Nobody trusts the government. The politicians are corrupt. The government is always lying to the people. It works against the people’s true interests and only promotes the selfish interests of its own members and their friends. Those in power invent scary threats to distract the public’s attention from their own wrongdoings.
No, I’m not talking about the US. Well, not exclusively at least. Everything I’ve just said has been repeated day in day out, for years and decades, by the papers and the electronic media wherever there’s anything resembling a free press. That’s the MSM’s real message in all democratic nations. Whatever else they talk about is secondary.
Is it true? Often it is. Is it the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Each one of us can judge by him or herself. And, as we have been doing so collectively for some time, the MSM has been losing most reliability it might once have had, to the point that, in countries like the US, it is not only as little trusted as the government and the politicians themselves, but it’s clearly seen as just another partisan political player.
That’s, however, quite a small consolation, because the damage they, the MSM, could do has already been done and, even without being trusted, they can go on doing it. What’s exactly this damage? The corrosion and eventual destruction of public trust. No open society can work without it and, though the government and all state institutions must always be closely watched, it works at its very best when the people’s default attitude towards these is one of conditional trust, not one of perpetual mistrust.
While a measure of scepticism is necessary and healthy, cynicism is counterproductive and eventually dangerous. Whatever else the MSM have been doing since at least the end of WW2, they have more often than not been treating governments, politicians, democratic institutions and public figures as guilty unless otherwise proved. Through the criminalization of normal politics, they have contaminated the public with a universal cynicism. In the meanwhile they have created the social space for a different kind of politics.
In a healthy society there’s an amount of credibility that can conditionally be given or lent to its democratic institutions. If these are under perpetual suspicion, that credibility will likely migrate to alternative ones such as religious authorities, revolutionary groups, cultural agents and so on. In the US, the MSM seem to have been the first to benefit from this migration of credibility. With their own demoralization, a result both of transparent partisanship and sheer incompetence, other newly-created institutions began to attract and almost to monopolize the credibility the society had to offer. Among these, the most important were the NGOs.
When no American president would be taken at his word were he to say “the sun shines” or “the sky is blue”, nobody, especially the MSM, doubted the good intentions of such organizations as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International or the International Red Cross. Even those who weren’t exactly sympathetic towards, say, the UN or the ICC, didn’t spend much time questioning the workings and doings of those NGOs. And it wasn’t only their good intentions that were given a free-pass, but whatever they said or reported, their numbers and value-judgements as well.
Thus they became influential and, in a democracy, this means powerful.
Ultimately, however, such organizations can only survive if there’s no suspicion about their agendas and, above all, if they can and are willing to prove again and again they do not operate with double standards. When they’re under suspicion, it is not enough for them to protest a vestal-kind of immaculate purity. It’s part of their job to demonstrate their own innocence, because, lacking true accountability, not representing anyone officially nor being in any way elected for their job, the burden of proofs lies always with them.
A single suspicion of using double standards, if not convincingly dispelled, is enough to begin undermining whatever work they have done. It is not enough for them to be fair (if they are), they must also look as fair as fair can be. But, as has been seen in several recent cases, that’s obviously not happening: rather the opposite is taking place. These organizations are wasting their laboriously (and perhaps unjustly) accumulated capital of credibility by showing their true partisan colours.
When people realize they’re untrustworthy, it will become evident that the world can live well or equally unwell without their dubious help. Those organizations will then be reduced to what they more and more really seem to be, that is, political parties, with all their recognized partisanship, but none of their legitimacy in electoral politics. The same fate awaits most other NGOs and the one important thing that still protects their current influence is the complicity of the MSM.
Their credibility depends on the majority taking them at their word and not scrutinizing too deeply their workings, not because these are always necessarily good, but rather because, from the majority’s point of view, these go on below the radar. Once they become obsessive about something, say, about Israel or Guantanamo Bay, the neutral public may also become more curious about them.
That’s because their survival depends on staying far from the spotlight that should instead be focused on the subjects they’re talking about or dealing with. It is important for their stated neutrality not to look like an active player in any controversial or noisy cause. They must look like non-actors and most publicity about them is potentially harmful for their future. Any publicity, even if highly sympathetic, that distracts from the subjects they should be discussing, any discussion of their own nature, methods, alliances, income sources and so on will only do them harm in the long term.
Obviously, what’s taking place now was bound to happen sooner or later. Credibility is a scarce good in the political market and particularly so in a time when both the politicians themselves and the press have lost theirs. As these were losing their credibility, the NGOs have been accumulating it, even if only due to the public’s distraction or disinterest in them. When it became clear that lack of credibility was a growing obstacle for policy making, those organizations that had it couldn’t resist trying to become active political agents. An important share of power was theirs to take. The siren-song must have sounded irresistible. Or else, they’ve been co-opted by other players.
Whatever their intentions might have been earlier, once they entered the power-game, it was easy to foresee that they’d bend to its own dynamics, which consists in working mainly to achieve more power and influence and not to lose those already acquired. As these organizations became more powerful and influential, their previous credibility wasn’t enough anymore to confer legitimacy on them, because it could stem only from accountability and it was precisely thanks to its lack that they accumulated their capital of credibility to begin with.
Accountability is the counterweight of power and influence particularly in situations where credibility isn’t and won’t be granted for free, where it is not aprioristically given in good will, but must rather be conquered and kept with much care and effort. That is the paradox about those NGOs: as they become more powerful and influential, they also become less necessary and, yes, less credible too. If they want, for instance, to arbitrate international conflicts without having been chosen or elected in any democratic or representative way to do so by anyone, then there are lots of questions about themselves they must answer whenever asked.
It is important to stress that these NGOs became political actors exactly because the traditional ones were losing the credibility to perform certain tasks. Much of this lack of credibility results from the invariably adversarial, even antagonistic, way in which the MSM have been covering politics in general for over half a century. It’s not all that obvious that the media’s main role should be that of the only watchdog, because in a democracy that’s first of all the role of other political and representative institutions, such as the independent judiciary or the political opposition.
Due to the complexity of modern democratic societies, the MSM managed to achieve a virtual monopoly first on credibility-granting and then, even when losing its own, on the withdrawal or corrosion of other people’s, organizations’ and institutions’ credibility. They have thus managed to corrode much of the democratic institutions’ legitimacy.
There’s, however, an even worse consequence to all this. In a world where people feel attracted to strains of thought that explain in simple and intentional terms complex and impersonal phenomena, the MSM, by working as a machine or mechanism the function of which is to automatically cast suspicion on anything and everything, became a source less of information than of perpetual mistrust. They do not have to spread conspiratorial theories themselves, though they don’t always refrain from doing so. It’s enough for them to suggest that anything that happens is done by someone and that anything that’s done by anyone is motivated by something suspicious. Putting always in doubt whatever is clear, looking always for something hidden where what’s obvious or mere chance might explain things perfectly well, turning rational questioning into an inquisitorial prosecution, perverting method into obsession, what they have been doing is creating the ideal breeding ground for all kinds of paranoia.