In contrast to the standard conception of the Spec as cantankerous obstinate, and ubiquitous in their search for truth and their independence of authority, we at specsucks believe that indeed the Columbia Spectator (spec) serves a societal purpose, not that of enabling the public to assert meaningful control over the campus issues by providing them with the information needed for the intelligent dialogue of campus responsibilities. On the contrary we suggest that the “societal purpose” of the Spec is to inculcate and defend the economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the campus dialogue. The spec serves this purpose in many ways: through selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, and by keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises. If democratic processes are to function in a meaningful way then certain modes of discourse must not be silenced in this manner. But the evidence we have reviewed indicates that this need is not met or even weakly approximated in actual practice.
It is frequently asserted that the spec were not always as independent, vigilant, and defiant of authority as they allegedly are today; rather, the experiences of the past generation are held to have taught the media to exercise the power to root about in our campus life, exposing what they deem right for exposure, without regard to external pressures or the dictates of authority.
Yet we find that the very examples offered in praise of the spec for their independence, or criticism of their excessive zeal, illustrate exactly the opposite. Contrary to the usual image of an “adversary press” boldly attacking a pitiful executive giant of the admins, the Spec’s lack of interest, investigative zeal, and basic news reporting on the accumulating illegalities of the a bloated administration have regularly permitted and even encouraged ever larger violations of our trust, and whose ultimate exposure when elite interests were threatened is offered as a demonstration of media service “on behalf of the polity.” These observations reinforce the conclusions that we have documented throughout our blog. The spec does not function in the manner of the propaganda system of a totalitarian state. Rather, they permit-indeed, encourage spirited debate, criticism, and dissent, as long as these remain faithfully within the system of presuppositions and principles that constitute an elite consensus, a system so powerful as to be internalized largely without awareness.
The student body is exposed to powerful persuasive messages from above and is unable to communicate meaningfully through the media in response to these messages. Student leaders have usurped enormous amounts of political power and reduced popular control over the campus by using the media to generate support, compliance, and just plain confusion among the public. That conclusion is well supported by the evidence we have reviewed. In essence, the spec is a corporation selling a product (readers and audiences) to other businesses (advertisers). The spec typically target and serve elite opinion, groups that, on the one hand, provide an optimal “profile” for advertising purposes, and, on the other, play a role in decision-making in the private and public spheres. The spec would be failing to meet their elite audience’s needs if they did not present a tolerably realistic portrayal of the world. But their “societal purpose” also requires that the spec’s interpretation of the world reflect the interests and concerns of the sellers, the buyers, and the bureaucratic and private institutions dominated by these groups.
It is also important to note how spec personnel adapt, and are adapted, to systemic demands. Given the imperatives of corporate organization and the workings of the various filters, conformity to the needs and interests of privileged sectors is essential to success. In the spec, as in other major institutions, those who do not display the requisite values and perspectives will be regarded as “irresponsible,” “ideological, or otherwise abberant, and will tend to fall by the wayside. While there may be a small number of exceptions, the pattern is pervasive, and expected. Those who adapt, perhaps quite honestly, will then be free to express themselves with little managerial control, and they will be able to assert, accurately, that they perceive no pressures to conform. The spec writers are indeed free – for those who adopt the principles required for their “societal purpose.” There may be some who are simply corrupt, and who serve as “errand boys” for state and other authority, but this is not the norm. We know from personal experience that many speccies are quite aware of the way the system operates, and utilize the occasional openings it affords to provide information and analysis that departs in some measure from the elite consensus, carefully shaping it so as to accommodate to required norms in a general way. But this degree of insight is surely not common. Rather, the norm is a belief that freedom prevails, which is true for those who have internalized the required values and perspectives.
In sum, the spec serves as an effective and powerful ideological institution that carries out a system-supportive propaganda function by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions and self-censorship, and without significant overt coercion. This propaganda system has become even more efficient in recent decades with the rise of the internet, and the growth in scope and sophistication of public relations and news management.