss or threat to the average Englishman's faith that freedom of the press and, by extension, freedom of thought were guaranteed.
The media in the US operate in much the same way. "Manufacturing consent" is the term used today for the manipulation of the electorate first successfully executed in the run-up to and during the first world war. Then, in 1921, Walter Lippmann proposed in the clear, well-thought-out prose of Public Opinion (available for free at Gutenberg.org) how to control what the electorate knows and thus how it votes. The main idea of the book is only an intelligent, well-informed elite is capable of ruling the nation to the best advantage of everyone in it. The public relations industry created to support America's entry into the war of 1914-1918 had been tasked with carrying out the objectives argued by Lippmann, using the same PR techniques the Nazis later made such effective use of in their own campaign to put Adolph Hitler in power.
Rule by the privileged is of course hardly a new idea in our country. James Madison and other 18th-century intellectuals who produced the American constitution expressed the same point of view. The mass of the people, those without substance (wealth) and proper education (the wealthy), are not capable of self-governance. The mob, (everyone else), had to be convinced it is in its best interest to let those who have such advantages rule while at the same time preserving an illusion the ruling class are doing so as the people's choice.
But the small farmers and crafts workers who made up the bulk of the population in late 18th-century America were not as stupid as Madison and his colleagues liked to think. Americans had become used to self-rule as residents of independent states in assemblies they elected through a more direct use of the franchise than they would ever know again after the adoption of the Constitution. To convince that majority to ratify the new Constitution of 1789—written by rich white men behind tightly closed doors during a fierce heat wave—the Founders had to marshal a massive public relations campaign of their own. To stump for it, they enlisted the likes of Benjamin Franklin and a reluctant George Washington. Newspapers, along with pamphleteering, the two popular media of the day, were coopted to promote the wisdom of the new law of the land. Despite a flood of such propaganda, the vote to adopt was a close one.
Where does all this leave us today?
The most effective way to see nothing changes that the privileged classes do not want to change is to distract the rest of us from the issues we should be learning about. The way our media avoid telling those truths is by never mentioning them at all or by doing so in such a cursory way as to give the impression they don't require close examination. Or, if there is no getting away from an issue, the way they divert our attention is by highlighting material only peripheral to the underlying issues at hand.
Two recent events that have cried out for in-depth reporting, events deeply rooted not just in the present but embedded in the very structure of our society, were the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent recession of 2008-2009; the other was the killing of an unarmed black man by a Minneapolis police officer, precipitating a national and international protest movement in the summer of 2020. Both events, though each the results of government policy in the short and long terms, were treated in the mainstream media as if they were one-offs: a Great Recession in the same grand but inscrutable category of the Great Depression of the 1930s; and, just another outbreak of perennial black-white unrest, a hangover from the days of slavery and result of race prejudice on the part of the police.
There is no meaning without context, which is just another word for history. I wish I could say publishers and editors know this and deliberately leave out the bigger picture into which any individual event must be seen in order for it to be properly understood, and they do so willfully to misinform their viewers and readers. But my sense is the newsrooms at major broadcast and TV stations and the managing editors at major newspapers, most of them, don't know any more history than their viewers and readers. Besides which their main incentive is always the bottom line. For that reason the sensational trumps the complex every time. The 50-word, 2-minute story reproducing the narrative we are already well-schooled in from films and TV, not to mention our school textbooks, is the media's go-to means of putting any news event into a ready-made frame to satisfy without informing: fast-food for minds with no attention span beyond a few familiar phrases—"brave freedom fighters," "racially motivated"—along with stock images we are familiar with from war movies and police dramas. We've seen those images and scripts so many times, what the media presents as on-the-spot journalism amounts to stock footage that could have been shot 20 or even 50 years ago.
But our newscasts and, worse, what passes for news analysis, are about more than distraction, even distraction under the guise of "breaking news." They're also entertainment, even titillation, with images of the latest mass shooting (one a day on average) presenting us with footage that, like a gruesome roadside accident, is too horrible to look at but too fascinating to turn away from. It's about presenting political horse races as if there is a fundamental and irreconcilable cleavage between our two political parties and their respective electorates. It's about boosting one political ideology over the competition's, though the underlying ideas of either's remain unexposed. Keeping us shouting past one another is a ploy presented as political or even cultural news. It's good propaganda for the political parties and good business for the corporations whose advertisements fund those broadcasts and broadsheets.
What the media are shilling is not just graphic real-time reporting or in-studio pop-test analysis to a particular event, but an artificial context, flimsy and false. At a level a few floors above where those producers, editors, and rank-and-file journalists toil over their computer terminals (though more likely it takes place on a sunny private island nowhere near those cubicles and conference rooms) the men James Madison proclaimed as the only ones fit to govern set our ideological and political agenda.
This isn't conspiracy theory. It's not even a poorly-kept secret. In each generation the defenders of the status quo declare society is going to hell in a handbasket and the younger generation especially must be brought into line. The Democratic and Republican parties each commissioned studies in the '60s and '70s concluding our educational system was not properly "indoctrinating" (their word) American youth. Such is the confidence of the ruling class that they can employ a word like "indoctrinate" without raising an eyebrow, though neither party's report was kept secret. The way the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and the demonstrations during the summer of 2020 were handled are examples of how the manufacturers of consent go about their business, with disastrous results for tens of millions of Americans and billions more around the world.
If there was one person who seemed capable of dealing with the financial meltdown he inherited from the George W. Bush administration, it was Barrack Obama. His award-winning political campaign for the White House (Madison Avenue named it the best advertising of 2008) put the word "change" at the heart of every rally and fund-raising event. But even before he was inaugurated, he named a cabinet to ensure the perpetrators of the scams that had caused the financial crisis would suffer no punishment. Instead, the institutions—whose behavior was blatantly unethical if not illegal—were shored up by trillions of federal dollars. Meanwhile, the victims of those banks who were losing their homes by the millions were left out to dry.
Had those financial institutions been held accountable, they would have passed on their losses to small investors—middle-class holders of investments whose worth is based on the viability of the banks who were so deeply committed to trillions of dollars of all-but-worthless mortgage securities. So, the banks were bailed out, and as a result the stock markets recovered their losses and the 401Ks, pensions, and other institutional investments (retirement funds, state and local government funds, holdings of universities, co-ops, and just about every other public portfolio) along with individual annuities, stocks, and other personal holdings, recovered their value and have since benefited from record highs in the equity markets. Meanwhile, millions of homes went "underwater," i.e., lost the values at which they were bought on the basis of mortgages designed to fail. Black Americans were especially hard hit because they had been specifically targeted by the purveyors of fraudulent home loans. African Americans lost 40 percent of their wealth, Black wealth never amounting to more than five to ten percent of white wealth in the best of times. But as the values of homes whose mortgages had been used as chips in the Great Swindle tanked, the core of the middle class remained intact and does so to this day.
This is not how the Great Recession was presented by the media and the two major political parties. Middle-class viewers and readers would not want to hear they were the ultimate beneficiaries of the largesse being distributed to big banks and other financial institutions that had caused the crisis but were too big, i.e., too important to the middle-class, to be allowed to suffer the consequences. Had those banks been allowed to take massive losses on their balance sheets, millions of middle-class pensions, 401Ks, annuities and insurance policies would have gone down with them. That was not a prospect any politician was willing to entertain, much less demand. Not when those small investors vote in large numbers and contribute to political campaigns all out of proportion to the rest of the population.
Instead of presenting unpleasant facts to their reading and viewing audiences, the media focused instead on the big bad banks whose employees received tens of billions of dollars in year-end bonuses as if they had rescued the American economy instead of bringing it to the edge of disaster.
Much was made at the time among the more liberal or progressive press about the 1 percent holding the vast majority of the nation's wealth. That glaring inequality gave rise to an Occupy Movement, which developed from the takeover of a small park in Manhattan's financial district into a world-wide phenomenon. In 2016 the presidential primaries of the Democratic party were fought largely over the gap between the wealth and privileges claimed by that 1 percent and the 99 percent's lack thereof. What was missing in those stump speeches and therefore not reported in the media was the wealth held by the top 20 percent of the electorate, middle-class wealth protected at the expense of homeowners devastated by the financial collapse. But if the difference between the wealth of Bill Gates and the next 19 percent of the population is like the difference between Mount Everest and an anthill, the gap between that 20 percent and the rest of population is even more significant.
Median income in the United States is $50,000—50 percent of Americans make more than that, 50 percent less. That means roughly half of the nation lives a middle-class life or better and the other half, about 160 million, do not. Nor do the lower 50 percent have savings and investments in any way comparable to those in the upper half, never mind the top 19 percent. The wage earners in the bottom half live on their income with no chance to put money aside for a significant car repair, never mind a down payment on a legitimate mortgage. That's why they were targeted by big finance to buy mortgages that could not be repaid but could be bundled and sold to other financial institutions at a profit and then resold as certified sound investments to still other institutions and even insured as such.
It doesn't take as much as one might think to belong to that top 20 percent. A salary less than $100,000 can put someone in the top 5 percent. That may come as a surprise to those of us who live unknowingly in the uppermost quintile of the population. Middle-class people, even those with second homes who can afford college tuition for their children, do not tend to think of themselves as well-off. They work for a living, at least until retirement age, while rich people live off their investments. The middle class see themselves as supporting the less-fortunate or undeserving poor (depending on one's way of looking at it), not living off them.
Actually, the only thing "middle" about much of the middle class is they are not in the top 1 percent or in the bottom 80 percent. They live with luxuries and common amenities past kings could not dream of enjoying. Castles were cold, drafty places, and queens used heavy doses of scent to keep down their body odors. A trip to the sunny south of Europe meant weeks of traveling on dirt roads in hard carriages. Pepper was a foreign luxury, air-conditioning unheard of.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of our fellow citizens survive on what they earn in low-paying jobs, frequently more than one. In the early 2000s they were offered mortgages that seemed affordable but turned out to be bait-and-switch scams ultimately leaving them with escalating payments well beyond their means and with houses worth much less than the purchase prices. When those mortgages proved next-to-worthless as equities for the investor class—not just billionaires but middle-class wage-earners' pensions and other family investments—they were papered over with a massive bailout by the federal government (with no new taxes for anyone) of the financial institutions that had been growing fat on them, in the process saving the middle-class's bacon as well.
Is that the story you saw and heard on cable news and the print publications? I didn't. What we got were distractions from the media and rhetoric from the politicians, especially from the new young president who, ironically, had scarcely taken the oath of office before being targeted for a takedown by adversaries who insisted he was not constitutionally qualified to serve, was in the employ of Muslim extremists, consorted with domestic terrorists, and by the way, was probably a communist. Meanwhile, that same man was doing his best to please the donors to his political success by offering an agenda that could hardly have been more accommodating. And the banks were laughing... well... all the way to the bank.
The other big issue the media do a good job of keeping from us is the reasons for "racial unrest." The street protests following the killing in the summer or 2020 of an unarmed Black man by a Minneapolis policeman were portrayed in the media as yet another—though this time galvanizing—instance of racial prejudice in our law enforcement agencies.
There was initial near-universal outrage caused by video imagery of said police officer restraining the man he killed by holding his knee on his neck. Americans were in agreement: in this case at least there was blatant police brutality. But it didn't take long before right-wing media began talking about the victim's use of drugs and a possible heart attack. And then there were the demonstrations, which included arson and other violence, making for the kind of footage the media revel in.
Missing from the coverage was any context beyond portraying this homicide as just the most recent and egregious of a series of such killings of unarmed Black men by police. Such a simplification was justifiable for those who see the "Liberal" media as always finding the police at fault, but heinous to those who see law enforcement as consistently hostile to African Americans. Either take, both of which drew a clear line between the radical cores of the two major parties, made the media's job easy. Their purpose became to provide fuel for initial outrage but then to champion whichever ideological side they stood for.
That was the extent of any context or underlying cause put forward to explain why such an event could take place in a major American city in 2020: Police-hate-Blacks versus declaring Black Lives Matter is a liberal delusion full of anarchists and criminals. Nothing else, apart from the mandatory liberal mention of the "legacy of slavery" and Jim Crow or, at best, "systemic racism" without ever defining what is meant by that phrase except as a pervasive prejudice based on skin color.
Willful ignorance of the bigger picture, the essential history never mentioned, is a responsibility we bear individually and as a nation. Just as we in the white middle-class benefited from the bailouts of the banks during the Great Recession of 2008-2009, we are also beneficiaries of the Great Leap Forward that home ownership afforded our parents and grandparents. This is why I can sit and type these words without having to worry how I will get by on just a Social Security check in my old age, while my neighbors in parts of Brooklyn invisible by design to most whites do not have such comfort.
In 1935, the federal government under the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration enacted a law establishing the Federal Housing Administration. Its purpose was to guarantee mortgages made by banks to tens of millions of prospective American homeowners. The new homeowners and their offspring would benefit from those mortgages not just as dwellings but as investments to be used for other purposes and to pass on as wealth to their offspring.
Every American no matter what their ancestry was eligible for those mortgages through the FHA and later the Veterans Administration. Mexicans were eligible. Sicilians were eligible, East Indians were eligible. Only one group was excluded, not by a wink and a nod, not by secret covenant, not in a dark back room but explicitly in broad daylight and in writing as part of the deeds to those houses: Negroes. The federal government mandated Blacks not be allowed access to the greatest economic and social leveling in the history of the nation: home ownership. Meanwhile, access to low-cost middle-class housing made Hungarians, Italians, Finns, Japanese, and just about every other demographic group equal and—by specifically excluding Blacks—White.
This is why I as I type these words, I can call myself white without anyone's eyebrows going up. A hundred years ago I would only have been able to do so by comparison with a Russian or a Portuguese. The federal government's granting of whiteness through those mortgages to anyone not Negro made my parents white in something like the way the Daughters of the American Revolution are white. Those of us who were previously only not-black were baptized whole by the purifying waters of those FHA mortgages.
That act, the stroke of a president's pen (a president who refused to sign a bill making lynching a federal crime), is as responsible not just for the enmity between young black men and the police but for every other social disability black people live under as much if not more so than Jim Crow or 300 years of slavery. Had any other group—Irish, Hungarians, Jews, Mormons—been denied entry into the middle class with all the economic and social benefits it entails, it would be they who were filling up our prisons, dying from gun violence, and living in ghettos more appropriate to the Middle Ages than a 21st-century democracy.
Black wealth—total assets minus total liabilities—today is between 5 percent and 10 percent of white wealth. The crash of 2008-2009 destroyed 40 percent of it in any case. Black income remains about 50 percent of white income. Those two statistics are not the result of private prejudice or even of bank redlining. It's the result of federal law passed a little more than 80 years ago marginalizing or outright expelling African Americans from American society, whose consequences are still with us even after the last of those restrictions were lifted in the 1970s.
The US is more segregated today than it was in 1954 when Brown v. Board of Education was decided. That's not because of legislation keeping Blacks from living in the same neighborhoods as not-Blacks. It's the result of four decades of exclusion from the economic rights afforded other Americans. Those two generations, spanning roughly my parents' and half of my own, are responsible for 12 percent of the population living in sub-standard or unequal housing in segregated neighborhoods that do not enjoy the good schools and other advantages of the mainstream American middle class.
The upshot of this non-legal segregation is not just inner-city poverty. It's the reason for persistently lower test scores, depriving Blacks entry to schools the children of white middle-class Americans attend, denying African Americans not just educational advantages but the essential social and economic networks whites take for granted. It's the reason why throughout this essay I have had to resort to the words "black" or "African American" and "white," words that would have become as antiquated as the word "Negro" if Blacks had been included in the social amnesty granted by the FHA and VA to not-blacks. It's the reason why we see those young men doing perp-walks across our TV screens or lying beneath a nervous cop's smoking gun. Had any other group been designated and denied entry into mainstream economic life the way "Negroes" have been, it would be that group, not African Americans, we would see presented as criminals and victims in our media. It's not Americans of not-Black ancestry we see there because those new-whites were not excluded from entry into the middle class afforded by affordable home ownership. Had the Nazis not been defeated (and not decided on a "Final Solution"), the minorities they discriminated against in their own legal code would today be filling German prisons and the rest would be living in ghettoes and limited to menial jobs at sub-Aryan pay.
These two examples—the protection of middle-class wealth via the bailout of the financial institutions and the denial of economic and social inclusion to African Americans—provide two contexts consistently omitted from our evening newscasts and even from our "liberal" print and electronic media. This is the self-censorship based on ignorance as much as official pressure Orwell was talking about in his introduction to Animal Farm.
Shame, though, like fear, is a paralyzing, not a motivating, emotion. We resist it, insisting we cannot be held accountable for what happened before we were born or without our realizing. But, like someone who has received ill-gotten gains unknowingly, do we not assume a responsibility once we know what we were benefiting from for half a century at others' expense? Ought we not at least include such history in the textbooks we use to teach our children, and shouldn't we be reminded of it by the media we still trust not just to present the news but to contextualize it as well? If so, then maybe, not out of shame or "white guilt," but acting as adults accepting responsibility for injustices we have been party to without intending them, we can talk about how to make amends not just for those who have suffered so much for so long, but for the sake of our own peace of mind.