When I was 30 in Delaware and bored with writing speeches for DuPont Company executives, I inserted references to baseball in half a dozen consecutive speeches and then did the same with quotations from Alexis de Tocqueville, the 1830s author of “Democracy in America.”
My favorite was his description of soft despotism: “The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals.”
When I was 40 in Texas and eager to learn a little Spanish, I sat in a classroom with students half my age and learned how some Spaniards starting in 1930 played with the word ‘dictadura’ (dictatorship) and created a new word, ‘dictablanda’ (soft dictatorship): A ‘dictablanda’ regime preserves some liberties as long as the ruled don’t rile the rulers.
Having paid my dues, I’d now like to make up two longer Spanish words to create another contrast: ‘mediadictadura’ vs. ‘mediadictablanda.’ China and other countries that censor journalistic content suffer under ‘mediadictadura.’ Many powerful Chinese media are state-run. Those that aren’t face increasingly heavy censorship. As the “South China Morning Post” reported in August, “Beijing has tightened control over online news websites, ordering editors-in-chief to take full responsibility for any wrongdoings and implementing around the clock monitoring.”
“The Post,” still exerting occasional journalistic independence in Hong Kong, reported that “the measures came within a month of the sacking of Wang Yongzhi, editor-in-chief of the online news department of Tencent, the Shenzhen-based internet giant.” Wang’s offense: A Tencent report said Chinese President Xi Jinping had “furiously” given an important speech.
Chinese characters for “delivered a speech” and “furiously spoke” are similarly pronounced. A computer input error apparently led to the impression that Xi ranted. At least Wang was only fired: Other journalists have been imprisoned. Some small publications can still fly under the government’s radar, but officials try to turn the important into the impotent.
That’s ‘mediadictadura.’ The United States now suffers under ‘mediadictablanda,’ soft journalistic despotism where officials do not tell reporters what they must write, but most journalists at influential media outlets enthusiastically participate in groupthink. They embraced “progressive” concepts in college and have bulwarked those ideas since then by living and working in echo chambers where seldom is heard a contrary word. The few who read more widely and think more broadly learn to self-censor their work if they wish to rise.
‘Mediadictablanda’ was evident when the Obama administration could not completely cover up all its initial $400 million cash payment to Iran’s rulers. And on Aug. 18, as new evidence of Obama administration lies emerged, NBC, ABC, and CBS evening news shows gave that news two minutes of coverage, while covering for almost 14 minutes a story about a lie at the Olympics. ‘Mediadictablanda’ has also ruled in recent months as those three networks have given much more coverage to Donald Trump controversies than to Clinton ones.
Governments prefer ‘mediadictablanda’ to ‘mediadictadura’: No need to pay overtime to jailers if journalists will imprison themselves and torture only readers and viewers who care about truth. But Oct. 31 is Reformation Day, celebrating the heroism 499 years ago of Martin Luther when he sent 95 theses to his ruling archbishop, and then posted them on the door of All Saints’ Church. Maybe next year will bring the beginning of a much-needed reformation of journalism.