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The state of state media

Twitter recently began labeling NPR and BBC as “Government-funded Media,” backing down slightly from their earlier designation of NPR as “US State-affiliated Media.” This earlier designation is similar to the one applied to Russia’s RT, China’s Global Times, and Iran’s Press TV, though Qatar’s Al-Jazeera, Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW), Venezuela’s teleSUR, and many other government-funded news outlets are not tagged. YouTube has a similar scheme, where NPR, BBC, DW, and Türkiye’s TRT are labeled “public broadcast service” whereas RT, Global Times, Al-Jazeera, and teleSUR are “funded in whole or in part by” their respective countries’ governments. Facebook’s tags are the most extreme: they call RT and others “state-controlled.”

This incongruity is striking, though perhaps unsurprising given that all the major social media platforms just mentioned are based in the U.S. Western globalism tends to divide the world into “good” and “evil” countries, usually characterized as “democracies” and “authoritarian states.” Calling public press from governments we call autocracies “state media” or “propaganda” is common in the Western mainstream; these same outlets would never characterize the BBC as such. Propaganda — properly understood — is a neutral term, defined by Wiktionary as, “a concerted set of messages aimed at influencing the opinions or behavior of large numbers of people.” This is a pretty good description of most news media; it certainly describes all outlets funded by governments and therefore bound to carry bias. So why are these labels so unevenly applied?

The BBC reacted negatively to Twitter’s designation and defended itself by claiming it had editorial independence, obviating the need for a disclaimer. While nobody would accuse the BBC of being some kind of direct mouthpiece for Downing Street, it has never taken the side of any other country on matters of international politics. We don’t generally expect any mainstream media to give much airtime to perspectives critical of the West, whether that media is state-funded or not. In a Washington Post article from 2013, Putin was quoted as saying of RT:

We never expected this to be a news agency or a channel which would defend the position of the Russian political line. We wanted to bring an absolutely independent news channel to the news arena.

Certainly, the channel is funded by the government, so it cannot help but reflect the Russian government’s official position on the events in our country and in the rest of the world one way or another. But I’d like to underline again that we never intended this channel, RT, as any kind of apologetics for the Russian political line, whether domestic or foreign.

Whatever views one may hold about the “official position” of one government or another, the fact remains that state media in all countries behave this way. NPR is funded only in small part by the US government, but it certainly does reflect a US perspective on the world, which is “in one way or the other” shaped by the position of the government. Whether or not one perceives such an outlet as “editorially independent” depends upon assumptions about the “freedom” or “democracy” of a given country. If a state news outlet largely agrees with the position of a state, does that make everything it says false? Does it mean the state impresses upon it to censor the “truth” to push their line? Or do the writers and audience of such a publication largely write according to their worldview? Selectively labeling media as “propaganda” usually has the effect of reproducing one’s own political bias and invalidating foreign perspectives.

Another purported difference between “free” and “autocratic” states with respect to media is hard-power censorship practices. In February, NPR interviewed Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian about freedom of speech. He pointed out that Trump had been banned from Twitter in the context of the Jan. 6 insurrection, and asked, “What proportion really is there when we are talking about freedom and banning the first person in command in the U.S. from the internet?” NPR’s host angrily interrupted and replied that since Twitter is a “private company,” it couldn’t possibly be construed as an arm of the US national security state. As the Twitter Files show, this is not the case. There’s no evidence to suggest that Trump was banned on orders from the FBI, but, according to the Twitter files, many other accounts, tweets, and hashtags have been shadow-banned at their request. This is the other side of the coin from state media: “private” corporations in the capitalist West tend to reflect the worldview of the neo-conservative establishment as well, even at the expense of liberal ideals like free speech. It’s probably more accurate to say that the government reflects their worldview, given that we live under a corporate oligarchy. The same is true of pretty much all other countries, but it’s the height of hypocrisy to point that out in a vacuum.

Much of the alt-media landscape consists of independent journalists who make their money entirely from reader support and are not funded by any governments or large corporations. The views of these journalists range across the whole political spectrum, and their journalistic practice and credibility are not universally beyond reproach. The existence of independent journalists serves to illustrate the correct approach for consuming news media: read every one you find. The only way to have any claim to “truth” is to gather as much data as possible. State “propaganda” or corporate “sponsorship” or independent “blogging” may all produce truth. These “truths” must be evaluated on their own merits. 

When Seymour Hersh dropped his bombshell report that the US had blown up the Nord Stream pipelines, mainstream Western media made this epistemic mistake: they dismissed his article as a “blog post” — because he wrote independently of any major publication — and questioned his integrity, despite his Pulitzer Prize and half-century-long stellar record. When confronted with challenging alternative views, these kinds of “credibility” arguments can very easily be weaponized to dismiss inconvenient truths. Worse yet, many independent journalists get accused of producing “propaganda” or being foreign agents simply because they happen to agree on one issue or another with a Global South country. Informed readers should be able to overcome these biases and evaluate everyone’s perspective on its own merits.

To reiterate, all media is biased. If we Americans can escape the red-team-blue-team bubble for a second, we might be able to admit that other perspectives exist in the world. Many of these perspectives are challenging to our worldview, and some of them will probably come across as deeply reactionary. But if we simply dismiss foreign media as “propaganda” and fail to acknowledge the bias within both our State media and our corporate media, we are no better than our orientalist caricature of the rest of the world: uninformed, brainwashed masses whose worldview is captured by oligarchs and dictators.


~ Skye Rhomberg `22

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