The understanding that the American press, both TV and print media, thrives on negativity is deeply embedded in the culture, so much so that the theme music to the popular 1990s American TV sit-com “Family Matters” began with the couplet:
Its a rare condition this day and age, to read any good news on a newspaper page…
The US media is a for-profit industry. TV outlets depend on advertising revenue, the value of which depends on ratings. The drive of mainstream American TV news networks is to increase ratings, and make profits. Bad news, scandal, and sensationalism is a way to do that.
However, the commercially-owned mainstream American press has always had another role: crafting public opinion. A huge amount of US government funds are devoted to handling and managing the media. The government and the political establishment is deeply worried about making sure that the US public thinks in ways that are conducive to their overall goals and strategies. The CIA’s project mockingbird, and the cozy relationship between reporters, newspaper owners, and various Presidential administrations is the most blatant example. US Military intelligence agencies have sponsored over 1,800 hollywood films. School textbooks in California and Texas have their academic standards set in a highly politicized process.
So, with the understanding that negativity and sensationalism are US media’s focus, while it also serves a political purpose as a public relations wing of the American elite, a recent trend in US mainstream mass media should be quite disturbing, when carefully analyzed.
The US media, long known for its negativity intended to grab ratings, is suddenly printing articles, publishing widely circulated books, and featuring commentators all echoing the message: “Don’t worry, everything is going to be OK.”
This uncharacteristic behavior of American media almost perfectly fits the stereotypical portrayal of government propaganda in supposedly “totalitarian states.” Many dystopian science fiction films feature some dark, high tech police state where the controlled press harps on with the message: “Things are going very well, don’t worry, just obey.”
A dull “everything is OK, calm down” message is suddenly being put forth in an American media that has nothing to gain from it in terms of ratings or newspaper sales. A lengthy article in the Wall Street Journal Weekend Review by Harvard Psychology Professor Steven Pinker criticized both the political left-wing and right-wing in the USA for their pessimism, and argued in terms of “the big picture” across centuries, that the western liberal democratic capitalist system has proved itself to be very successful.
Meanwhile, on February 20th, Public Affairs Books has released a text by Gregg Easterbrook entitled “Its Better Than It Looks.” The book has been widely reviewed by the US press. The text assures us that we need to be more positive in our assessment of world events. National Public Radio described the book’s message: “Between threats of nuclear war, devastating natural disasters, violence and political division at home, it might feel like things are really bad right now. But not necessarily so, says Gregg Easterbrook. He argues that by a lot of important measures, the United States and the world are on an upward trajectory.”
Similar messages have been dancing across American TV screens and radio waves in recent weeks, in a pattern that any careful observer would find peculiar.
A Growing Economic Bubble
Meanwhile, economic news continues to be selectively reported. For example, retail stores across the USA are closing. While US media was previously reporting on the decline of suburban malls and the elimination of retail jobs, suddenly the press is reporting about a rise in retail profits, and hope for the retail sector.
However, all the reports saying that the retail sector is doing well admit that the increase in retail purchases is not taking place at stores, but rather in online sales. The glowing reports about an increase in retail spending all point toward facts that have no bearing on saving the jobs of retail workers, as stores continue to close down. Despite all the talk of a retail boom (on the internet), stores continue to close across the USA, the latest being H&M clothing which closed scores of outlets across the country. Thousands of retail workers have lost their jobs.
Household debt is at record levels, and a lot of purchasing now taking place in the retail market is being done with credit cards. Furthermore, student debt is rising, and with a number of students unable to repay their debt. The student debt markets now face a specter of a potential crash.
Positive numbers on the stock market are certainly a good economic indicator, however, as the stock numbers rise, the population is not seeing an overall rise in its spending power. If Wall Street and Main Street are not rising together, a rise on the stock market simply indicates that the gap between the financialized, fictional Wall Street Casino, and the actual economy is getting larger.
Real economic growth involves the financial sector getting stronger as the population gets richer along with it. The USA hasn’t experienced real, sustainable financial growth since the 1950s. “Jobless Recoveries” and other peculiar anomalies show the extent to which Wall Street has insulated itself from the actual conditions of the American people. The result has been the gap between the financial and the real economy expanding for much longer than in the natural boom-bust cycle, making downturns far larger and dramatic.
Artificial growth only lasts so long, and these bubbles tend to burst. As Trump deregulates Wall Street, and rolls back government oversight of the financial sector, all while lowering taxes on corporations, another financial bubble is emerging.
The tone of the press, echoing the mantra of “everything is alright” is oddly reminiscent of 2007 and 2008 as the US economy was moving toward catastrophe. Desperate attempts by the press, politicians, and others to assure us that the economy is fine, while urging us to keep spending money we do not have, should have millions of Americans shouting “We’ve seen this movie before!”
Blaming Russia for Dissent
The happy song of the US media accompanies another oddly totalitarian trend, the constant blaming of discontent on foreign powers. In the aftermath of the school shooting in Florida, Russia was blamed for allegedly fomenting what was already probably the biggest political gap among the US public, the question of gun ownership and the 2nd Amendment. Russia was accused of both opposing and promoting gun ownership, in order to sew confusion among the public.
Not only is the US media singing a happy song, but it is now demanding, along with elected officials, that everyone else do the same thing. Russia isn’t accused of putting out a particular position, but rather of simply “sewing discord.” The message behind the endless talk of “bots” and “trolls” is that it is disloyalty and treason to hold dissident or negative assessments of the US political or economic situation. Doing so is allegedly aiding the Russians efforts to harm loyalty and confidence. The insinuation is that all nay-saying and complaint can be traced, somehow, back to Moscow. In order to be a good American, one is expected to simply repeat the media’s upbeat and positive message.
Meanwhile, the US media is giving voice to oddly pointed FBI announcements that Americans shouldn’t buy Chinese cellphones, and should be suspicious of Chinese University students as potential spies. While China is establishing strong economic ties with France and other countries, the United States is imposing steel tariffs and increasingly cutting itself off from the second largest economy in the world.
At the UN Security Council, the USA and its allies are desperately attempting to prevent the Syrian government from reclaiming the city of Eastern Ghouta. This enclave of Islamic extremists is very near the capital city of Damascus, which is densely populated with pro-government Syrians, many of whom have fled from other parts of the country.
Now that ISIS has been driven from Syria, there is a real fear that the government could win the war, and the longstanding US regime change operation could end in defeat.
As the US whistles a happy tune, and accuses those who disagree at home of being Russian bots, those they deem competitors on the global stage are getting stronger.
The Chinese state controlled machinery of production is marching ahead. Oil prices, a key factor in securing state revenue in Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Angola and Ecuador, are rising.
Political Fallout of a Potential Crash?
If a new financial crisis erupts, as is likely based on indicators, the political implications most likely would mean the demise of the Trump administration. Trump would be voted out of office in 2020, or perhaps even impeached, blamed for the mismanagement that created the fallout.
However, the slim possibility remains that Trump could make such a catastrophic economic situation work in his favor. If Trump were to respond to a financial crash by swiftly pushing his base of supporters into action, pushing forward his proposals for infrastructure, and giving a free hand to his allies in the policing agencies, as he often publicly advocates, the results could be a very swift resolution of the crisis.
In the event of a financial crash, a combination of street authoritarianism and economic arm-twisting, both of which Trump clearly does not oppose, could ultimately let him come out of the rubble looking like a savior. Trump could utilize a crash to become a figure like France’s Louis Bonaparte and his “Party of Order” who seized power in 1851.
Regardless of hypotheticals, the “don’t be afraid, everything is alright” tone in American media is not a good sign. It indicates that we should all be concerned about what will happen in the coming months.
Meanwhile, the absence of China’s concept of “win-win” relations in global trade, and human centered development is deeply disturbing. In our high tech world, framing international economic policies as a zero sum game cannot be be expected to have fruitful results.
Caleb Maupin is a political analyst and activist based in New York. He studied political science at Baldwin-Wallace College and was inspired and involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.