Reactionary reflexivity Part 2: How Police Beatings are Described as 'Heightened Chaos'
Thursday, 25 July 2024 00:31

Reactionary reflexivity Part 2: How Police Beatings are Described as 'Heightened Chaos'

Dennid Broe concludes his analysis of reactionary reflexivity by focusing on TV news coverage

Nowhere is the hardening of the once playful strategy of reflexivity discussed in Part I more apparent than in corporate media news. Instead of alternating between illusion and reflexivity, it is instead utterly delusional, while sealing itself off in a reflexive bubble.

The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, CNBC, ABC, NBC, and CBS news have given up reporting and analyzing the news in any serious way, and simply transcribe U.S. State Department dispatches while chattering among themselves. The same goes for their ugly cousin Fox News, which rather than countering this blather instead by setting itself up as the opposition, while simply providing a louder and brasher echo illustrates the emptiness of media for profit. All of which suggests that there is no life or truth outside of the seamless truth of TV News.

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Police beatings reworked as “Heightened chaos” 

Two cases of reporting around the genocide in Gaza will illustrate this point. The first is the coverage of the increasingly violent attacks against students protesting the genocide on college campuses in the U.S. and across the world. Let’s focus on three elements of that coverage.

One, what was often violent repression either by the police or by armed thugs against unarmed peaceful protests was instead uniformly described not as beatings but as “clashes” that resulted in “chaos.” Reuters, in describing the violent removal of demonstrators, depicted a “jarring scene that underscored the heightened chaos that has erupted at universities.” While The New York Times recounted police “arresting dozens of people and clearing out tents” as producing “chaotic scenes,” that is, as disrupting public order.

One commentator labelled the protests themselves as “mass hysteria,” a neat reversal of a label more accurately used to describe a Zionist society bent on endless war with its neighbors and the systematic elimination and laying waste of an entire people.

The “chaos” featured students linking arms and contesting the intrusion of the police onto their campuses, that is, peaceful resistance which must have looked to privileged media stars as chaos.

The beating and mass arrests by police on these campuses was described as “clashes” between police and demonstrators. The New York Times described the police arresting scores of demonstrators at UCLA as taking place in the wake of “violent clashes a day earlier,” and NBC News echoed this description: “Police clear Pro-Palestinian encampments at UCLA after two nights of clashes.”

The description of brave police willing to make their way into a hostile territory in fact echoes that of the Israelis in Gaza who, despite blowing up universities and hospitals, are often depicted as well-meaning representatives bringing order to chaos, and “clashing” with unarmed Palestinians who they then murder at a rate of over 40,000, with the majority being women and children.

In a second instance of this rabid reflexivity, at UCLA the night before the police arrested the demonstrators, the reports described “counter-protestors,” implying a group of equally peaceful demonstrators. The New York Times initiated this appellation, subsequently adopted by CNN, Le Monde and even the student newspaper The UCLA Bruin.

My coverage of the event for The LA Progressive featured a different description of the “counter-protestors”: “masked men yelling pro-Israeli slogans threw fireworks into the protest site, beat the protestors, and assaulted them with pepper spray and bear mace in what one observer described as “hours of unchecked violence.”

There was no real investigation of who these thugs were, but there have been suggestions that they were ex-members of the IDF, Israeli Defense Forces, resettled in LA. One of the techniques used to drive demonstrators out of the campus involved playing a loop of a crying child so no one could sleep, a procedure that is a military interrogation strategy and the aural equivalent of waterboarding,” a technique pioneered by the British in Palestine and then passed on to the Mossad. 

Finally, all of the reports, sometimes ludicrously, unquestioningly adopted the police terminology which claimed the demonstrators were assaulted with “non-lethal weapons.” The Times noted a demonstrator was shot with “a less-lethal” round, while the LA Times reported officers seen firing “less-lethal” rounds during the clearing of the UCLA encampment.

CBS news claimed that “People inside the encampment wrote on social media that officers fired less-than-lethal projectiles at them.” While in actuality one demonstrator, shot with a “less-lethal” round, later left the hospital with “11 staples and 4 stitches.” It’s doubtful the person was impressed with the less-lethal character of the weapons and doubtful that anyone described the weapons on social media using the police terminology, “non-lethal.”

The most accurate description of what took place the night of the police raid was logged by the independent site Common Dreams under the headline “UCLA Students Injured in Violent Police Raid.” The story, countering general descriptions of clashes and chaos and refusing the police jargon, described how “Officers in military gear fired flash-bang munitions and used batons to clear a nonviolent encampment calling for an end to Israel's U.S.-backed war on Gaza.”

A second in a perpetual reflexive taxonomy of coverage of the Gaza Genocide occurred in the again unquestioned and constantly repeated analysis-free reporting of the so-called Biden peace plan, a ruse aimed not at actual peace in the Middle East but at quelling the uprising at home which threatens to sink Biden’s presidency, while at the same time allowing the slaughter in Rafah to continue. 

The Associated Press reported that Biden’s “peace plan” was proposed by Israel and submitted to “Hamas Militants.” National defense spokesman John Kirby on ABC News, (29) unchecked again, claimed the Israeli proposal would “negotiate a permanent ceasefire,” the rallying phrase for protest groups in the U.S. and abroad. While NPR, U.S. Public Radio, in a “think piece” called the Israeli proposal a “decisive moment” for Hamas to prove it “really” wants a peace deal, asking its listeners, in the words of Joe Biden, to “Raise your voices and demand that Hamas come to the table.”

There are three problems with this reflexive coverage. First, many top Israeli officials are opposed to the proposal, which did not originate with Israel, and have publicly said so. Second, the proposal is not Biden’s at all. It is in fact mostly crimped from a Hamas peace proposal laid out weeks before. Third and most falsely, it presents Hamas as “unreasonable militants” and Israel as desiring peace and negotiation when exactly the opposite is true. Hamas has continually proposed peace settlements and Israel proposes nothing but extermination.

The media also, having set Hamas up as bloodthirsty terrorists who do not represent the Palestinian people, must, when they are mentioned, discredit them as a legitimate entity in a peace settlement so they are illegitimate “militants” while the Israelis are a rational state entity.

For this kind of slanted coverage, with little backgrounding or analysis, The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize, which again validates the ghost whispering in the infernal machine as it rewards itself for its lack of effort. 

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Bezos’ Washington Post: Democracy dies in darkness, or when it's bought by the world's second richest man 

The result of this hardened reflexivity has been a vast decline in circulation for newspapers and ratings for television, with Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post just barely treading water and CNN now averaging 481,000 viewers, its lowest number in 33 years. The median age for its audience in 2023 increased from 60 to 67, while the median age for Fox News is 68 and MSNBC is 71. Almost 70 percent of Americans by late in 2023 had little or no trust in mass media, the highest on record.

“Half the news that’s easy to print”: Reflexivity and Commodity Production

Reflexivity in the newsroom is aided by the fact that news anchors’ standard earnings begin at $200,000, so that the producers of news identify with, as Marx says, “wealthier capitalists at one pole” and not with the receptors of news, “ever more impoverished and increasingly disenchanted and disenfranchised” “workers at the other.”


NBC News reporter casually ‘hanging out’ at site of police crushing of student protests at UCLA

Their kinship is not with the people in the street but rather in their off-camera lifestyle with “the government officials, corporate heads and celebrities” whom they cover and mix with,  their “common symbiotic relationship to established power”, as Stam puts it. This is why in a country where 40 percent of its citizens live paycheck-to-paycheck, media reporters and anchors express amazement at the inability of Americans to realize how good the economy actually is.

There is also in the current supercompetitive market driven economy an identification fostered within the newsroom hierarchy with the more-lowly reporter, as was the case with an NBC reporter in the aftermath of the arrests at UCLA, dressed casually but serious, not about reporting the news but about getting ahead and eventually moving to the anchor spot.

He is young and vibrant and wears his reporting loosely, dressed in black slacks and flak jacket, as opposed to the more uptight older anchors in dress and suit-coat who he or she will one day supplant. The newsroom here reaffirms that backstabbing and social climbing is inevitable despite the fact that, in a time of declining budgets, newsroom reporters in the field are more likely to be fired than promoted.

In producing the news, reflexivity, or simple ping-ponging of one news outlet to another, all with fairly uniform content, aids, again in a time of budget cuts, with the industrial output and the daily grind of news in the 24-hour cycle, after which what was said yesterday is forgotten. The stark narrative, endlessly repeated with no background, also furthers this profit-motive imperative, such that dates themselves are signifiers and shortcuts and need no other explanation.

Thus we have the ur date “9/11” as well as “February 24,” Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine despite the fact that the war started 10 years earlier with the killing of 15,000 Russian-speaking Ukrainians, and “October 7” which collapses the more than 75-year history of Israeli occupation into a single day and event.

As Marx notes, in capitalist production, “the notion that trumps all others is the necessity of continuity and speed,” all aided by reflexive practices that require less reporting and effort. In  David Harvey’s reading, Marx notes that the goal is to shorten as much as possible the excess of production time over working time, whether this be a wheat harvest or the reporting process.

Here, the uniformity of the playbook and the lack of analysis helps move commodity creation from its unproductive state, that is planning and gathering the story and pulling together clips, where capital is locked up, to its productive state of on-the-air or in the journal news so it can be sold.

Capital works on every means at its disposal to shorten this process, and this media referentiality with its attendant patterning and refusal to go outside the time-saving Overton Window furthers this imperative. Efficiency as a value far exceeds analysis in news casting. 

This tendency which Marx describes as an imperative to “transform all possible production into commodity production”, was starkly illustrated in a meeting of publisher Jeff Bezos with The Washington Post staff, in which it was reported that Bezos “asked questions about how in its coverage stories could be turned into products,” presumably so they could be shipped on Amazon.

The employment of these techniques also serves the ideological function of reasserting a seamless world “characterized by internal coherence and the appearance of flawless continuity,” where, as Joe Biden assured Wall Street before he was elected, “nothing would fundamentally change,” even as the Western world and the U.S. empire is collapsing.

Thus the “chaos” on college campuses is controlled and unlikely to erupt into daily life and Biden and his neo-con advisors who are supplying Israel with the 2000-ton bombs they are currently dropping on defenseless civilians in Rafah are not warmongers facilitating genocide, but peace activists who just want to see the whole thing brought to an end.

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News anchors' sartorial flair replaces analysis 

Since there is little to distinguish one news station or publication’s news report from another the salient feature becomes the “flavour,” the individual flair that reporters and broadcasters bring to the newscast. In an era of hardening reflexivity these “personality quirks,” rather than analysis, sell this worldview, hasten commodity production by taking the emphasis off the import and frightening implications of the news, and distinguish one outlet from another.

Reactionary Reflexivity: Sealing the Iron Dome on Media Coverage of Gaza, Part One
Thursday, 25 July 2024 00:31

Reactionary Reflexivity: Sealing the Iron Dome on Media Coverage of Gaza, Part One

Part One of two articles on the modern media, by Dennis Broe. Image above: The New York Times: Is Any of Their News Fit to Print? 

There was a time, before postmodernism had atrophied and before it simply became a formal textual strategy for ignoring what is going on in the world, when one of the early postmodern bywords “reflexivity” connoted a kind of fun and carefree field of play with a satirical overtone that made all kinds of intertextual relations possible.

In today’s media field, however, reflexivity is a trick used to seal the discussion and make sure that the limited media boundaries of discourse are never breached. In literature there is the rise of narcissism in autofiction (Karl Ove Knausgård’s A Death in the Family) or of an infinite play of incestuous signifiers in metafiction (Mark Haddon’s The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night).

In film and television, the earlier exposure of the wires of the cinematic apparatus has given way to complexification as a trope that conceals the fact that there is no actual referent outside the apparatus. Thus, Marvel’s Loki maps the possibilities of the online world of diverging timelines which do nothing but reify and promote Facebook’s virtual and now failing (as is the Marvel formula) Meta World.

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Loki and Meta World - limited, not infinite 

This predilection though is most overwhelmingly dominant in the mainstream corporate media’s coverage of what is happening in Gaza. The New York Times continually uses the trick of linking as an assertion of proof to stories by… The New York Times. A recent article purported to be perplexed at, despite the supposed groundswell and its attendant pressure, why the Writer’s Guild had not condemned the October 7 uprising. However, the “groundswell” and the pressure was mainly coming from…The New York Times. The media bubble validates itself and makes it seem that it is part of an overall movement when in fact the stories originate from the same source or sources, all behind a hermetically sealed bubble.

Reflexivity, no longer a playful and potentially satirical device, has hardened into simply a means of a minority maintaining power and acting like they are the majority, as now most of the people in the U.S., from no matter what party, favour a ceasefire in Gaza. That fact is seldom acknowledged in the corporate media bubble, as CNN initially forbid the word “genocide” from ever being emitted on its soundstages, and as the New York Times in a memo to its staff equally forbade “genocide” as well as “ethnic cleansing” and “occupied territory.”

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The News Not Fit to Print 

Those words were only then adopted and in a limited and “italicized” format when it became clear that most of the American public, the media audience, was resisting the one-way coverage. The boundary around which “civilized” media discussion is permitted is sometimes called ‘The Overton Window’.

The window may shift depending on public opinion but there are narrow limits beyond which corporate media will not allow. To suggest for example that October 7 was not a terrorist attack but rather, as George Galloway described it on YouTube, “a prison breakout”; or to point out that Joe Biden soiled himself as he used D-Day to campaign for more war; or that Biden’s emergency aid port in Gaza was used by the Israelis in a mass slaughter in Gaza, where the Israelis besides killing and wounding over 1000 people freed 4 hostages but killed 3 others, all these are outside the window.

If they do make their way into corporate media coverage they do so as an aside dropped in in the middle of a discourse that rationalizes the other actions: i.e., D-Day where the Germans, the cause of the invasion, are invited and the Russians, who largely rid Europe of the Nazis, are not, is a glorious event; that Biden’s port is a humanitarian endeavor; and that the “daring” Israeli raid was a courageous act akin to the Mossad’s freeing of the hostages at Entebbe instead of a war crime.

The Times will often backtrack, as they did on the Israeli attack on the Palestinian camp in the hostage release story and the next day ‘reassess” what actually went on, but the impression is formed in the first 24-hour news cycle. If, as in this case, the media files an assessment the next day, it is then countered, as was this story, a day later in a return to the “heroic” tale, most likely after the outlet has been chastised by its State Department masters. The Overton Window in the case of coverage of Gaza is an Israeli Iron Dome through which little alternative coverage penetrates.

The Perversion of Reflexivity

The coalescing of self-referential trends in postmodern thought was outlined in Robert Stam’s Reflexivity in Film and Literature in 1985. Stam’s work, describing what he termed this “other tradition,” drawing on literary texts including Rabelais, Lawrence Sterne and his “ur text” Cervantes’ Don Quixote, focused attention on the process of “the construction of the fictive ‘world’ through writing [and no longer] through consciousness.

Besides the playful aspect of these references, Stam argued that the political thrust of this tradition, carried forward most notably by Brecht and which in film and literature has continued to expand, is that by “drawing attention to the process of the construction of the fictive world,” these works “lay bare the material construction of the text.” By pointing to their own textual constructs, they “break with art as enchantment.”

The argument is that reflexive examples – and in cinema Stam’s ur texts are by Jean-Luc Godard – “interrupt the flow of narrative in order to foreground the specific means of literary and filmic production through such methods as “narrative discontinuities, authorial intrusions, essayistic digressions, stylistic virtuosities.” The accumulation of these strategies is “playful, parodic and disruptive” demystifying “our naïve faith in fictions while opening new vistas for literary and cinematic expression as a whole in a double movement of “celebratory fabulation and demystifying critique.”

Stam’s argument is highly nuanced, acknowledging that there is a perennial tension between illusionism, though here presented negatively as “substantiated fact,” and reflexivity which “points to its own mask and invites the public to examine its design and texture.” Aware also of the fact that “the reflexivity of a certain avant-garde is eminently co-optable and easily reappropriated by the hegemonic culture” and that forms of television reflexivity including commercials and that employed by the direct address of the audience by TV news “rather than trigger alienation effects” “often simply alienate.”

The book’s appearance in the mid-80s was at the time when these techniques were passing over into the mainstream, being employed on network TV for example in the constant debunking of the staid devices of late-night talk shows by NBC’s David Letterman and Showtime’s meta series It’s Gary Shandling’s Show about a comedian named Gary Shandling who lived in Sherman Oaks with actual friends and neighbors such as Tom Petty popping in to say hello.

The trend toward reflexivity though has hardened. Instead of a progressive deconstructive device, the movement of “the process made visible,” now part of its own genre termed metafiction, is often seen, instead of expansionary, as “a symptom of literary exhaustion.” And not creativity but narcissism is the description now most often levelled at this hardening of literary reflexivity.

It was, as one critic put it, as if the novel had no more territory to develop and so it turned inward on itself in a kind of “spectre of infinite regress.” This is a frenzy of a style whose most salient characteristic is not its exposure of the means of literary production but rather its construction of an interior world hermetically sealed from the actual one.

What is driving this regress and retreat is a failure to confront the triple dangers of an ever more rapid escalation toward nuclear war, unheeded climate catastrophe, and ever increasing inequality, marked by an attack on the working and middle classes under the claim of fighting inflation and the creation of more low paying jobs in a condition now called “in work poverty.”

Trump and Biden

No wonder that (bourgeois) artists are now “committed only to endless, self-indulgent textual play,” which in the end is a mirror of the sealed-off quality of the Western, imperialist, settler-colonial world that is even now being surpassed and isolated by the Global South in forms such as the BRICS alliance. In a sense metafiction, sometimes seen as a harbinger of the end of the novel, is, as is the candidacy of the geriatric defenders of an ever more oligarchic “Free World” Trump and Biden, also a harbinger of the end or exhaustion of the West and in particular of Western bourgeois democracy.

This aesthetic practice, in an era of increasing financialization and ever more rapid deindustrialization, has its “reflexive” echo in the economic practice of stock buybacks where companies instead of productive investment pump up the value of their own stock to further reward already wealthy shareholders.

These parallels also help to explain why literary and cinematic metafiction has broken through to enter the privileged mainstream of a public consciousness now imbued with these values.

Whereas for Stam, “A socially strategic reflexivity…can lay bare the devices of art while exposing the mechanisms of society,” that moment may have passed into simple reaffirming of a closed world.

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David Letterman, before and after

Take the aforementioned examples of David Letterman and Gary Shandling. Letterman’s rabid critique and exposing of the money-grubbing, penny-pinching methods of General Electric’s ownership of NBC was bounded by his not getting The Tonight Show host job. When he then was awarded the CBS equivalent, the satirical exposing element of the reflexivity disappeared and hardened, as in metafiction, into complicated games playing.

It must be noted that Shandling, who never got a job as a late-night host, went on to create one of the most vicious exposés of the vacuousness and backbiting of late night entertainment culture in The Larry Sanders Show, but here the reflexive elements of his previous series receded and the more overt satirical elements came to the fore.

In series TV production, the element of reflexivity has combined with a hardening of generic conventions to produce, with mixed results, series which reflect on their own generic construction, seen in the continual film noir clips viewed by the movie-loving detective in Sugar and the meta-references and sometimes deconstruction of cinematic depiction of the Vietnam War in the spy series about the end of that war, The Sympathizer.

While the reflexive elements harden, actual attempts to overturn the generic codes are instead discarded. Take the example of the BBC’s Channel 4 2004 series NY-LON, a romcom where in the end none of the three couplings are successful and the main romance flounders on the opposition of the bohemian female to the lifestyle of a banker. That rewriting of the genre was never pursued and the romcom promptly returned to happily ever after.

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The Curse, orbiting the earth and leaving critique behind 

Perhaps the most vacuous use of the meta-reflexive trend was in the final episode of The Curse, (23) a series about the greed and hypocrisy of gentrifying land developers which instead of driving home that critique becomes simply an epic and literal flight of fancy and manages to nearly abolish what had gone before. Needless to say that bastion of bourgeois reflexivity The New York Times hailed the episode as a series breakthrough.

Conclusion: Toppling Another Postmodern Icon

There is another pillar of postmodern thought that is equally in danger of collapsing, and that is “post-colonialism.” The discipline came to the fore in the two decades of the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium, a time of US unipolar dominance. Post-colonialism itself, whose founding tenet is that there is no separating the imbrication of the colonizer and the colonized, is a kind of compromise formation. The push of Global South scholars for equality was met by a pushback by Anglo and Western scholars fearful that this area of study would leave no place for Western intellectuals. So was born, in the wake of and, partially as a reaction to, 40 years of revolutionary activity, an imperative to put studies of the colonial center back at the heart of the debate.

What is happening though is similar to what Freud claimed with Dora: reality is intervening and curing the neurosis. The emergence of BRICS and the resistance of the Global South, first to being enlisted in the Ukraine war and then in general to being made a part of three global wars against Russia, China and Iran that would decimate the world and halt the drive for development of those in the majority of the world, is hastening a questioning of whether in key ways the Global South may go its own way and throw off the yoke of colonial “imbrication,” with the new key word being “sovereignty,” the ability of each of these countries to pursue their own path to development.

New anti-colonial movements in eg Niger and New Caledonia are calling “imbrication” into question as these areas demand control of their own resources, uranium in the former and nickel in the latter. As they do the Western media responds by disingenuously attacking these movements as “undemocratic.”

The New York Times following Le Monde lauded an amendment proposed by New Caledonia’s colonial overlord Emmanuel Macron to allow more French citizens in the territory to vote, which the Times described, “a move toward full democracy.” What the story leaves out is that the move is a trick to extend the franchise to more French voters in order to shut out the demands of the Kanaks, the indigenous movement, for independence and keep the nickel, crucial for future development of batteries, under French control.

Here media reflexivity and post-colonialism go hand in hand, with both operating to sustain Western power as that power is rapidly decaying and becoming increasingly irrelevant in ever more expanding economic regions and intellectual spheres of the world.

Corporate and alternative media, now and in Los Angeles in the 1950s
Thursday, 25 July 2024 00:31

Corporate and alternative media, now and in Los Angeles in the 1950s

Dennis Broe discusses the opposition between corporate and alternative media, now and in the 1950s. Image above: Charlotta Bass, editor of The California Eagle

Today with the wars on Gaza, in the Ukraine, and the possible coming war on China, there is a huge gap between what is being said in the mainstream media and what is being said on alternative sites on the internet.

Recently, for example, on the second anniversary of the war in Ukraine, the New York Times ran a Pentagon and State Department account of the war. In this account, the war was started by Russia on February 24, 2022. It included its reasons for being (Putin’s aggressiveness which now threatens all Europe) and its possible outcome (there is none, just continual fighting).

This contrasted sharply on every point with political organizer Brian Becker and Global South scholar Vijay Prashad’s view on the podcast, YouTube, and streaming show The Socialist Program. Prajad and Becker noted that what they called “The Ukrainian Civil War” started nearly a decade earlier in 2014, after a U.S.-backed coup aided by Ukrainian Nazis overthrew the elected head of the country and started bombing the Russian majority Donetsk region killing 14,000 people.

Russia’s “Special Military Operation” then was the response to NATO threatening to absorb Ukraine and put missiles on Russia’s border, with the Russians, almost since the beginning of the SMO, suing for peace in an agreement that was sabotaged by Boris Johnson and the West.

The line of demarcation between on the one hand corporate media and the political class, led by the nose by the arms and fossil fuel industries and by powerful lobbying groups such as Israel’s AIPEC, and on the other hand the legion of podcasters, YouTubers, bloggers and online publications that are every day standing against this deadly barrage, is more sharply drawn than ever. It’s social media versus what seems more and more like antisocial, bellicose and belligerent media.

Interestingly, these lines can also be traced beyond today’s internet alternative media explosion to an earlier period where, with the outlawing and excising of many of the ideas and social practices of the more collectivist and worker-oriented New Deal, there was an equally momentous battle between the corporate media – in this case the dominant newspapers – and newspapers which spoke to and represented audiences left out of the corporate consensus.

Nowhere was this difference starker than in Los Angeles between the high-circulation Los Angeles Times, which had also launched a second paper and its own television station, and the African-American paper The California Eagle, which began in the 1920s and championed the rights of Negroes to own property where they wanted in a heavily segregated city.

The former was run by the Chandler family, who were rabidly anti-union champions of an Anglo Los Angeles, spread out across the county in suburban, individual, single-family homes with a system of freeways and building projects that benefitted Chandler real estate interests. The Times utilized and promoted “anti-communism” as a way of smearing its opponents.

The Eagle’s editor Charlotta Bass stood instead for the vision of an integrated and equal Los Angeles, defending public transit and community institutions, and welcoming peaceful and harmonious intercourse with the socialist world of Russia and China.

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The House That Buff Built 

These differences are also sharply illustrated in my latest Harry Palmer detective novel The House That Buff Built where Harry, in the course of helping his Chinese client to integrate the town of Torrance, encounters both Charlotta and the Chandlers and is stunned by the difference between “The Eagle, [Charlotta’s] modest paper, and the gigantic, but for her monstrous, L.A. Times.

While The Eagle was supported by its African-American community, the Times was the largest newspaper in terms of circulation in the country’s most booming region in the post war period, read and advertised in by the city’s elite. In 1950, the paper, though improving, was still opposed to original unbiased reporting and according to David Halberstam in The Powers That Be was filled with wire service briefs, dispatches from city corporations that it partially controlled and “slanted political coverage that read more like memos from and to the Republican Central Committee than journalism.”

To Segregate or Not to Segregate: Housing in Los Angeles

A primary area of disagreement between the two newspapers was segregation versus inclusion, in the battle over Los Angeles housing. The Chandlers’ vision was of an Anglo Los Angeles with white flight peopling the suburbs and its new inhabitants manoeuvering through a system of freeways with the land, the building materials for the roadways and even the rubber for the automobiles coming from Chandler companies.

The city meanwhile would be remade, with the Times favoring a gutting of the low income habitats of Bunker Hill and Mexican-American villages in what is now Chavez Ravine and the buildup of the Northern part of downtown near the Times building with Norman Chandler, the heir to the fortune in the 1950s, being told when he took over the paper that the key to the editorial page was to “think of what is good for real estate.” The paper actively promoted these interests and this demolition. “Our future,” Dorothy Chandler tells Harry in a candid admission “was not in trying to be a paper for the black or the Latino populations or the low-income white population.”

The Eagle meanwhile was instrumental in furthering Negro expansion out of the tight quarters around Central Avenue where African-Americans had been confined, and instead moving into homes both north and south of this area. Prior to this period a method of enforcement of segregation was restrictive covenants, which forbid homeowners from selling to the “Negro or Mongolian” races, thus also limiting the Chinese to Chinatown. In 1948 the Supreme Court outlawed this use in a case argued by Eagle reporter Loren Miller who would succeed Bass in running the paper in 1951. 

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Buffy and Norman Chandler

A major site where segregation was either fostered or contested was the society or women’s pages of each paper. Norman’s wife Dorothy Chandler, nicknamed Buffy or Buff, took over those pages in the Times and used them to blackmail wealthy donors to support her vision of “modern” Los Angeles built around what would become gleaming corporate skyscrapers and cultural centres, perched on a demolished Bunker Hill.

Meanwhile, Charlotta Bass used the back pages of The Eagle to fashion women’s groups which she called on for support when homeowners moving out of Central Avenue were beseiged by aggressive “neighbours” who attempted to drive them out of their homes, and this was after the Supreme Court decision which applied only to federal housing projects.

As Harry puts it in the novel, “I thought about the contrast between The California Eagle’s Charlotta Bass, who used the society pages of her publication to rally Negro ladies to defend the hard-won housing gains of her readers trying to secure a better place in Dorothy’s society, and Dorothy’s organizing of the rich [through the Times society pages] in a way that excluded everyone else and furthered their own power.”

Collectivist vs. Individualist Futures

There was also two different visions of the city professed by each publication. The Times was rabidly anti-union, going back to its founder General Otis, who called union leaders “corpse defacers” and unions “the poison of the American future,” and actively resisted unions at the paper. The Times instead favored dividing working people by breaking up urban neighbourhoods and housing them in more isolated, individual units in the suburbs.

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Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the plot to sabotage public transportation in LA

The newspaper was against public transportation, instead promoting the individual in his or her own car and declaring on its editorial pages that "Southern California throbs in unison with the purring motors of its automobiles." The paper championed the building of the country’s first freeway which connected the ultra-rich old wealth community of Pasadena with downtown Los Angeles and was then followed by the Harbor, Hollywood, Long Beach and Santa Anna freeways.

The Eagle defended the cheap and environmentally effective mass transit trolleys and buses which ferried its readers to and from work, and was a champion of trade unions, many of which were integrated. They also had African-American women not only as members but also as leaders, in the factories that had sprung up as Southern California became the country’s main motor of production during the war.

When Harry visits Charlotta Bass at the office of The Eagle she lays out this difference:

“She described a city that on one side was made up of the Klan, the National Rifle Association and property restriction organizations, and on the other the labor movement, the Negro, Jewish, Mexican, and Chinese minorities; ‘those people who do the work in the city and who are fighting against the threat of a new fascism at home.’”

Cold War vs. Enduring Peace

Following the lead of its founder General Otis, who led a slaughter against Filipino women and children in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, named his homes “The Bivouac” and “The Outpost,” and organized the Times staff in an anti-union “phalanx” armed with rifles and shotguns, the Times in the 1950s under Norman Chandler was a huge supporter of the Cold War and the anti-communism campaign.

Union busting 

Union Busting at the LA Times 

The Times pushed Richard Nixon in his successful run for the Senate in 1950, calling his red-baiting attack on Alger Hiss “heroic,” as well as being a firm backer of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s paranoid finding of communists next door to every American, lauding McCarthy’s bullying tactics as speaking softly and “carrying the big stick of logic.”

The mainstream newspaper used the generalized attack on what amounted to the reforms of Roosevelt’s New Deal to eventually install their own candidate for mayor, Norman Poulson, in 1952, who would veto what the paper saw as the eyesore of public housing and apply the Cold War policy of “containment” on the home front to keep minority communities bottled up and limit expansion.

On the other hand, The Eagle in its pages constantly favored peace and understanding with both the established socialist republic of Russia and the emerging socialist state of China. The paper covered a global conference on women’s rights in Beijing in 1949 which promoted a transnational anti-colonial platform for women fighting imperial oppression, covered a speech by Paul Robeson’s wife in China, and reported positively on the gains of the revolution as distributing land “so now everyone has a home, a chance to go to school and a job with women treated as equals.”

womens conference 

Women’s anti-colonial conference in Beijing in 1949 

The paper also had a diametrically opposed view of containment, terming the reinstitution of personal homeowner restrictions in the wake of the Supreme Court decision “re-covenanting,” supporting activists who “made it clear that they had not fought to destroy fascism abroad only to have it camping on their doorsteps at home.”

As for the real post-war menace and threat, in the novel Charlotta Bass, who has just been assaulted by a gang of white teens, tells Harry that “They always talk about Negro and Mexican violence, but in reality, and it’s true in your case with the Chinese as well, the real fear is white violence.”

The past as mirror into the future

Today, the mainstream media is more adamantly than ever pushing for war at every opportunity, operating to confuse their audience and make unclear what is crystal clear. Thus a recent example was how Israel’s massacre of starving Palestinians as they clamoured for food was presented in the Western press, not a mass killing of defenceless people, but as a chaotic riot by a stampeding mob. The 1950s example of both the strident self-aggrandizing and bellicose Los Angeles Times and the courageous, resistant California Eagle tirelessly campaigning for equality and peace is more trenchant than ever.

The New York Times was recently the recipient of the prestigious Polk Award for its coverage of the assault on Gaza, a coverage that for the most part was distinguished by its shallowness, lacking any background coverage or treatment of the conflict pre-October 7, 2023. In this light,  Harry’s verdict on the Chandler’s imposing their will in the creation of modern Los Angeles stands as a warning of a too powerful media operating in a vacuum:

“The paper was everywhere. Buff’s ‘civilizing mission’ was part of remaking a town that, when it resisted that mission, might be compelled by whatever means necessary to accept it.”