Another of those alarming clashes between solid democratic values has arisen, as the Supreme Court has agreed to rehear arguments relating to Citizens United v.Federal Election Committee. In the weeks before the 2008 Democratic primaries, Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit group and creator of an uncomplimentary documentary called Hillary: The Movie, had wished to broadcast commercials for its product and show the film in theaters and via video-on-demand services for cable and satellite subscribers. But in 2008, a federal district court held Citizens United to be in violation of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, which prohibits, together with a great many other actions hitherto found inoffensive, the broadcast or transmission of “electioneering communications” underwritten by a corporation 30 days before a presidential primary and 60 days before a general election. Citizens United argues that the ban amounts to a denial of its constitutional right to freedom of speech, and its claim has been supported by the usual advocates of the First Amendment.
Helpful people are suggesting that the Snowe-Jeffords Amendment to McCain-Feingold, which exempts nonprofit corporations in such cases where the words “electioneering communications” are interpreted too broadly, offers the Court an obvious solution. One might assume that the issue was resolved nearly two centuries ago in the Dartmouth College case, in which the Court ruled that corporations enjoy the legal standing of persons. Chief Justice Marshall’s opinion has always seemed to me a bit of a legal stretch, the length of which is perhaps indicated by the present case. Every person, of course, has his opinions, to which he is entitled and which he has the right to express under Anglo-American jurisprudence. But can a corporation really be said to hold opinions? All corporations have agendas, certainly, but it is clearly impossible that they should have ideas according to any reasonable understanding of the word. These agendas are designed to facilitate the sale of their product, which, in the case of media corporations, amounts to the agendas themselves, similar to Citizens United’s Clinton video but infinitely broader. And the reality of a news corporation’s opinion is inversely related to its size. The New York Times Corporation has a personality of sorts, though not a nice one, expressed by its editorial page and by its columnists. But what personality has ABC, NBC, CBS, Time-Warner, or News Corporation? Yet each of these organizations has agendas, however inchoate—as does Citizens United. Why not ban Rupert Murdoch from broadcasting 60 days before a national election? Or Punch Sulzberger from publishing? The standard answer is freedom of the press, the right of free citizens to know what is going on in their country and in the world, the right to debate these things and to hear them debated freely. Only, in the age of the mass media, that is not what national communications—and the corporations that make a profit from them—are really about.
The First Amendment was drafted with hundreds of local newspaper editors, thousands of political pamphleteers, and hundreds of thousands of orators on the village hustings in mind. Doubtless many of these people were would-be demagogues, but all of them wrote or spoke their minds as independent individuals, usually presenting the facts as they had them—“with some stretchers,” as Huck Finn said. But the mass media of today are capable only of lies. Or, to put it another way, they are incapable of speaking, or transmitting, truth, including the so-called facts. (A fact, Chesterton said, has no meaning, though we insist on giving it one.) Even were they inclined to do so, they would not, for the very good reason that they cannot. The media have nothing worthwhile to say because the audience they address is, by definition, a mass audience—that is, in terms of genuine human communication, no audience at all. Both the right and the left, Republicans and Democrats, have been denouncing media bias for generations. Media bias, they claim, prevents the people from having the true facts about public life, and thus makes democracy unworkable. But really the situation is the same no matter which side runs the show. The media represent the massed mental power of the corporate world, political as well as business, and that power is the power of the Prince of Lies. “In this age of democracy,” John Lukacs says, “[the] intrusion of mind into matter tends to increase.” This is because mind intruded into matter becomes matter—in other words, mere product.
But the mass media have their mavericks, objectors will say—Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Pat Buchanan on television, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage on the radio. Yet they, too, are held tightly on an invisible leash by their corporate masters. Beyond that, these anticelebrities have a cultural and political effect that is pernicious. When Tocqueville landed in America in 1831, he, like every European visitor to the United States in that time, was impressed by the extent to which the Americans lived and breathed the politics of their towns, their states, and their country, and also by the freedom and unselfconsciousness of their public debates with one another. You could not encounter an American, Tocqueville noted, without the risk of being promptly buttonholed and held hostage to an interminable political oration. Today, Americans assiduously avoid discussing politics in social situations. Their political conversations occur almost in hiding, among family and like-minded associates, or one-way—nightly, in the privacy of their dens in front of the television set—as Hannity and Beck reinforce their own opinions: remote and unanswerable presences, but reassuring ones. It is all a bit like watching pornography.
The homogenized, disinfected, carefully controlled, and apparently neutral and anodyne content sustained by the mass media, by denying notice to, and access by, minority opinion, quite naturally ensures that dissenters develop progressively hostile, extreme, and unreasonable opinions and ideas, and resort to the relatively unregulated internet to express them. Unlike the official media, the web is a bedlam of raw personal opinion, but here lack of constraint has the same result as overconstraint: suspicion, uncertainty, and resentment. One would need to have lost a leg to frostbite in the Arctic and a nose to skin cancer Down Under to be able to evaluate fairly the facts behind a story in the New York Times about the reality of global warming, just as one would have to have expert knowledge, not only of the engineering principles of high-rise construction and airplane design, but also of what Dick Cheney whispered in George W. Bush’s ear after being booed by Democrats on a trip to New York City, to form a fair opinion regarding the charge that the destruction of the World Trade Center was planned from the beginning and carried out by the President of the United States. The unpleasant truth is that every writer needs an editor, albeit an honest editor who is as well an individual and a human being, not a corporate automaton. Ultimately, unrestrained populist babble is no more reliable than the corporate monotone that pretends to inform us about the shape and content of the modern world we inhabit.
The law of diminishing returns weighs heavily on the progress of technology, including and perhaps especially on the technology that makes mass communication possible. Technology answers to human material wants, and yet, when pressed beyond certain limits, technology, which is a product of our nature, denies, defeats, and corrupts that nature, and therefore human society with it. Thirty years ago, Edward Abbey replied to technocrats who protested that technocratic development can never be selective by countering that, indeed, it must be selective. The mass media corrupt, deform, and destroy the culture of civilization in innumerable ways, but we are speaking of politics here, democratic politics in particular. “I will posit it as a sort of principle,” Jacques Ellul wrote in the 1960’s, conflating political and cultural concerns in a single sentence, “that the predominance of news produces a fundamental political incapacity in the individual, be he a leader or just a citizen.” “The man who lives in the news . . . ,” Ellul added, “is a man without memory.” One thinks of Camus’ description of modern man as a creature who reads the newspapers and fornicates.
In the world of the mass media, journalism and politics meet and meld on equal yet indistinguishable terms, in company with commercial advertising and public relations. In the media, as in modern society as a whole, these things become inseparable, forming a vast conglomerate of associated interests and mutual aims that can hardly be disentangled. In these circumstances, politics becomes unworkable and in fact impossible, as the media manipulate reality, obscuring vital connections and ignoring means and motives, while deciding for themselves what is significant and what is not. A republic (defined by Orestes Brownson as any government that is founded upon a polity) is dependent on its citizens’ connection with reality, which the mass media in America and the rest of the Western world are doing their best to replace in the public mind with a huge, amorphous, social and political myth they could not begin to explain to themselves. The world as it exists is both less bad and much worse than the media present it. The French writer Jean Guéhennoc has suggested that “the ultimate stage of democracy by media will be reached when political debate no longer has any influence on actual decisions but on the collective perception that a people has of itself.” That stage would represent the triumph of ideology in American politics, and the election campaigns of 2008, which ended by putting the first truly ideological president in the White House, suggest that we are closer than we think to realizing that dream.
Meanwhile, the very human problem of the electronic mass media appears humanly insoluble. Short of either a nuclear winter or a global-warming summer that destroys much of the natural world and civilization along with it, the media will dominate what remains of that civilization for as far as the human eye can see. The media are no plot but a technological excrescence that was not designed overall but incrementally, and according to technological and financial, rather than human, logic. There is the problem. Mass communications are destructive because they claim to communicate without doing so, and the reason they cannot communicate is that human communication by an impersonal message multiplied scores of millions of times is impossible. To address everyone at once is to address nobody at all. Christ Himself appears to have limited his audiences to 5,000 people, while saving His choicest teachings for private discussions with the Twelve. And the thing works both ways. Just as a broadcasting company cannot address the masses in any significant way, so the masses, taken as individuals, can receive nothing of significance from this central impersonal source. On the receiving end of the airwaves or fiber-optic transmission line, there is incomprehensibility; on the sending one, the dumb silence of the virtually mute.
It is the sound of a silence that is not golden.