Corporate media: The free press isn’t free enough

This essay covers several reasons behind corporate media’s failure to cover the Occupy movement and other protests today. This is the bulk of an essay I wrote around the time of the Clinton impeachment. It was published widely on the Internet then, and most of it can easily apply now.

We have a free mainstream press in this country. It’s just not free enough. Thomas Jefferson said we can preserve democracy only with a fully informed electorate. If the media had fully informed voters about the antidemocratic nature of Iran-contra, would people have lobbied political leaders to alter its course? If the media had informed the public about the savings and loan scandal in a timely way, would taxpayers be burdened with the economic repercussions?

Here’s a test to determine whether the media have done a good job conveying all the news most Americans need to know about any given important news story:(1) Is that story fully understood by most Americans? Is it common knowledge? (2) Do most Americans understand the news story’s meaning and significance—in depth and detail? Do they see how the story relates to their daily lives?

How many ordinary Americans do you personally know who fully understand the savings and loan scandal? How many do you know who understand Iran-contra in depth including its meaning and significance? . . .

. . . Everybody expects certain politicians to flack for corporate contributors, but the public expects mainstream news reporters to be democracy’s watchdogs . . . Mainstream news organizations perpetuate the civic-minded-journalist myth. When challenged, mainstream journalists are often defensive and admit no wrongdoing. The rare times mainstream news folk self-criticize they still don’t get to the heart of the matter. For example, a recent study by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) shows readers are concerned about newspapers’ spelling or grammatical mistakes and about factual errors, accuracy, bias, spin, and special breaks for powerful people or organizations. Edward Seaton, president of ASNE, says he wants to “rein in the pundits” and reconnect with readers.

How can news organizations connect with readers when corporate moguls who own the media often stand between reporters and readers? In a July, 1986, Cosmopolitan interview, media mogul Rupert Murdoch was asked to what extent he controls his newspapers’ editorial position. Murdoch, who described himself as a “radical conservative” said: “Considerably. The buck stops on my desk. My editors have input, but I make final decisions.” If Murdoch at times acts as a defensive back, blocking his subordinates’ efforts to pass to the public any version of the news that hurts his financial interests, we need a whole new kind of journalistic ball game.

Concentrated corporate ownership affects the quality of journalism. The people-friendly press has been replaced by corporate-friendly conglomerates. Family owned newspapers—papers that once took up for interests of average Americans—have virtually disappeared due to a declining marketplace. The corporate-friendly press puts profit ahead of public service. Corporate owners don’t spring for costly investigative reporters—especially not ones who make waves with business advertisers or very powerful public figures.

Here is the heart of the matter: “News” washed clean of the real corruption in society—in other words, news that omits misdeeds of those wealthy and powerful public figures with the most clout—is anemic disinformation. The public can’t connect with it because whitewashed news is nothing we can use. It doesn’t link with our daily lives.

Corporate-friendly (as opposed to people-friendly) media do more than limit ideas. They often advocate or emphasize only ideas that benefit corporate owners. Media moguls like Rupert Murdoch have an obvious economic stake in a certain political agenda: fewer taxes on the wealthy; fewer regulations of business and so forth. Media giant TCI’s John Malone speculated Murdoch would likely be glad to keep Fox News Channel on the air even if the network didn’t make a profit—for political leverage alone. If networks are used for political leverage by media owners whose economic interests clash with the interests of average taxpayers or labor groups, the public needs to seek alternative sources of information.

Media decision-makers often deny they are controlled by corporate media owners. But subordinates no doubt anticipate how far they can push the envelope and then censor themselves. Network news directors rarely pound away at stories that seriously jeopardize wealthy and powerful villains—at least not those with the most wealth and clout (meaning the ones who can do the most damage.)

Journalists are sometimes fired or harassed for challenging the rich and powerful. Media critic Michael Parenti (Inventing Reality: The Politics of News Media) offers a number of examples, among them: Reporter Bill Collins was fired from the Winston-Salem Journal for “union activity and writing too much about labor.” An NBC reporter, Jon Alpert, was fired by NBC’s Michael Gartner when Alpert brought back Gulf War footage showing damage done to civilian areas by U.S. aerial attacks. New York Times columnist Sydney Schanberg’s column was canceled by publisher Sulzberger when Schanberg wrote too much about the greed of New York’s bankers and other moneyed interests.

Corruption involving society’s wealthiest and most powerful miscreants is the very kind of corruption that most affects our daily lives and is the kind that most needs to be corrected if the country is to improve. This is not a plea for scatter-gun scandal-mongering or random smear campaigns aimed at ruining wealthy public figures without just cause. However society’s most insidious corruption often originates among the wealthiest one-percent of Americans (whose total net worth is greater than the total net worth of the bottom ninety percent) and among the corporate media moguls who flack for them. If mainstream media won’t fully cover union grievances because it offends wealthy corporations, or won’t cover war-time abuses because it offends arms manufacturers, or ignore Wall Street’s greed because it offends bankers, then we need new sources of news media.

If news organizations want to convey news that matters, it’s not enough to offer occasional stories in piecemeal fashion on important issues. For the public to grasp the meaning and significance of news stories, the media must go beyond casually tossing out first one random piece of a puzzle and then another—sometimes publishing or airing one piece of the puzzle weeks after the first piece appears. When a meaningful, complete puzzle exists responsible media should present the whole picture to the public—all at once and often.

Some journalists claim it’s not their job to clarify meaning and significance for viewers or readers and that they have no obligation to put puzzles together in a truthful, public-advocating manner. However, media organizations do piece news stories together in ways that promote corporate interests . . .

Michael Parenti says the way news is framed is all-important. Framing involves “the way news is packaged, the amount of exposure, the placement (front page or back, lead story or last), the tone of presentation (sympathetic or slighting), the accompanying headlines and visual effects.” During MSNBC’s relentless coverage of the Clinton scandal, the network repeatedly juxtaposed a picture of the president with the caption “High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” It might as well have read: “Guilty as Charged.” Around the same time, the same network also repeatedly ran a film clip of the Clintons walking into church with a voiceover mentioning that after church on Easter Sunday Clinton met Lewinsky for a sexual encounter. Propaganda is more effective when done with framing than with obvious coercion.

If the media cared more about public service than profit, what difference would it make to ordinary Americans? If we’d had truth telling mainstream media when the savings and loan crisis started or during Iran-contra, might ordinary people have banded together to help avert those blunders? Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez (D-TX) testified as early as 1982 before the House Rules Committee, warning of the pending S&L disaster. Gonzalez , who is now retired, is a rare breed of politician who worked on behalf of the public and not exclusively for corporate “clients.” Although his speeches appeared in the Congressional Record, and while thousands of political reporters knew of the coming S&L disaster, virtually no reporters covered the story. Gonzalez called a press conference in the spring of 1988 in a near panic about the coming crisis. The only press people who showed up were a few from the financial industry trade papers and some Texas reporters. (Bill Greider, “Who Will Tell the People,” 1992.)

The mainstream media never explained the S&L scandal to the public so that its details became common knowledge, nor did the media clarify Iran-contra. Tim Weiner writes in Blank Check, the book based on his Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper series on the Pentagon’s black budget: “No one ever stood trial for the true crimes of the Iran-contra conspiracy. No one ever will. The White House, the Justice Department and the CIA made sure of that.” Attorney General Richard Thornburgh and certain national security officials declared important facts regarding the case to be sensitive secrets. Those secrets—including key defining details—were sealed, allowing prominent Iran-contra figures to escape scrutiny and prosecution. Independent prosecutor Lawrence Walsh said the sealed material amounted to “fictional secrets.”

Nothing has been done to discourage another Iran-contra. Ronald Reagan and Oliver North escaped serious media scrutiny, and Congress hasn’t enacted a single preventive measure. Why didn’t the media (on the whole) do a better job reporting the S&L scandal and Iran-contra? Many reporters who knew about the savings and loan story were focused on relatively trivial matters, for example on lighter aspects of the 1988 presidential campaign.

Some news organizations caved to pressure to give only the military-intelligence version of Iran-contra according to formerNewsweek reporter Robert Parry (“Fooling America,” 1992.) However a key underlying reason those and other important news stories are neglected or covered in misleading ways is that, in general, mainstream media primarily serve interests of the wealthy and powerful—often at the expense of the rest of us.

Many politicians listen only to their wealthy corporate contributors and disregard the views of the rest of the electorate. Considering politicians’ indifference to public opinion, would it have mattered if the news media had reported the savings and loan scandal and Iran-contra in a way that made the details fully understood by most Americans? Yes, it likely would have made a difference. If the general public had known the implications of the pending S&L crisis or the reasons Iran-contra figures escaped scrutiny, people might have chosen to respond. At least, armed with information, the public would have stood a fighting chance to act on our own behalf.

If the news media had fully informed the public, more people might have bothered to vote in order to eliminate (vote against) politicians who participated in the S&L scandal and Iran-contra. People might have formed legitimate grassroots groups or joined existing organizations to work toward preventing similar events in the future. Public figures often complain that few Americans vote or participate in politics. More people would be inspired to vote and participate in public affairs if the mainstream media conveyed news fully and clearly, showing the public what is at stake. An informed electorate is an empowered electorate.

Robert W. McChesney, Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin, says that when Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly was first published in 1983, all U. S. mass media were controlled by around fifty corporations. Today approximately ten firms dominate all mass media. Various media owners are involved in joint ventures with their “competitors.”

Those joint ventures reduce real competition and create monopolistic tendencies. A virtual media monopoly obviously curbs the range and scope of ideas flowing from mainstream media to the American people. Yes, a few news organizations offer an occasional “people-friendly” expose of corporate misdeeds, and there are good journalists who tell the truth and do an excellent job. The public could seek them out.

Here’s the problem: When people believe we already have reliable mainstream media, they don’t seek supplemental news. Many Americans believe the myth of the noble tribune and think if a news story were important it would be mentioned often on network TV or reported daily on the front pages of their newspapers and in every issue of prominent news magazines. Most Americans don’t work to unearth key news stories (in other words, do their own investigative journalism) because they buy the myth that caring journalists will do that for them. Some people believe in the idea that all journalists are noble watchdogs the way they once believed in Santa. Americans must shake off the illusion that the mainstream media serve “the people.”

Most news organizations drown the public with corporate-friendly propaganda and offer only rare moments of dissent. For example, MSNBC offers one or two hours a week of Charles Grodin’s public-advocating view of current events, while it runs hundreds of hours a week of opposing views. How often does Ralph Nader or Gore Vidal appear on your TV screen? How often, by contrast, do you see mouthpieces for the wealthy like right-wing spokesperson Ann Coulter or the Wall Street Journal’s John Fund?

Ordinary Americans need truth telling, public-advocating mainstream media organizations with their finger on our pulse and corporate America’s chains off their backs. We are not likely to get them. We’ll have better luck strengthening the country’s alternative media—those publications not entirely controlled by corporate money and profit motive. A public sponsored all-news television network might be a good start (a sort of all-news PBS that thrives only on private and not corporate contributions.) Those people who trust the mainstream media won’t bother to seek news elsewhere. What the public needs most is to enlist educators and others to spread the word through society that the mainstream media can’t be trusted to provide all the news Americans need if we want to be well informed enough to keep democracy.

Michael Parenti quotes journalist John Swinton who attended a newspaper editors’ banquet in the early years of the twentieth century. Swinton responded to a toast to the free press this way: “There is no such thing in America as an independent press . . . You know it and I know it. There is not one of you who dares write his honest opinions, and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print . . . We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping-jacks; they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities, and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.”

The recent Judiciary Committee hearings on impeachment highlighted how antidemocratic the far right in this country is and how powerful they have become. The antidemocratic right has made its way into the Congress of the United States and has succeeded in impeaching a president for trivial causes. The mainstream media are complicit because of their negligence and deceptive framing of the scandal. It’s time the American people banish the myth that we have a free (enough) mainstream press and see most mainstream media organizations for what they are. Unlike the proverbial Emperor, these media posers do wear clothes—short skirts, six-inch heels—but they wear no shame at all.

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