US Senator Cory Booker rebuked US Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen last week for saying she could not remember President Trump’s exact words at an immigration meeting, where he reportedly described Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries”. “Your silence and your amnesia is complicity,” he told her.
Politicians regularly use amnesia to rewrite history and wash away their own past actions and words. Forgotten Brexit promises on sides of buses are all too fresh in the memory’s of many members of the British public, though not the politicians who put them there. Politicians rewriting history is nothing new, but it seems that in our age of information overload history is being rewritten at warp speed – indeed it is being rewritten while it is happening. Henry Giroux describes “the violence of organised forgetting” by an array of US institutions, a political amnesia that short circuits critical thought and helps sustain an increasingly coercive society – amnesia allowed, or facilitated by the media.
Indeed, it could be argued that neither Trump nor Brexit could have happened without media amnesia. Both can be seen in part as outcomes of a decade of global economic and political crisis that begun with the 2008 financial crash. Since then, austerity and privatisation have been stepped up shock-doctrine style (http://www.naomiklein.org/shock-doctrine), leading to spiralling inequality and in some cases humanitarian crises. New demagogues have arisen as people’s fear and anger over their financial insecurity are channelled into nationalist projects.
Measures that have been brought in to deal with the crisis – like austerity, privatisation and corporation tax cuts – are versions of the same policies that caused the banking meltdown in the first place. The reaction to a crisis of neoliberalism has been not to hit the brakes but to slam the foot on the neoliberal pedal. How can it be that the same policies keep getting trotted out despite successive collapses and crises?
Media amnesia has played a vital role. As private debt became public and the banking crisis morphed into public debt crises, blame was shifted away from the private sector towards government profligacy. Mark Blyth has called this “the greatest bait and switch in modern history”. This transfer of blame has been one of the key means of justifying austerity and a radical transfer of resources from the public to the private sector.
My research carried out at Cardiff University analysed UK media coverage of the economic crisis in its various guises – from the banking crash to the Great Recession, the UK deficit, the eurozone crisis and rising inequality. It found that, as the crisis mutated, it was reframed in the media. At the height of the banking meltdown in late 2008, the main explanations given for the problems were the greed and misconduct of bankers on the one hand and the systemic problems with the sector – like subprime lending and dodgy financial products – on the other. The wider context of deregulation and the faulty free market model was even in the picture – it was the third most frequently cited explanation, and appeared even in the right-wing press.
Just a few months later in April 2009, high borrowing figures led to a media hysteria around the deficit. The crisis was reframed with the help of some impressive media amnesia and misremembering. By the end of April 2009, government profligacy had become the dominant explanation for the UK deficit, accounting for 33 per cent of explanations given. The financial crisis was at 28 per cent, but the causes of the financial crisis in turn had been forgotten. Financial sector misconduct accounted for 9 per cent of explanations. Systemic problems in finance weren’t offered as an explanation at all, and deregulation and the faulty free market model accounted for only 6.5 per cent – given three times. The timeline of the crisis was being erased and rewritten.
How was crisis rewritten with such speed? In the UK’s corporate press, media amnesia was often manufactured deliberately. Headlines screamed about wasteful government spending and mismanagement. The liberal sections of the press and the public broadcasters sometimes reproduced this media amnesia and misremembering passively. The dominant, right-wing press tends to set the news agenda overall, so debates are contained within the parameters set by them. Secondly, journalists tend to rely on politicians and officials as their primary sources, allowing partisan interests to define the terms of the debate. And almost all politicians were offering some form of austerity, so amnesia made sense for them – without a foundational myth linking economic decline to government profligacy, the public would be unlikely to accept austerity as the cure. This trend took hold even the Labour Party, which after Blair’s free-market-friendly PR seemed to face the choice of either accepting blame for overspending or accepting blame for pursuing a blindly corporate-friendly agenda for the previous decade. Third, due to its focus on the very latest events, there is a chronic lack of historical context in journalism. In 52% of the sample on the deficit, there was no explanation whatsoever.
These daily routines and pressures on journalists sit within the economic and political context that produced the crisis in the first place. Due to market forces, British media has over time become concentrated in the hands of media barons who will put everything into preserving an economic model that suits them. ‘Hypercommericalisation’ of media in the neoliberal era has led to cost-cutting and revenue-raising on a scale that impedes journalists from adequately informing citizens. Public broadcasters have been made to operate around internal markets.
Commentators and academics have observed with bemusement what sociologist Colin Crouch has called “the strange non-death of neoliberalism” since 2008. How could it be, they ask, that a crisis originating in free market capitalism has led not to a reverse-course but to a ramping up of that form of capitalism? How has the disease become the cure? Media amnesia is a key piece of this puzzle. It has led to a short circuiting of critical thought and has helped trap us in a neoliberal groundhog day. Curing media amnesia by creating media systems in which journalists can offer thorough, pluralistic understanding of crises is one necessary route to finding a way out.