In MRC Book, Late Jeane Kirkpatrick Warned of News Media's 'Unaccountable Power'

Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, who passed away Friday morning, adapted a 1983 speech on the influence of the news media, into the forward for the Media Research Center's 1990 book, And That's the Way It Isn't: A Reference Guide to Media Bias. She proposed: “Some people believe, and I am among them, that the power of the media today constitutes the most significant exercise of unaccountable power in our society. It is unaccountable to anyone, except for those who exercise the power. I believe that the domain of culture is as important as the domain of government or the economy.”

More than two decades ago, she warned: “It is very important to realize that the electronic media, which provide mass audiences, have made our culture much more manipulable than it ever was in the past. Typically, historically, cultures have been slow to change. Ideas about what's real, what's important, and what causes what, change very slowly in history. They are grounded in the experience of peoples, and respond only to additional, cumulative experiences of peoples. With the rise of electronic media, the possibility of deliberate manipulation of culture has been magnified ten zillion fold.” (Full text follows)

(As noted in a Friday NewsBusters posting with links to a biography and an obituary, the MRC will fondly remember her for taking part in our 2004 DisHonors Awards where, in good-humor, she accepted, on behalf of ABC's Diane Sawyer and Dan Harris, the “Baghdad Bob Award for Parroting Enemy Propaganda.” You can enjoy Real video or MP3 audio of her comments on March 18, 2004 in which she related her experiences in Geneva at the UN's Human Rights Commission meetings on Iraq where she lobbied the hotel to add the Fox News Channel so her delegation wouldn't have to choose between CNN and the BBC.)

Since it's available no where else online, I dug into my collection of 3.5 inch back-up disks at home and located the 2,460 word text file -- from the pre-Windows GEM-based Corel Ventura layout software -- of Kirkpatrick's forward to our book, so I could post it here:
FOREWORD

by Jeane Kirkpatrick, former Ambassador to the United Nations

With regard to a good many fundamental principles of political philosophy, I am a liberal. We in the United States were founded in the 18th century on what are classically liberal assumptions. Almost all of the most fundamental assumptions that inspirit, not only the Declaration of Independence, but the Constitution as well, are liberal principles. The overriding concern that's reflected both in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution is with controlling arbitrary power.

After all, our national experience is grounded in the effort to control arbitrary power, which we thought King George was exercising over us in arbitrary, unreasonable, and unlawful ways. The Founding Fathers, in the Articles of Confederation and later in the Constitution, were concerned not only with establishing a government, but also with establishing a government that would be responsive to "the people" -- the American people -- and which would be able to be controlled collectively. One of the authors of The Federalist Papers wrote that we must first enable government to control the people and, second, it must be required to control itself.

This whole problem of controlling arbitrary power is, in short, one that has been with us throughout our national life. It inspirits all our basic documents and our political culture. We developed the whole notion of separation of power as the response to the desire to control arbitrary power over our lives and times and national affairs. Popular government itself is regarded by our Constitution and by democratic theory in general as the most effective means of controlling arbitrary power, on the grounds that if government can be kept responsive to citizens, and rulers can be forced to be accountable to the people whom they rule, then we will truly have government by the consent and control of the governed.

What's the point? Obviously, the point is that we have always sought to control (not to destroy, but to control) important, significant powers that small groups can exercise over ourselves and our society. Government structure is a monument to the proposition of the need to control arbitrary power. The application of our laws in the economic sphere, beginning in the late nineteenth century, from 1890 through the New Deal period, reflects the determination to bring the arbitrary power of "big business" under control.

New powers have arisen: among them, the power of the media. Some people believe, and I am among them, that the power of the media today constitutes the most significant exercise of unaccountable power in our society. It is unaccountable to anyone, except for those who exercise the power. I believe that the domain of culture is as important as the domain of government or the economy. My view is that the domain of culture is more important than that of economics or government. It conditions the economy and it conditions government. When we talk about what comes first, the chicken or the egg, I believe that it's the chicken. Whether economics controls ideology and culture, or whether ideology and culture control economics -- and I believe that it is ideology and culture.

Our ideas about what is true, what is good, what is important, what causes what, what's worth doing, what's legitimate -- those are the very essence of our culture, and they shape our behavior in the economic and the governmental sphere. No domain is more important than the domain in which the media operate.

I believe that it is terribly important that the same principles that concern limitations of arbitrary power apply to the media and in the domain of culture. It is very important to realize that the electronic media, which provide mass audiences, have made our culture much more manipulable than it ever was in the past. Typically, historically, cultures have been slow to change. Ideas about what's real, what's important, and what causes what, change very slowly in history. They are grounded in the experience of peoples, and respond only to additional, cumulative experiences of peoples.

With the rise of electronic media, the possibility of deliberate manipulation of culture has been magnified ten zillion fold. The first step in that direction was the printing press. The importance of the printed word as an instrument for the manipulation of culture is illustrated in the mass literacy campaigns that we see undertaken in societies where there is a desire to transform the culture.

Let me hasten to say that I am not against mass literacy campaigns -- but I am in favor of mass literacy campaigns that are used simply for the purpose of teaching people to read, not for the purpose of controlling and transforming their views. I don't know whether you have looked at any of the literacy materials from Cuba. When Fidel Castro came to power, he organized a mass literacy campaign and used it, as have his Nicaraguan friends, to transmit his new, radical Marxist/Leninist notions about the nature of the world. If you've looked at any of the literacy teaching materials out of the Nicaraguan campaign, or the Cuban or Chinese, or a lot of others before that, you would see how useful mass literacy can be as an instrument for cultural transformation.

The electronic media are many times more useful because they manipulate images as well as ideas. Images are very easily manipulated -- pictures speak a thousand words and all that. People are more readily manipulated through images than just with words.

In the theory of a free press in a liberal society, the competition within the press can produce competing versions of reality in some kind of marketplace of ideas. Oliver Wendell Holmes talks about this; John Stuart Mill talks about it. And what they say is classical liberal theory, that in the clash of opinion and ideas and interpretation, is a discipline. Karl Popper talks about it in a very sophisticated way. Science is kept responsible by being submitted to public criticism. Science is kept responsible and progressive by being "public" where it is open to criticism.

In the early decades of this century, enormous, monopolistic concentrations of power developed with regard to the media. These constitute a great obstacle to the marketplace of ideas and interpretations functioning in the way that was anticipated in classical liberal theory. We do have multiple papers and magazines, and that's an awful lot better than having single sources. I don't ever want to suggest that the press in our society is not a free press. It is a free press. Nor do I want to suggest that it is not vastly superior -- morally, politically and intellectually -- to the press in controlled societies. It is vastly superior in all those ways. Nevertheless, there have developed in our times, these colossal concentrations of media power. They weren't planned any more than monopolistic practices that developed in the economy. They just grew. The one-newspaper town developed, and news wire services developed, and the networks developed. Then the network power was extended, and another interesting thing happened in our society. Culture classes developed: we developed a culture class struggle with some very significant divisions between the culture of some of our political and social classes and some other political and social classes.

I've had a little personal experience with these culture classes in universities. The media being what they are, you only read about some of my experiences -- at Berkeley and Minnesota and Smith and Barnard. You didn't read about my experiences at Puget Sound or at the University of Oklahoma or St. Johns University in New York or at Bethany College in West Virginia, and several other places where I was received warmly.

As I reflect on my experiences, it seems remarkable to me that I had become so unacceptable in those kinds of elite institutions in which I had been a student and at which I had taught. Furthermore, I was unacceptable for the offense of energetically articulating the policies of the President of the United States. Now, the President was elected by a majority of American people and is a legitimate ruler who governs constitutionally. We do not break laws in this administration. President Reagan is serious about the law and respects it. He proceeds only within the constraint of law, and I proceed only within the constraints of law. Despite the fact that he was relatively recently elected by the majority of Americans and is very likely to be reelected by a majority of Americans, his policies are so unpalatable to some that his representatives may encounter stiff going in some of the strongholds of that other culture class.

Of course, elite universities are not the only strongholds of the other culture class. The big media are also a major stronghold. That culture class has been described by a lot of people, in colorful language. It is a fairly homogenous elite culture class whose views are reflected in our elite media by the networks and the prestige newspapers. We have a very hard time, as a government, getting fair play from our media as a consequence of this concentration of power. We all know the ways we think the news gets distorted. We in this government do not want a media which is slavish, or supine, or always agrees with us, or always approves of our behavior. We would like a media which we felt gave us a fair shake at least half of the time. I think that happens with a good many of our policies, and doesn't happen with others. For example, I don't think our Central America policy gets fair treatment from our media. I don't think the President's economic policies get fair play from the media. I don't think a good many of the social policies of the administration get fair play. I don't think his arms control policies get fair play. By which I mean they don't get described, reported, analyzed in non-prejudicial ways -- objective ways -- half the time.

Abraham Lincoln told a marvelous story about objectivity and neutrality. He said that if a woman was standing in the door of her cabin at the edge of the woods, watching her husband locked in mortal combat with a grizzly bear, it was not necessary for her to shout alternately, "come on husband, come on bear," in order to see how the fight was going. We don't expect anybody to be neutral with regard to administration policies. We do wish that we could get a good fair description of how the fight's going more often.

I think that a kind of self-indulgence has arisen in our media along with the concentration of media power, and that the self-indulgence relates especially to the use of anonymous informants -- "highly placed sources," "officials," "well-informed persons," "diplomats," "State Department officials," -- all those anonymous categories of people whom we read quoted day in and day out. They are not accountable for the accuracy or inaccuracy of what they say either, but somehow the cumulative impact of the accounts of all of these very self-interested, anonymous persons is very large, shaping the conception of political reality, which in turn shapes the responses of American voters.

The problem about politics is that politics is removed from the everyday experiences of people, so they don't have the opportunity for reality testing. If you are a housewife doing the family's clothes, you can read about soaps that take the ring out of the collar, and you can buy a box and you can try it and you can see whether it takes the ring out of the collar in the promised way. If you're thinking about Central American policy, there just is no kind of immediate, personal mechanism for reality testing available for citizens. You have to wait for a long time to see how much of Southeast Asia falls along with Vietnam, how many people are herded into forced labor camps, how many are tortured, how many flee, how many die, and what kind of government emerges. By that time, most people will have forgotten the argument they made about the case anyway.

So, the power of the media is much greater with regard to politics than with regard to experiences that are more subject to reality testing. We rely heavily on what Walter Lippmann called reference groups and reference figures. For most people those are newscasters and newspapers and bishops. Media are not the only source of opinions by which we are influenced -- they're not our only reference groups -- but they are important.

I think that democratic government depends on an enlightened citizenry, and we cannot have that except as we have accounts of reality -- what is good, what is true, and what causes what -- that are reasonably reliable. I keep talking about what causes what, and that's not only an important dimension of culture, it's also a matter of frustration to me with regard to our Central American policy. I think that the United States and most of Western Europe have succumbed to some myths about what causes guerrilla insurrections. It is said that poverty causes revolt, as in El Salvador. I was just in France where I heard the argument that, what could we Americans expect? That after all, there is terrible poverty in Central America; terrible disparities of wealth. It was only natural that people should revolt and become Marxists-Leninists or something.

Nobody thinks, by the way, that poverty is causing revolt in Nicaragua. Nobody thinks poverty is causing revolt in Poland, but everybody is sure that poverty is the fundamental cause of something that in our time is called revolution. Revolution usually turns out to be a small band of armed men who are merciless in the use of violence as an instrument of political change. Poverty is a terrible ill, because it causes human misery. It is not terrible because it causes Marxist-Leninist revolts, because it does not cause Marxist-Leninist revolts. Political action causes Marxist-Leninist revolts -- and arms, and guerrillas, and careful training, and theories of guerrilla warfare cause Marxist-Leninist revolts.

But we hear on all our media -- our networks and our prestige papers -- arguments that assume that whatever problems occur in Central America are rooted in social injustice and poverty.

What can we do about it? I think more competition should be introduced in the marketplace of ideas. I think it is very important to be able to present alternative and more accurate conceptions of reality.

But let's leave the accuracy out of it and just talk about alternative conceptions of reality -- alternative notions of what's good, and what's true, and what causes what. We hope that if there is a wider range of those versions of reality presented, some of them will be true and will reflect more accurately the totality of human experience and American values.
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center