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Apr 2001 / media shoegaze :: email this story to a friend

Let's Pretend
By Ed Bishop

One of the obligations of the media is to expose pretense. Have they? So far the country has done a pretty good job of pretending that George W. Bush won the presidential election. It's probably a necessary pretense, we're told. We certainly wouldn't want to have a constitutional crisis, would we? Thank goodness the U.S. Supreme Court gave Bush legitimacy.

Politicians have also done a good job of pretending that calling someone a racist is actually worse than being a racist. For more than a decade, John Ashcroft fought tirelessly to keep the St. Louis area's public schools segregated. But we all know he fought the good fight in the name of "local control." To say otherwise is an affront to American fair play.

In the same vein, the pretense that the Civil War was not fought in order to keep men, women and children in slavery but rather for the noble cause of state sovereignty is also widespread. The Defenders of the Confederacy often quote Abraham Lincoln's remark that he would keep slavery if he could reunite the country. What they don't mention is that the southern states seceded from the United States because Lincoln had been elected president and leaders in those states were absolutely sure he would try to abolish slavery. Folks can pretend all they want, everyone still knows exactly what it means when they see a Confederate-flag decal on the back window of a pickup truck.

The country has also done a fine job of pretending that a free market is the same thing as democracy. Let the market decide, the pretense goes, and you don't need unions or regulations or Social Security or public schools or government of any kind, as long as you have a giant military to protect our corporations' interests in places like, say, Kuwait. Wall Street will take care of everything else.

Oh, and by the way, if you point out that American CEOs make 475 times what the average worker in their plants makes, then you're advocating class warfare, which is a very undemocratic thing to do. The pretense says that regulating the market will bring us great harm, when in fact the deregulation of markets has bought us the greatest concentration of wealth in the history of the world.

All this pretense is bound to catch up with us eventually. Contrary to the idea that market forces are better than governments at creating social structure, democracy remains a system in which an individual person gets to make choices about how he or she is governed. In order to make good choices, you have to have good, solid, accurate facts. Operating on myths can only take you so far. In the long run, without good information, democracy fails.

Much of this needed information is provided by journalists.

Which brings us to maybe the biggest pretense of all.

National television news networks have done an excellent job of pretending they are not owned by a handful of conglomerates that have downsized, narrowed, softened, slanted and homogenized the news. They pretend that General Electric, which owns NBC, isn't mainly interested in selling fighter jets. They pretend that Disney, which owns ABC, is not mainly interested in its vast entertainment holdings. They pretend that Westinghouse, which owns CBS, isn't mainly interested in paying huge dividends to its shareholders rather than bringing you unadulterated news.

I'm sorry, but a healthy news operation can't be a subsidiary of some huge conglomerate with a corporate agenda that shapes news to increase profits. Journalism might be a business but it's not the public-relations business.

It's up to individual journalists to keep this truth alive. Every reporter, every news director, every editor, every cameraperson must be aware of the corporate pressures that surround them and then find ways to counterbalance those pressures.

They have to remember that capitalism is not democracy, that the Confederate States of America was formed to preserve slavery, that there are still lots of racists out there and that Al Gore, for good or ill, probably won this last election.

And they should remember that there are economic forces that prosper only when facts are hidden and that some of those forces own the desks at which they're sitting.

These are facts that should not be lightly dismissed if we want to continue to govern ourselves.

Ed Bishop is the editor and general manager of the St. Louis Journalism Review.

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