You shouldn’t, a lot of the time, of course. But a general approach of believing nothing in the bourgeois media is just as mind-rotting as credulity.
Bourgeois freedom of the press is not adequate, but it is something. We can read about Libya (for example) in a big range of bourgeois media, from the Financial Times through Le Monde and the Los Angeles Times and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung to Al Jazeera. They all have their own slants. Each can benefit from revealing something hushed up by another. None of them is controlled by a government.
Each of them has an immediate “market” interest in being known as reporting facts accurately. The capitalists themselves, and their large army of advisers, managers, and so on, need to know what’s going on. Some of them, on some things, commission private research, but most of them, on most issues, rely on the serious bourgeois press.
In the 1850s Karl Marx, with the help of Frederick Engels, made a living by writing reports on British and European affairs for a maverick bourgeois newspaper, the New York Daily Tribune. When he reported on the Crimean War, for example, he had no first-hand information. His reports to New York were based on reading a big range of bourgeois newspapers in Europe. He told his New York readers his sources for contentious assertions, and explained what bias or slant he expected from each paper.
He “believed what he read in the bourgeois media”, but read carefully, critically, and from a wide range of sources. His approach should be our model.
If not from the bourgeois media, where do we get our information on events beyond what we can see with our own eyes?
From the working-class media? In practice, the left press? Yes, sometimes, on industrial disputes blanked out by the bourgeois media. But on international politics, “high” domestic politics, and general social and economic trends, the left press, short of resources, has to rely for its basic information on the bourgeois media and other “bourgeois” sources, official statistics and so on. It “believes the bourgeois media”.
The left papers try to put the facts in context, and to highlight facts which get “lost in the crowd” in the bourgeois press. Essential work. Someone who reads a broad range of the left press, and critically, will get a reasonable picture of reality. Our material poverty means that even that person will be much better informed if she or he also reads the serious bourgeois press carefully.
Activists who take their information solely or mainly from a particular sector of the left press makes themselves utterly dependent on the slanting and selection of the papers they choose to read.
Imagine someone who read only the Financial Times, and someone who read only Socialist Worker. Which would be better informed about the world? Despite the general socialist intentions and attitudes of SW’s editors, the answer would be: the FT reader.
Relying on Socialist Worker, the reader would become captive to SW’s “agitationalism”, its propensity to take whatever snippets it can find in the bourgeois press which serve its current agitational line and inflate them to the exclusion of all else. And SW is far from the worst of the left press.
People who claim to have a line to world news bypassing the bourgeois media will in fact be dependent on one or another sector of the left press; or, ironically, on garbled snippets from the bourgeois press; or, worse, on Chinese-whispered recycling of stuff via the internet or word of mouth; or, even worse, on constructing a picture from their own prejudices.
“You can’t believe the bourgeois media”, was the rallying-cry of the majority in a recent debate in the London Transport Regional Council of the rail union RMT.
As Becky Crocker, one of the Workers’ Liberty Tube workers who were in the minority in that debate, put it afterwards, this amounted to saying: don’t believe information reflecting at least some knowledge of what’s going on, but instead believe whatever the speaker had made up, for example, that the anti-Qaddafi rebels in Libya are all “agents of the CIA and Al Qaeda”.
In the RMT council, political influences — ex-SWPers, and hangovers from the time when Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party was strong there — have weight. There is more to it.
Active trade unionists, used to seeing the capitalist media distort or blank out their industrial disputes, are sometimes predisposed to “never believe the bourgeois media”, or even to believe the opposite of what the bourgeois media say.
For decades that predisposition helped the Stalinists. The bourgeois media reported a mass of horrors in the USSR. Conclusion: the USSR must be good to attract that hostility. The USSR was good because the factual reports showed it to be bad.
As the disillusioned Susan Sontag put it in 1982: “Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest [at the tacky end of the right-wing bourgeois press spectrum] between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or The New Statesman [leftish liberal magazines]. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism [she meant: Stalinism]? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?”
We should read everything critically — starting with what we write ourselves. If we read critically, we can get a lot of information from the serious bourgeois media.
The “don’t believe the bourgeois press” line is inevitably tied up with conspiracy theories. It depends on the idea that some agency of the bourgeoisie, the CIA or whatever, can control the whole bourgeois media behind the scenes, and meanwhile secretly supply the bourgeoisie with the true facts.
The “not believing” usually takes the form, not of flatly denying the main facts reported in the bourgeois media, but of claiming that those facts are shaped by an elaborately-hidden conspiracy. No-one thought that the bourgeois media reports of the bare facts of the 11 September 2001 plane hijackings were made up. Many people claimed that the hijackings were not organised by the people who said they’d organised them and had a long record of attempting similar things, but by secret agencies of the US government or “the Zionists”.
That way lies craziness and anti-semitism — and political helplessness. Secret bourgeois agencies so strong that they can engineer popular movements in Libya or other countries at will must be hard to defeat.
The “don’t believe the bourgeois media” and “conspiracy” mindset is a victim mindset rather than a revolutionary one.