Facing Comic Book Truths about a Mockingbird Media


I used to want to be a journalist. Some days I still do. I consume news on a daily basis and I'm often excited by big breaks and deep dive investigations. The idea that reporters are a part of exposing the lies and corruptions of our government and corporate rulers resonates with me. This is largely because I don't follow the big media outlets to stay informed.

As an early 20-something I was once on my way. There was a reason I changed course halfway through my college education. I was told journalism was in decline and I was going to have a hard time scrounging up work or decent pay. This was in the early 00's when papers were starting to dry up and news writers were full of uncertainty facing the dawn of the then new digital age of communication.

Working for a time as a staff writer and photographer for the student paper in Detroit was truly an invigorating and rewarding position. Seeing my name in print on the newsstand was a thrill for a young guy. I got to cover hard news and culture stories. I was certainly laying a foundation for a professional career but my love of visual art and design presented me with enough of a conflict to reconsider. Somehow I thought graphic design would lead to better prospects and flipped what was my minor (Fine Art) into a major and took the minor in Communications.

Hall of higher learning...
Taking a Photoshop 101 class was the decisive moment. Making pictures seemed more fun than writing words at that moment and so it went. Funnily enough neither a graphic design nor a journalism degree amounts to much financial security in today's economy but perhaps I am marginally better off all things considered. Truthfully, I wasn't thinking at all about money at the time because anything was going to be an improvement from the hourly drudgery that was paying my bills in those days.

Both writers and graphic artists find their services in highest demand from the advertising of consumer goods. Many a journalism major fell into advertising's alluring clutches with promises of higher salaries and glamorous perks. A lot of us choose the ad game because there are no other places to put our skills to use for a livable wage. In 2007, when I was still newly graduated, the country was in just that sort of economy. We all know what happened in '08.

The other telling correlation between journalism and advertising comes down to our measurement of success. Clicks. It doesn't matter if you created an online ad or news story, the value of either is quantifiable. Even if I had gone the journalism route, advertising would be paying most of the bills either way.

Metrics, metrics, metrics

I have conflicting emotions about reporters and the news which can really be divided along lines of corporate interest. The big mainstream media news is easy to hate with so much private influence shaping its narratives. Historically, we know how tightly interconnected Washington D.C. and Wallstreet is with news media. The narrative of the smaller independent sources reads more honest and seems much less beholden to capitalism or sponsorship dollars. I admire the hard work done by honest reporters who  hold both governments and corporations accountable. They sacrifice much and get paid little.

If I had never changed course and stayed on with journalism, would I have stayed true to my principles or would I have been forced to sell-out in order to eat as I have with design? These are tough questions I often wrestle with, especially the more and more advertising culture dominates our online spaces, sucking up all the private information it can.

Having just reread Jonathan Hickman's landmark graphic novel, The Nightly News, the choice of an honest or corrupt journalism is not a consideration. In that story, there is only one kind of reporter, the kind that runs with whatever bleeds, whether its true or not. The bleak and violent miniseries takes no prisoners and shows no mercy for the wicked. Which by series end feels like all of us.

2007 comes up again here, as that was the year of the series initial run. It was interesting reading it again, 10 years later, and finding so much of the plot and analysis still so relevant. The individual who sells their soul in this desperate dog-eat-dog reality so they might not be eaten up themselves is becoming a timeless theme. In 2007 I didn't see capitalism like I do today. I didn't have a critical analysis and excepted it at face value. It took over 10 years of working in corporate America to witness its robotic heartlessness up close to begin seeing through the Cold War American exceptionalism I grew up on.


I've come to see the mass media for what it is in that time as well, really just a PR arm of our neoliberal capitalist system. Profit and the willingness bury or kill stories to protect those profits is the motor oil driving the news engine as much as it is the advertising engine. Those who step out of bounds usually pay deeply for it.

The Nightly News is a blistering send-up of the handsome lies of the evening news anchorman. It's about the lives ruined by the media's malicious errors or intents. Imagine if those ruined people decided to get revenge? In that question lies the essence of TNN; the orchestrated assassinations of the nation's corporate news mouthpieces. It's a black comedy if you have a dark sense of humor, which I do.
"It is a lie you choose to believe - That bad things just happen. From mouth to ear and back again, they lied. They repeated that lie until there was no distinction between the truth and this lie. Your life - an amusement to them. This is what the media does, they destroy with impunity." - The Nightly News
If people mistrusted the media in 2007, I'm not even sure how we could describe the public sentiment in '17. It seems to either cut one of two ways. You're either a person who loathes the "lame-stream" media or you disdain the independent or otherwise unvetted news sites operating without a recognizable brand name. Distrust and contempt is at the heart of either sentiment. The thing we all agree on is that the public is swimming in disinformation designed to create a favorable outcome for someone's interest. With a Trump presidency we have an officially declared war on the media playing itself out.... in the media. It's just a bizzaro scenario that has a certain logic to it when we look at the history. We get some of the antecedents for our present day media war presented in TNN with bombastic fashion and vitriol.

It has to be noted that Hickman is not only a brilliant idea man but his graphic design approach to comic book layout broke convention and grand as much as his confrontational writing. While some argue he over-designs, I was immediately intoxicated with his dense and thick approach. Pages are packed with supplementary stats and insights that overwhelm the reader with data points and historical relevance. You're not just being entertained in this book, you're being educated, albeit from a rather hostile teacher. From the first page to the last Hickman plunges the audience into a deeply felt and researched critique of our post-modern multimedia monster. We are all hopeless addicts to the 24/7 cycle and it's bewildering and disorienting effects.


The skewering gets spread like a shotgun blast making contact with our education system, Big Pharma, religious cults, terror fear-porn, violent gaming, international banking, corporatism, and even our own binary constructs of good and evil. This is a work of cynicism without much sense of divine justice. We see instead an underworld justice, where bad guys hurting other bad guys is as righteous as it gets. TNN shows us a cruel and greedy world hiding behind the false veils of pomp and decorum. The idea that the media behaves like a cult leader is really the point of all of this. There are battle-tested methods for controlling people's minds and engineering public opinion. It doesn't matter if it happens among a tight-knit religious cult or on national television. Edward Bernays masterminded and made scientific the art of mass persuasion and called it public relations. Hickman doesn't mention Bernays specifically but anytime we talk about propaganda we must go back to him.


The influence of the late Bush-era years comes across strongly even though in 2017 much is still as it was then. The country in the midst of an endless Middle East bloodbath of death and destruction, covert alphabet agency torture, mass spying programs and mind-numbing reality TV mania all color the wallpaper. The series starts with a protest in New York Cities financial district several years prior to the Occupy Wall Street phenomena. With a footnote citing that 500 people have a greater combined wealth than the combined income of the 3.3 billion poorest, Hickman was tapping into the wealth inequality tension in America before it became a household talking point.

An even smaller note spells out the way Hickman assesses exactly how the economies riches got so disproportionately spread. "Privatization > Deregulation > Free Trade > Market Capitalization > Ruin" 

The World Bank and IMF each get graphically called out in a globalization chart. Like I said, Hickman put it all out there in rapid fire succession. We are a society that's being programed by those powerful enough to command the levers to do so; that's the bottom line of this comic. This ritualistic programing and the exploitation of the results of it can be expressed in numerous terms. From an orchestrated consolidation of media outlets from 50 to six, to military recruitment of the desensitized FPS crowd, to the fact that America consumes 90% of the world's Ritalin supply. The signposts of a controlled and quartered populace are all around us, tracing back through the decades. The advent of the mass media has merely expedited the process. At the time of the comics release the wildfire effects of social media were just on the cusp of setting the globe afire. I would love to see a sequel.
"I have contempt for the weak, so I control and use them to kill what displeases me... in this case, it was the media." - The Nightly News (I can hear the voice of Trump here.)
It's easy in retrospect to see how all the major storylines of societal decay we read about today are nothing new but a continuation of long established patterns of abuse and corruption. Even so, TNN still feels prophetic in many ways. News media integrity had come into public focus following high profile scandals of disgraced journalists Jayson Blair, Stephan Glass, Janet Cooke and many others, long before the term Fake News became a full-blown politicized weapon.


While Hickman has bluntly stated that his writing is not entirely indicative of his personal positions and no character is a secret stand-in for himself, it would be fair to say that the themes presented are of great concern to the comic creator. A handy Sources list included in the collected edition provides  further inquiry into the structural foundations of TNN.

The ideological marks of Noam Chomsky are to be found all throughout the series and three of his works are among the listings. Another really interesting reference to follow up on is Margaret Singer and her famous work on mind control techniques, Cults in Our Midst. Singer's name comes up if you start to delve into the history of the Manson Family, the SLA and the Jim Jones cult.

Other familiar names on the shortlist are Russ Kick, Greg Palast and John Taylor Gatto. The recommended texts provide critical examinations of mandatory education for the purpose of indoctrination, the systematic drugging of children, neoliberalism, globalization and Soviet methods of propaganda among other things. Hickman is definitely no stranger to controversial research and conspiratorial thinking, which makes for fascinating and surprisingly mature themes in an under appreciated medium.

The Notes section provided by Hickman in the back elaborates further on just what he did and didn't mean to imply. He's a very astute guy who probably hates analysis of his work and went to pains to clarify his intentions and misconceptions. I totally respect that and at the same time find his work too personally and culturally relevant not to examine and publicly celebrate with others.
"You get up every morning; you drink your coffee; you go to work and live for the stolen moments of the weekend. For most people, that's all there is... Brief moments of happiness – short periods of actually living." - The Nightly News
In relation to my own life's choices and professional involvement with media and corporate interests, I felt at times a dagger driving right into my gut while reading the comic. So much hits close to home, the truths bitter and hard to swallow. I like to daydream that had I become a muckraking reporter I might have more esteem for myself as a professional, maybe I would even be contributing some good to the world. Reading The Nightly News smashes most of those illusions. It says to me that there's little honor to be had in a capitalist economy, so rigged in favor of the rich and powerful. Even honorable skills are directed in service of the monied elites. It seems there are very few ways to earn a living or support a family that don't include tacit support for their neoliberal agenda.

Aside from a (growing) handful of independent publications that live up to their responsibility of holding power accountable, the Fourth Estate appears largely coopted into an Operation Mockingbird front to keep the populace in line or better yet, distracted by the superficial. There's no happy ending in The Nightly News, no hero to be found. We are left with the feeling that the puppet masters will always prevail and will continue unabated. The mood of the country is much bleaker than in '07 on so many fronts. Meanwhile, the media is playing their role more effectively than ever by stoking tensions and playing to people's inherent fears.

The idealism and hopes I had 10 years ago have been significantly damaged. I know much more than I knew then. It was so important to make it and be accepted into the professional class. Six years and thousands of dollars were spent in college, another 10 climbing the corporate ropes just to make it and be legitimized. If you go to those lengths and you're able to play their game, you can make it. The question is, how do you live with it once you do.


2 comments:

  1. Brilliant & well-done! Adding TNN to my reading list & thank-you for posting about it & bringing it to our attention. I can recall back in the 80s in HS having this amazing biology teacher who would end every class with an Andy Rooney/60 Minutes type commentary on whatever he was mulling over that day; & he once said something that stuck with me all this time & it was this: "One day, the media, advertising & entertainment will completely merge, & no one will notice or care." Of course, he couldn't have predicted the blogosphere back in '85 as being a real competitor to mainstream media one day, but he saw where things were headed before anyone else I was aware of (& I didn't know about Chomsky et.al. until college). But every time I see a "news" story about a new iphone coming out (ie. free advertising for Apple) or Wall (War) Street's Shillary trumpeting her new book blaming everyone & everything for her election loss, those words do come back to me. But I'm glad people DID notice the change, regardless. & yeah, I'm a former communications major as well. Left it for pretty much the same reasons you described--went from market research to the restaurant industry, & even though everyone thought I was crazy at the time, I don't regret a thing.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you David and congrats on making your way out.

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