The new age of agitprop
The mainstream media have abandoned the pursuit of objectivity and truth.
Are we living in a new age of agitprop? It is not unusual for journalism, culture and the arts to reflect the political bias of societies and individual writers. But in the past few decades, the business of providing information and insight has sharply deteriorated. Particularly at the elite level, the media now embrace an increasingly uniform point of view on issues as diverse as gender, race, the pandemic and climate.
To be sure, there still exists a vibrant oppositional press that offers divergent views. Nevertheless, so many mainstream media outlets increasingly resemble something closer to the kind of agitprop perfected by Russian Marxists, Lenin and their heirs. What was once a liberally minded industry, notes Michael Shellenberger, has embraced censorship as the one cure for what it defines as ‘misinformation’.
The results for consumers have been disastrous. In the new media world, all news coverage is geared towards upholding pre-established narratives. Actual reporting has become exceedingly rare. A 2019 report from think-tank Rand revealed that journalism is steadily moving away from a fact-based model and toward one dominated by opinion. The result is what Rand described as ‘truth decay’. This reflects a disappointing turn within a media industry that once proudly opposed existing power structures.
The rise of agitprop in the media is largely a result of increasing geographic, ideological and class uniformity. There has been a drastic change in the composition of the journalistic profession. Working-class reporters, many with ties to local communities, have been replaced by a more cosmopolitan and uniformly ‘progressive’ breed with college degrees. At schools like Columbia, aspiring journalists focus less on the fundamentals of reporting and more on openly advancing a ‘social justice’ agenda.
Many of these younger reporters, notes Pew, do not embrace the old ideas about objectivity and balance. And most tilt overwhelmingly to the ‘progressive’ side of politics. A survey in 2014 found that barely seven per cent of US reporters identified as Republicans. And according to some analyses, in 2018, some 97 per cent of all political donations from journalists went to Democrats.
Similar patterns are found in other Western countries, too. In France, two-thirds of journalists favour the left, notes author Christophe Guilluy, even as voters have swung demonstrably to the right.
In most countries, the political tilt in journalism has been intensified by a geographical concentration of media in fewer centres – especially in London, New York and San Francisco. Meanwhile, local media have struggled in the internet age, preferring to promote a particular party line.
Such selective reporting resembles that which emerges in one-party states. Authoritarian regimes tend to see media and culture as critical in promoting their programme. Art, literature and journalism exist not to explore truth, but to define it along lines set by the ruling party. Of course, the Western mainstream media are not quite there yet. Journalists are not being kept in line by state repression. But the growing rise of political groupthink is nonetheless an alarming development in supposedly free societies.
Distortion and bias extend to the right-wing press as well, of course. Some rightist outlets even struggle to make martyrs out of the imbeciles who stormed the US Capitol on 6 January 2021. Many consistently defend the inexecrable Donald Trump, despite his numerous lies and distortions. Naturally, you don’t expect Trumpian mouthpieces like American Greatness, the Blaze or Newsmax to fairly cover Trump’s legal troubles with anything like the passion with which they report on the ethical lapses of Hunter Biden or his doddering father.
For the most part, though, the established conservative press – the Wall Street Journal editorial page, for example – has been tough on Trump and his supporters. Such publications may feel the prosecutions are somewhat over the top and targeted. Yet they have no desire to defend the man who poses a bigger threat, by his mendaciousness and pettiness, to their own political side than any Democrat.
In contrast, the ‘progressive’ media tend to follow the party line on all key issues – particularly on their coverage of the Biden administration, climate, race and gender. This is perhaps unsurprising. On these issues, the cult-like uniformity is well-financed. Unlike, say, state-dominated China, agitprop in the West gets backing from large corporations and wealthy individuals who share a similar worldview on critical issues. Take, for example, how the big social-media platforms were eager to work with the government to eliminate criticism of extreme lockdowns during the pandemic.
This online power has been augmented with massive purchases of legacy media. Since 2010, tech moguls and their relatives have bought the New Republic, the Washington Post, the Atlantic and the long-distressed Time magazine. Owning publications certainly appeals to the vanity of tech oligarchs, giving them an enhanced entrée to literary and journalistic circles.
The publications acquired in this way also benefit from an extra edge. They can enjoy the luxury of producing content without worrying about money. As tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel has observed, with quasi-monopoly status, Facebook and Google can indulge their own prejudices without worrying too much about alienating customers. As Cathy O’Neil notes in Weapons of Math Destruction, internet firms profit from promoting division and hysteria to the public.
Perhaps the most egregious hysterical reporting pertains to climate change, which serves as a kind of secular faith. In a manner Goebbels or Stalin would have appreciated, the mainstream media will disappear anyone who disagrees with the strident and unscientific exaggerations of the climate movement. Even former Obama adviser and physicist Steven Koonin could not escape this fate and has been declared a ‘denier’ for questioning the dubious claims of climate science.
In the new world of online agitprop, everyday weather reports become revelations of apocalypse. This is even the case if the scope of disasters is not appreciably greater than in the past. Certainly, global warming has not impacted food production, as is frequently suggested. Sea-level rise remains a concern, but it has not accelerated substantially in recent decades. Even the IPCC’s own report, argues Roger Pielke Jr, concludes that a signal of climate change has not yet emerged beyond natural variability, with the notable exception of more heatwaves.
Even the heatwave panic is dubious. The oft-repeated claim that this summer was ‘the hottest’ in human history is another long-favoured agitprop myth. For one thing, reliable global measurements did not exist prior to satellites and certainly cannot tell us what happened in the distant past. We may well have seen hotter temperatures before, for example, during the Dust Bowl era. The annual heat index has measured plenty more heat-intense periods during the 1930s than today.
There is also a tendency to discuss weather events in some parts of the globe, while ignoring others. While this summer was characterised by heatwaves and wildfires in mainland Europe, the UK experienced a much milder, wetter season.
Looking back, many of the green movement’s predictions have been laughably inaccurate. By now, we should no longer see snow and much of coastal America should already be submerged. Of course, facts mean little to the modern agitprop crowd.
More alarming still, having already won over groupthink-oriented journalists, green billionaires have further gamed the system by using their own largesse. The Rockefeller Foundation, a bastion of climate activism, now pays the salaries of ‘climate reporters’ at Associated Press and National Public Radio.
This all but guarantees reporting that follows the green party line in violation of the most basic journalistic ethics. Stories that question the current push for renewables are routinely ignored by most outlets. It is rare to see arguments for nuclear power and natural gas, or coverage of rural opposition to solar and wind projects.
Not surprisingly, the mainstream media are now dedicated to producing voluminous, usually terrifying, accounts of every natural disaster. These are almost always blamed on climate change. This was a major theme recently here in southern California when we were hit by Storm Hilary, a rare tropical storm. For days we were treated to warnings about the storm’s ‘catastrophic’ effects fueled largely by climate change. In the end, it rained and the wind blew a bit, but it turned out to be not much more than a mild inconvenience.
Similarly, the green agenda has dominated the reporting about the recent devastating fires in Maui, Hawaii. Predictably, the mainstream press blamed climate effects. The reality is more complicated, with the fires being largely caused by negligence and massive, tragic, often woke-inspired incompetence.
In the end, the intended effect of agitprop, as has been the case over the past century, is to both terrify and motivate the masses. Unfortunately for the greens, scaremongering over climate change has certainly not spurred a huge grassroots climate movement. Very few Americans – about four per cent according to Gallup – consider the climate a priority. But the effect of agitprop has been more than successful in creating an atmosphere of hysteria and dread.
This is particularly true among the young, many of whom have been described as suffering from ‘climate anxiety’. A recent Lancet study of 10,000 young people aged between 16 and 25 found that 59 per cent were extremely worried about climate change. And 84 per cent were at least moderately worried. The respondents suffered from sadness, anxiety and anger, feeling powerless, helpless and guilty.
The news media, of course, is only part of the new agitprop universe. Arguably the most powerful expressions of the new ideology can be found in the arts, from television and movies to museums. Indeed, contemporary Hollywood has strictly followed a woke party line.
As with journalism, this reflects the political predilections of the creators themselves. Jonathan Chait, a liberal columnist, reviewed the offerings of major studios and networks and found ‘a pervasive, if not total, liberalism’. Unsurprisingly, political donations by major entertainment executives in recent elections went by as much as 10 to one to the Democrats.
Occasionally, movies with a political message can successfully capture large and appreciative audiences, with good storytelling and impressive visual effects – the most recent example being Barbie. For the most part though, politicised media is not much of a winner. Hollywood’s politically correct movies – particularly its remakes – tend to do poorly at the box office. Even Disney is losing money due to its dogmatic embrace of woke. Writing off huge audiences, like young white males or people with conservative values, does not seem a good way to grow your market.
Where much of Hollywood appears to be stuck in the woke mire, Netflix seems to be cutting back on politically driven, money-losing projects. Last year, it cancelled Q-Force, a gay-oriented adult comedy, after just one season. And a sizeable batch of shows, including adaptations of Ibram X Kendi’s Antiracist Baby and Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You, were axed before they even made it to air. Netflix also terminated First Kill, a lesbian vampire series that never won much of an audience.
None of this is to suggest that the media should stop using gay, female or minority figures in leading roles. Few people want to see a straightforward return to past cultural memes, as some conservatives seem to think. Viewers are happy with diversity on screen – what they loathe is when their TV shows and films give them instructions on what to think.
Ultimately, the biggest threat to agitprop media lies in a market that is bored, or even offended, by its woke offerings. You can take an audience to the screen, but you can’t make it watch. As long as the channels of communication remain somewhat open, alternative views can find their way and build audiences.
We deserve a media and a culture industry that keeps us informed and entertained, without shoving its ideology down our throats at every opportunity.
Joel Kotkin is a spiked columnist, the presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His latest book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is out now. Follow him on Twitter: @joelkotkin
Picture by: Getty.
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