White Man’s Media: A short history

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The power of media cuts both ways. Just as markets need true, fair and timely information to perform effectively, society needs a courageous media to speak truth to power. AFP

To be fair, modern media is white men’s invention. Even though the Chinese invented paper and printing, Gutenberg’s type-set printing of papal indulgences and the Bible launched media into the religious, commercial and cultural space that launched the Industrial Revolution and imperialism. Western science, driven by religious fervour for capitalism, paved the way for the information revolution that became global.

Nothing succeeds like success. White Man’s Media became successful through both new technology and its business model. The medieval Catholic Church got substantial funding by issuing indulgences (forgiving sins from divorces, abortions and crimes) and granting letters patent, franchises and charters to go out and conquer colonies. As the commercial class rose in power, so did its demand for information. Venetian merchants created political and war news sheets in 1566.

By 1609, Germany printed the first newspapers. Such printed media spread information and knowledge from the hands of the royalty, clergy and elites to the masses. This paved the way for the first French and American revolutions with populist cries for equality, freedom and democracy. American media invented advertising, pushing the right of everyone to consume, enter into debt and freely erode our natural resources.

But the power of media cuts both ways. Just as markets need true, fair and timely information to perform effectively, society needs a courageous media to speak truth to power. Sound political decisions cannot be made with bad or corrupted information. Thus, as early as 1695, Britain abolished the licensing of the press, and by 1791, the newly independent United States of America institutionalised the freedoms of speech, press and assembly into the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Armed with these freedoms, the White Man’s Media played a crucial role in the advancement of science, technology, and colonisation. Media, power and technology formed a formidable tool-box that gave the West the decisive edge of knowledge to dominate the rest of the world. As the Arab Orientalist scholar Edward Said lamented, mental colonisation through religion and ideology was more powerful than physical colonisation and this was achieved largely through education in Western languages, taught through Christian schools.

Ergo, media is power that can be used to dominate others, inseparable from war and beliefs. As Kenyan independence fighter Jomo Kenyata quipped: “When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land, and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.”

The Nazi propaganda chief Goebbels understood the power of media in politics when he realised that a lie repeated enough becomes the truth. This prompted Winston Churchill to proclaim that “in wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies”.

Fast forward to today, the drums of war are again being beaten by White Man’s Media, again attended by a bodyguard of lies. Internet guru Yochai Benkler, in his 2018 book Network Propaganda summed up the dangers: “First, having a segment of society that is systematically disengaged from objective journalism and the ability to tell truth from partisan fiction is dangerous to any country. It creates fertile ground for propaganda. Second, it makes actual governance difficult . . . Third, the divorce of a party base from the institutions and norms that provide a reality check on our leaders is a political disaster waiting to happen.”

These disasters are unfolding by the day.

Former CIA media analyst Martin Gurri stated succinctly in Revolt of the Public (2016): “We live in an age of misinformation – an age of spin, marketing and downright lies. Of course, lying is hardly new, but the deliberate propagation of false or misleading information has exploded in the past century, driven by new technologies for disseminating information – radio, television, the internet – and by the increased sophistication of those who would mislead us.”

In short, White Man’s Media is today being challenged by the rise of new media channels such as Al Jazeera, CGTN, RT and myriad of small social media channels (for example, johnmenadue.com) that provide a whole range of information that portray different perspectives and views in different languages from White Man’s Media. And that is what should be the case, because truth comes not from “my way or no way”, but from a myriad different colours of opinions and perceptions. Global media cannot be controlled by a small minority who has only their interests at heart.

The debacles of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars showed that wars fought on the basis of outright lies end up badly for everyone. What role did the White Man’s Media play in such disasters by not speaking truth to power?

The American writer James Baldwin wrote in 1962 about racism in his country: “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveal, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Events have shown that White Man’s Media know far less about the rest of the world than they admit, and that they know themselves even less.

We have a situation where the white man is still dominant in global economics, finance, military, technology and media, but may lose that dominance with rapidly changing circumstances. We have a majority that feels insecure because it realises that soon it may be a global minority, in both population and power. No minorities can feel secure when the majority is insecure.

That is not a good foundation for global peace and stability.

Andrew Sheng writes on global affairs from an Asian perspective. He is a former central banker and financial regulator.