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Walter Cronkite: The RT of his time? Photo credit: WikiCommons.

The recent decision of the Justice Department to single out the RT (formerly Russia Today) network for forcible registration as a “foreign agent” elicited this comment from Daniel McAdams of the Ron Paul Institute: 

RT America is a news organization operating in the United States that is funded at least partly by a  government. So is the BBC. So is Deutsche Welle, France24, Al-Jazeera, teleSUR and numerous other foreign media organizations. It is assumed that they all to a degree reflect the editorial interests of those who pay the bills.

The same is true with other, non-state funded media outlets, of course. It’s up to us to factor these things in when we consume media. That’s what it means to be a free people.

Disclosure: McAdams appears on RT. So do I, as well as on China’s CGTN, Iran’s Press TV, Canada’s CTV, Al-Jazeera, and the U.S. government’s Arabic-language Alhurra. When I get invited onto Fox or MSNBC I’ll let you know!

Long gone are those halcyon days of yore when Americans could sit back and watch CBS’s Walter Cronkite with total confidence they were getting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. (For younger readers who have no idea who the hell Cronkite was, just Google “most trusted man in America.” Or see the picture above.)

Back in the naïve infancy of the TV age, from about the 1950s until the beginning of the 1990s, there was a common national media culture that reflected the established, generally liberal, mainly Democratic tilt of the American inteligentsiya that was almost uniform among the (then only) three networks and a handful of major newspapers and magazines.

Those days are long gone. Americans’ loss of virginal media trust has been a long and uneven path. Maybe it started with Vietnam but there still seemed to be plenty of empty cranial receptacles for government and corporate propaganda of the first Gulf War under Bush 41, Bill Clinton’s phony humanitarian wars in the Balkans, Bush 43’s Iraq War, and Obama’s Libyan and Syrian disasters.

Still, whatever we call them – the corporate media, legacy media, mainstream media – they still think they have a peremptory right to tell us they are purveyors of Truth (with a capital T) and that anybody not on the approved list is fake. How do we know? Why, these self-appointed virginal gatekeepers tell us! The Washington Post’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” CNN’s “Facts First.” The New York Times’ “The Truth is Hard.”

Former New York Times reporter and serial Iraq War fabricator Judith Miller. Yes, “The Truth is Hard.”

But a lot of Americans don’t buy it anymore. Some of the skepticism falls along purely partisan lines reflecting increasing moral and political polarization: our media (which I exclusively consult) tells the truth, but your media (which I don’t consult) are liars.

About one-third of Americans get their talking points from, say, Michael Moore [Italics mine] and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, with their related internet echoes, while another third gets theirs from Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity on Fox News, and their internet echo chambers.

This fat, dumb ape once called me, the editor, and my daughter a threat to America. True story.

Increasingly, there is nothing like a national dialogue on anything, but rather two entirely separate, diametrically opposed ideological cultures – and alternate realities – each demonizing “them.” This is why when the Tea Party emerged after Barack Obama’s election, the GOP fell over itself trying to co-opt them, while the Democrats denounced them as a mob of racists and subversives.

When later “Occupy Wall Street” broke out on the Left, the Democrats tried to figure out how to channel it while top Republicans denounced it as gang of commie anarchists and losers. Similarly, the “Black Lives Matter Movement” was initially too hot to touch but was later co-opted by the Democratic establishment.  Democrats harnessed these insurgent organizations to bolster the opposition to Donald Trump creating a divide that intensified into one of latent civil war.

At some point the false picture of pseudo-reality (as Alain Besançon called it in the late Soviet propaganda context) diverges so far from real reality that the official media narrative becomes useless and even counterproductive. While a majority of Americans probably are still glued to the partisan outlets of “their” side of the political divide, there is a growing sense across the spectrum that not only the MSM but even partisan media like Fox News and MSNBC are untrustworthy.

In the past, notably in the totalitarian societies of the 20th century, maintaining the credibility of official media required the physical repression of alternatives. Today, such an approach is unnecessary and almost technologically unfeasible, even for such undemocratic countries as China, Iran, Cuba and Saudi Arabia. (Though North Korea may be successful through the sheer unavailability of modern communications technology to most of the population.) Instead of suppressing dissent, it has become sufficient to maintain major media’s role as gatekeeper and certifier of reliability.

To be sure, while proliferation of first cable channels and then online publications means the major American networks and newspapers have far smaller market share than in the past, they still have a near-monopoly on the legitimacy and public significance of information. This means that while “alternative media” – itself a dismissive term relating to the presumed unreliability of contents – might report and document information contrary to the official line emanating from prestige media operating in symbiosis with their government sources, they can and should be ignored.

Information originating in alternative circles becomes reliable and publicly actionable only when picked up and disseminated by the MSM, thus validating the information and its ostensibly “alternative” source. Unless and until that happens, alternative information and opinion, especially that which runs counter to the MSM/government/corporate narrative, is ignored and relegated to “conspiracy theory,” “internet chatter,” or even subjected to the dread label of “denier” of some established, obligatory truth.

Non-validated information and views thus become a kind of American samizdat (the Russian term for Soviet-era illegal “self-publishing”), which is tolerated but has no impact on public affairs. For example, with respect to the Balkan conflicts (Markale, Srebrenica, Racak, organ-trafficking by leaders of the “Kosovo Liberation Army”), information debunking the official versions of the same events has long been available but has no ability to dislodge the established accounts, even in retrospect.

Which brings us back to the impact of foreign media like RT, Al-Jazeera, CGTN, Press TV, and teleSUR often in parallel with alternative media, to break through the information firewall but arguably then being influenced by the agenda of the sponsoring foreign governments.

In any case, a growing segment of the American public is discovering a skill once well-honed by the citizens of the former communist countries: reading between the lines of the official media (which is assumed to be full of lies) and making informed comparisons to samizdat alternative media, foreign sources, and the rumor-mill to guess what the truth might be.

Frankly, I think this is healthy. Anyone who believes anyone or anything just because of the source’s supposed authority, or because like CNN or the Washington Post the source assures you it’s telling the truth, is an idiot if not a boob.