Frye on the News Media: “The basis of what we now call propaganda”

Murdoch’s decades-long hold on British politics, including the prime minister’s office

With the News Corp. scandal continuing to break, here’s Frye in “The Renaissance of Books” providing some perspective of what abusers of the news media like Rupert Murdoch actually represent:

The function of the news media is to present a verbal imitation of this continuum [i.e. the ongoing cycles of everyday life], and television is the most efficient of all the media at doing so. Ritual is one means of keeping the continuum punctuated: we dramatize the stages when we join it or make a major change in relation to it. News, in the stricter sense breaks into the continuum, which is why so much news consists of disaster, and why all disaster is news. But besides the images of breaking, air crashes and the like, there are images of confrontation. Intellectual news, or the the discussion of “issues,” consists very largely of a polarizing of attitudes, for and against, which is why news media are so fascinated by the conception of the “controversial.” In the “issue” the continuum appears to stop for an instant and focus on a simultaneous vertical contrasting of opposed attitudes.

Television is consequently most effective when it presents such rituals as public weddings and funerals, or the ritualized confrontation of football and hockey games, and it presents “issues” in the same polarizing way. Such direct pro-and-con opposition, with all neutral or middle ground eliminated, is also what the revolutionary aims at: the revolutionary strives for situations in which everyone opposed to the group can be equally characterized as “counter-revolutionary” . . .

This combination of ritual, game, and polarized issue brings into television a quality of literary imitation, a “story line” with a beginning, a prescribed direction, and a conclusion. The three elements are most completely merged in the great public trial or investigative scenes, where ritual, game, and the polarizing dialectic of legal prosecution and defence are most fully employed. . .

By itself, of course, this imitation of literature by the news media could become a very sinister tendency. There is no difference between Watergate and the Stalin purge trials of the 1930s so far as the genre being employed is concerned. Besides, moral issues are not related to literature in the same way that they are related to actual life. We can ask an actor to put on a good show, not to tell the truth, and when, say a senator remarks approvingly that the president was very “believable” in his last interview, he reflects such a confusion of standards. Such a confusion returns us to the Machiavellian principle of pure appearance, the basis of what we now call propaganda. It is not important that the prince should be virtuous, it is important only that he should seem so. (CW 11, 148-50)

Rupert Murdoch, more than any other figure over the last thirty years, has actively degraded what Frye calls the “story line” of the news. The Republicans, in fact, having learned the lesson from “consultants” like Frank Luntz, speak of “taking control of the narrative” when roiling up an already deeply distressed political discourse. Murdoch, in Frye’s words, has pushed the “polarizing of attitudes” to the extreme, putting controversy for its own sake before anything else. He has turned news into demoralizing rounds of some-say-this and some-say-that, as though the conflict itself, devoid of context or even facts, is what really matters. The wretched conglomeration of all of these elements can be found in Murdoch-owned entities like Fox News.

Murdoch’s example also confirms that many who call themselves “conservatives” are no such thing. They are, again in Frye’s words, “revolutionaries” perpetually on the scent of “counter-revolutionaries.” Disagreement with or deviation from the party line as dictated by Murdoch, the Republicans and others like them has been formulated as various grades of “treason” for some time. The revolution they are conducting is an openly corporatist one that undermines democracy and further indulges an insular plutocratic elite already in possession of as much wealth as it can stuff into off-shore bank accounts. Murdoch is therefore a propagandist for what Frye characterizes elsewhere as the fascism inherent in the oligarchic tendencies of democracy. The father of modern fascism, Benito Mussolini, defined it as “a merger of state and corporate power.” Now that we know just how deeply Murdoch has sunk his nails into British politics and governance, including the prime minister’s office all the way back to Margaret Thatcher, this kind of assertion no longer seems over-heated.

Murdoch is not yet gone and he won’t be forgotten any time soon. The poison he’s mainlined into the body politic for a generation has left some of its limbs gangrenous and the cognitive parts of it confused. But the determination of a single independent news organization like the Guardian demonstrates how little remedy is required. At the very least, it is a reminder that Murdoch and everything he’s inflicted upon us could, like the News of the World, be swept away tomorrow if we really wanted them gone.

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