Thursday, December 20, 2007

Book Review: The Free Press

Title: The Free Press
Author: Hilaire Belloc
Publisher: IHS Press
Excellence: 4 stars
Summary in a Sentence: Belloc, in describing the Press of his time, unexpectedly points out problems, limitations, and powers of the New Media and the Internet in the modern world.

Hilaire Belloc’s The Free Press is a short treatise on the power of “the Press” as we know it today, and while necessarily tied to some of the idioms and technology of 1918, when it was first published, has salient ideas that only grow more momentous with the spread of the Internet. My goal here is not to explain all of these ideas, but rather a few of them in an encouragement to you to read the book as well.

The book can fairly be divided into two parts – the first, explaining how “the Press” arose at the appearance (and perhaps, behest) of Capitalism and Finance; the second, explaining the “Free Press” (what we would today call “new media”) and the disadvantages it labors under, though it ends this part (and the book) on a hopeful note.

Belloc begins by explaining the evolution of newspapers. Originally simply a way for news to be shared, they became an “advertiser’s den.” Printed news was more expensive than the freest way of getting news (word of mouth) but it came at a price. Belloc explains that price:

The Press thrust into the midst of this natural system (word of mouth)…two novel features, both of them exceedingly corrupting. In the first place, it gave to the printed words a rapidity of extension with which repeated spoken words could not compete. In the second place, it gave them a mechanical similarity which was the very opposite to the marks of healthy human news. (emphasis Belloc’s) (p. 29)

Belloc then proceeds to give a simple explanation of how our own “manual newsgathering” differs from the organ of a newspaper. He uses as a test case the story of a fire that happened some miles away.

An honest and sober man tells us that the roof of the house fell in. An imaginative fool, who is also a swindler, assures us that he later saw the roof standing. We remember that the roof was of iron girders covered with wood, and draw this conclusion: that the framework still stands, but that the healing fell through in a mass of blazing rubbish. Our common sense and our knowledge of the situation incline us to the bad rather than the good witness, and we are right. (p. 30)

With this simple explanation Belloc strikes at the heart with what was wrong with “the Press” at that time and remains wrong with it today – that it simultaneously broadcasts (in whatever form or media) basically one opinion, for its interests do not lie in necessarily “finding the truth” but rather in “controlling the message” for the motivations of the Press are not noble, but rather base – and inclined towards making profit.

Ah, but one has to make money, you might say. True, but the problem with newspapers began when they started taking advertising subsidies that went from a minority part of revenue to the reason that the paper was able to sell copies at less than what it cost it to print them. And as with the give and take of any business relationship, the ability to criticize disappears and an organ which is supposed to be impartial and in the “public interest” soon becomes beholden to the advertisers – not simply in the realm of not being able to speak against “patent drugs” (as Belloc refers to them – read: pharmaceuticals in our modern world), but soon, advertisers don’t place ads in newspapers that dare to raise a voice against capitalism, or against a public bill that may go against their interests. Soon, those advertisers decide what goes in the paper, and given capitalism's tendency towards consolidation, these advertisers merge into a trust of sorts.

Indeed, the Directors of IHS Press say as much in the preface:

In 2000..the number of corporations controlling almost all of America’s newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations, etc. had fallen to six.
(p. 10)

The very motives behind newsgathering per se should be altruistic and not-for-profit, yet that is all that media corporations are premised on today. Hence one witnesses the proliferation of highly attractive blonde newscasters in everything from serious news, to weather, to sports. “News,” if it can even be called such anymore, is nothing more than a function of managing a certain demographic within a certain niche for certain advertisers: e.g. ESPN focuses on mostly males aged 18-35. News that would not interest this demographic is either suppressed or ignored.

Belloc wrote in 1918, but now such tendencies have become institutionalized. That is to say, no one seems to question anything anymore. Whatever the “official story” is becomes the story. Nearly no one I know accepts the Warren Commission’s conclusion of Lee Harvey Oswald being the lone shooter of JFK, yet many guffaw when I start raising questions about Building 7 at the World Trade Center or the absence of wreckage or bodies at the Pentagon on 9/11.

The big equalizer that Belloc could not have possibly foreseen was the Internet. He ends the book on a hopeful note, but in the shadow of the World War that engulfed his England, I could not see how that optimism was justified. Thus we encounter the second part of his book, the idea of the “Free Press.”

As I said above, this is known in our day as “alternative press” or “new media.” This is seen in people like (regardless of how you feel about them) Michael Moore, Matt Drudge, and Alex Jones. Belloc champions the “free press” for its ability to unabashedly proclaim truth but simultaneously issues the caveat that those proclamations of truth come from a “point of view.” An example:

Charles Maurras is one of the most powerful writers living, and when he points out in the Action Francaise that the French Supreme Court committed an illegal action at the close of the Dreyfus case, he is doing useful work, for he is telling the truth on a matter of vital importance. But when he goes on to say that such a thing would not have occurred under a nominal Monarchy, he is talking nonsense. Anyone with the slightest experience of what the Courts of Law can be under a nominal monarchy shrugs his shoulders and says that Maurras’s action may have excellent results, but that his proposed remedy of setting up one of these modern Kingships in France in the place of the very corrupt Parliament is not convincing.
(p. 64)

Alas, modern man is not only possessed of a lower standard of education than ever, but because of the capitalistic thrust of the day, further possessed of even less time to “sift” through news. Thus, what in Belloc’s time was an occupation of the “leisured” (as he called it) becomes an occupation of anyone who has access to the Internet. News is now consistently broken and disseminated via the Internet. An entire generation of children has grown up not understanding the necessity of paying to receive a local paper when one might read a prominent national one online for free. Newspaper circulation has been sinking in recent years and what was formerly a profitable “division” of corporations is now being seen as dead weight.

However, the Free Press/New Media are not without their limitations. Belloc lists four:

1. The position of being the “outsider” or of “going against the stream.” This makes them naturally observed askance.
2. They necessarily suffer from a “crankiness” as they write from a strongly “partisan” point of view.
3. They usually cannot offer regular issues because advertisers don’t want anything to do with them.
4. They suffer from a media lockout and do not have access to the same newsgathering resources as “old media.”

Belloc lists “lawyers and liability” as something peculiar to England – but it’s safe to say that is a problem in America too. Just using one corporation as an example, we all observed the British prosecution of two ordinary citizens who dared to say McDonald’s served up unhealthy food, but here in America too McDonald’s has been busy trying to discredit the film du jour of a couple years ago, Super Size Me.

Belloc is right about his four points, though point #3 depends on the resources of the outlet. As a blogger myself I am unabashedly part of the Free Press, and since financial contributions to my work are irregular, at best (even from my friends :-), my websites ebb and flow based on the time I can contribute to them outside of my normal income-bearing responsibilities.

As for the "sifting" of news that Belloc recommends, I heartily recommend it, though I do so with the caveat that it is taxing on one's time. If we can be smart about the websites we visit and the stories we read, we can get a very broad view of different ideas in a fairly brief amount of time - something Belloc could never have foreseen. Indeed, I do such sifting myself, and read many sites (in the interest of finding out what “the other side” is saying) that I do not link on my blog. Belloc is right about this – just because one disagrees with someone philosophically does not mean that one cannot glean important and accurate news from them. Does this mean that everyone should attempt such "sifting"? If there is time, yes, but I would also suggest deferring to a few "newsgathering" sources of different persuasions so as to get at least a shadow of the "big picture" out there.

I myself witnessed a “free press” moment in my recent interview with Bishop Tissier de Mallerais, very similar to my coverage of Bishop Fellay’s press conference months before that. The interview was translated into French and German within several days of publication, and in addition to the Remnant’s normal circulation, which numbers in the tens of thousands, we observed (as much as we could) over 10,000 visits between our respective sites within one week.

Indeed, this book is essential reading for anyone who writes blogs or reads them regularly. It talks about how much the Press is in a symbiotic relationship with corrupt ministers of government (sound familiar?) and how important it is for the average citizen to receive true news, though the average reader is not discerning enough to read the Free Press and will often fall prey to the Establishment (Belloc calls this the “Official”) Media. At less than 100 pages you will find it a quick read and well worth the time.

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