Imagining a democratic press: How anarchism can release journalism from the capitalist chokehold

By Honey Christensen and Robbie Mason.

The mass media propagates an illusory sense of freedom. The belief that the media is an integral cog in democracy, holding governments and multinational corporations accountable, unequivocally benign, has a soporific effect. It makes the populace susceptible to the inculcation of values that encourage social regimentation and adherence to institutions useful to capitalism. The current media landscape is underpinned by the deification of the market and demonisation of all journalistic mechanisms that operate or attempt to operate on the fringes of the capitalist organism, a view endorsed by a populace under the influence of systematic propaganda.

Much of the media we consume has been depoliticised and sensationalised. Clickbait listicles from Buzzfeed and our cultural obsession with the vicissitudes of celebrity life are particularly frightening examples of the phenomenon. Ever-expanding media conglomerates, clasped tightly within the fists of a few wealthy families, and advertisers have hijacked public discourse, prioritising profit to the detriment of ethical journalism. Even critical, research-based journalism feeds the capitalist organism because it ultimately serves the interests of the state and those in control of capital, from whom it acquires much of its ‘legitimately’ sourced material. This is part of a ‘propaganda model’, so called by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, a work that remains especially relevant as we analyse journalism and media through an anarchist lens. 

Like a landslide eroding the prospect of a level playing field and creating roadblocks in the dissemination of radical media narratives , the professionalisation of journalism via tertiary education courses and accreditation agencies reinforces capitalist relations of production. Journalism and creative writing degrees are likely to remain expensive if neoliberal models for higher education, centred on the employability of students and profitability, persist worldwide. This locks out the masses from becoming qualified journalists, preserving an elite media class. 

Formal training teaches subservience to bureaucratic authority. No corporate university wants to develop a reputation for producing cowboy journalists who ignore rules and frolic in a Wild West of unabashed biased reporting and gonzo journalism, fat on a diet of Hunter S. Thompson, Antonio Gramsci, Noam Chomsky and Jacques Derrida. As a result of this conditioning, we arrogantly assume that only properly trained journalists – a technocratic elite – know best how to distil news from misinformation. The irony, of course, is that in fast-paced newsrooms, journalists rely heavily on ‘credible’, official sources. They attend court hearings and police departments. They skim-read press releases and draft legislation. They return to well-trusted, proven leaks. This minimises the cost of investigating and fact-checking, and allows fewer journalists to monopolise news production. Their reporting and angles in longer analysis pieces usually therefore replicate ruling class narratives. 

Formalised education entrenches problematic journalistic ethics and hierarchical relationships between writer, presenter, producer or interviewer, on the one hand, and subject or interviewee, on the other. This means upholding the violence of invasive, ethnographic scrutiny for marginalised communities. In her seminal work Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, Māori anthropologist Linda Tuhiwai Smith criticises this phenomenon, evident within academic research, as a pointed instrument for imperialist domination, all too commonly trapped within Eurocentric worldviews. We can apply the same critique to journalism. 

When we view journalism as an exploitative enterprise which harnesses personal stories for the purpose of individual career advancement and profitability, it becomes clear that the press itself actively contributes to public mistrust. It is possible to look beyond the five ‘filters’ Chomsky and Herman identify in Manufacturing Consent to see on the horizon an ominous storm of interpersonal pressures from co-workers – pressures which limit journalists’ autonomy and freedom of expression. At an interpersonal level, communication reflects the structural conditions which shape media reporting. Journalists generally consider interviews and research a zero-sum game. Showing an interviewee any sections of writing or, even more blasphemously, an entire draft prior to publication is a taboo topic in university classrooms and newsrooms. Journalists fear that an interviewee may plagiarise work or take a story to another media outlet in a hyper-competitive market if a draft is not to their taste. Pre-publication review is something whispered about in office corridors, dropped glibly into beer-fuelled pub conversations and conducted discreetly by a small minority of journalists. Revealing drafts to sources is apparently ‘unprofessional’. It ruins the reputation of a newspaper for objectivity and ‘transparency’ because it cedes editorial authority to an outsider. It results in a reprimand and sometimes even the termination of employment. 

Early career journalists are instructed to manipulate sources and trigger emotional reactions to produce the best headlines. While this makes sense in the context of political reporting and forcing accountability, it is a blanket technique applied to all styles of journalism. The mainstream media, kow-towing to the interests of advertising companies and free markets, as outlined in Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda model, adore sensationalism. This increases circulation and profit. 

A veil of distrust entombs the press, and it goes both ways. It is not just the observers who question the observed. In a world of ‘fake news’ and social media echo-chambers, faith in the media appears to be at an all-time low. An Ipsos study, conducted between January 25 and February 8, 2019, found that, while Australians tend to trust media outlets more than other nationalities, our trust in traditional and digital media has steadily declined over the past five years. Our faith in traditional forms of media – that is, newspaper and magazines – declined marginally more (14%) than our faith in TV and radio (13%) and online news platforms (9%). This trend is reflected in other global surveys including the Edelman Trust Barometer – a comprehensive measure of trust in business, government, media and NGOs, updated annually for the past twenty years. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Report revealed that Australia is currently experiencing the largest gap in trust in social institutions between the informed public and mass population on record. Ask your average worker what they think of journalists and they’ll probably tell you that journalists are a bourgeois class out to get you. Indeed, the Edelman Trust Barometer has consistently demonstrated that mistrust is particularly prevalent among non-elite residents in liberal democracies. 

What, then, can an anarchist press look like? 

Perhaps the history of anarchist publication in Spain can provide a model. At its zenith – James Yeoman suggests this was between 1890 and 1915 in Print Culture and the Formation of the Anarchist Movement in Spain, 1890-1915 – anarchist media in Spain cultivated and disseminated information that both reported on and was integral to organising nation-wide militancy. Cognizant of their inability to match the production capacity of mainstream news sources, the presses provided readers with meaningful anarchist analysis that was intended to supplement narratives propagated by the state rather than directly compete with them. Working with limited means, the presses published information on current political struggles and associated solidarity movements, as well as philosophical pieces on anarchist theory, drawing particularly from the work of Errico Malatesta and Pyotr Kropotkin.

Publishing groups faced consistent and severe state repression including police violence and intimidation of associates such as commercial printers, as well as surveillance of postal correspondence. As such, they did not have the luxuries of open communication and legitimacy afforded to state-endorsed media entities, instead relying on community support for researching, financing and distributing their publications. Constitutive to this system were the local correspondents; the nodes that fostered reciprocal relationships between the anarchist publishers and their communities. Unlike the modern ‘professional’ journalist, correspondents both created and disseminated the news, writing, collecting money for their publications and solidarity funds and distributing them physically and verbally. Factory workers and other manual labourers took turns reading anarchist prose aloud on the production line while others covered their share of the labour. This ensured that revolutionary ideas circulated outside urban centres and traditional organising spaces, among the working populations who stood to benefit the most from them.

Anarchist writers in turn-of-the-century Spain aimed to reach workers without a formal education. They engaged readers with accessible language, directly responding to the state erosion of the public sphere by democratising anarchist ideas. Illustrations and poetry were also popular because they distilled the zeitgeist in an emotionally captivating way. Their writing was designed to be read aloud. Repetition, rhetorical devices and call-and-response techniques functioned like driftwood bobbing in a sea of proletarian discontent. Latched onto by largely illiterate working class communities, hungry for class consciousness, bedraggled and yearning for more stable ground, this oral culture tied into the dynamism and creativity of praxis-centric, libertarian socialism.

In our internet-obsessed age it is easy to forget the power of the spoken word in social movements. Conversation forces us to directly confront differing opinions and experiences, and collaboration ensures that the ideas of individuals are not poured into a black hole and divorced from a practical context. The Spanish anarchists systematically encouraged discussion of this nature in their tribuna libres (open forums), open letters section and certámenes (literary competitions), where anarchists transparently examined and evaluated the work of their peers. For this reason they regarded propaganda as praxis; it not only expanded the reach of anarchism but also consolidated the values of the groups internally. According to Yeoman, the presses were the closest thing to an anarchist structure in what was a “symbiotic relationship between movement and press.”

But it is not only from the past we can learn. We can take inspiration from the current Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the US, where livestreamers on Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and Twitch have developed cult followings. These vigilante journalists broadcast front-line visions of BLM rallies, police skirmishes, tear gas and fire, while professional news crews duck and weave, tentatively scouring the edges of urban battlegrounds. Dedicated fans have helped crowd-source funds, carting these livestreamers around the country to cover protests and enabling them to purchase better equipment. Established in 2015, Unicorn Riot is perhaps the most famous example. But what we have seen in the past few months specifically is the proliferation of citizen journalism and full-time protesting. This is grassroots, decentralised journalism, blasted live across cyberspace with no filter.

Deprofessionalising journalism is essential to anarchist praxis. The inherent power imbalance in the observer-observed dichotomy is fundamentally incompatible with anti-hierarchical principles, especially where the observed are victims of colonialism, or members of other marginalised groups whose experiences academics and state-appointed ‘welfare’ agents have historically pathologised and problematised. Too many regard the journalist ‘class’ as mediators between the ‘experts’ and the unwashed, uneducated masses, a dislocating role that isolates journalists from the working classes. The resulting tension allows those experts and other institutional hegemonies to gatekeep information and decision-making power whilst expropriating knowledge from the observed. This dystopian information filter determines everything from what is classified as a mental disorder to which elections are delegitimised in the global south.

While there is nothing inherently antithetical about expertise within an anarchist framework, this exploitative dynamic must be broken down. We need a radical reconstruction of journalistic norms. This new press will free itself from the chains of objectivity, value extensive fact-checking, abolish career journalism and build trust with vulnerable communities by writing collaboratively and sharing drafts with sources hesitant to speak publicly. Anarchist journalism will act as a mouthpiece for the revolution, encourage participation and dismantle networks of social capital, drawing inspiration from our Spanish predecessors. It will not trip over itself in a bog of over-intellectualised jargon, stumbling into a barren no-man’s-land of inaccessible language. With First Nations communities, where there is a long history of cultural abuse and exploiting sacred knowledge, forcibly obtained, there must be a prolonged consultation process and recognition of cultural sovereignty. A decentralised production process is the way forward.

This article from Sydney Anarcho-Communists Bulletin #2.

Suggested Reading List

James Yeoman, Print Culture and the Formation of the Anarchist Movement in Spain, 1890-1915 (Routledge: New York, 2020). 
Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (London: Zed Books, 2012). 
Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Pantheon Books: New York, 1988). 
Alicia C. Shepard, ‘Show and Print’, American Journalism Review 18, no. 2 (March 1996).