Howard Zinn on media and democracy

In 2002 Howard Zinn recorded this PSA as part of Reclaim the Media's Media and Democracy Radio Features series. Listen or download.

This is Howard Zinn, and I’d like to tell you something about Media and Democracy.

George Orwell wrote the lines, "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past." He understood that if you can control what people know about history, if you can decide what gets in and what is left out, you can order their thinking. You can order their values. You can in effect organize their brains by controlling their knowledge.

The people who dominate today’s big media networks, who publish school textbooks, who decide upon the dominant ideas in our culture, are mostly rich, white men. Not surprisingly, they ask that history concentrate on those who are rich and white and male. That is why the point of view of black people has not been a very important one in the telling of our history; same with women’s perspectives, or those of working people.

Most of what we get from mainstream media and from standard history books is ideological--biased not in favor of the people, but towards the commercial and political interests of the men and corporations at the top.

When the New York Times interprets events in a certain way—whether by describing a nonviolent demonstration as a “riot,” or by failing to critique government foreign policy claims, that interpretation becomes history—it becomes the record people will turn to in the future to find out about the past.

That’s why media voices from outside the mainstream have been so important throughout American history, even if they are left out of history’s “official version.”

There have been periods in American history when pamphlets and newspapers have had an important effect in arousing and organizing a movement. Back during the antislavery movement, abolitionists spread literature all over the country—so much so that President Andrew Jackson ordered the Postmaster General to bar abolitionist literature from the Southern states. Earlier in this century there were thriving labor newspapers, providing a counterpoint to the business-run press.

Today, community radio stations and alternative publications are still found all over the country. Satellite TV and the Internet make it easier to distribute alternative media to audiences in distant homes and libraries. These community-based media resources are increasingly important, as critical voices are silenced or pushed to the margins by the mainstream.

By letting these voices speak, the alternative media preserve crucial parts of today’s history—and challenge powerful institutions’ right to control the future.

This is Howard Zinn.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey