Did you ever hear the one about the politician, the actress and the White House dog? Well, the year was 1992, the location Washington. Casper, the politician, was being indicted for pissing all over the constitution, a scandal officially known as Irangate. Candice, the actress, was starring in the now long forgotten Murphy Brown and achieved the ultimate accolade of celebrity when her single mother character was criticised by the high-minded if illiterate Dan Quayle. And then there’s Millie the dog, not just any old mutt but famed canine companion to the Bushes George and Barbara, whose collected capers was making itself at home in the upper reaches of the New York Times best seller list.
Our intrepid trio were duly put to the public recognition test with predictably hilarious results. When asked to identify the personalities, a whopping 89% of those surveyed eyeballed the sitcom star. Weinberger will have been relieved to find that a secretary of defence indicted in the biggest political scandal since Watergate jogged the memories of less than 17% of the nation while (yes you’ve guessed it) a scary 86% correctly identified the dog.
Of course recent American history is littered with weird and wacky examples of a TV nation gone mad. Enduring media myths from the Reagan era, trees cause pollution, welfare costs more than the military etc., became gospel truths for millions of Americans and provided hours of amusement for the rest of us.
Hilarious as these misconceptions may be, they inevitably raise more serious questions about how well our media serve us and their ability, and indeed, willingness, to act in the interest of the public. To accusations of trivialisation of news, misinformation and good old-fashioned barefaced lies, your average world-weary media watchdog may reply: Was it ever thus! An equally pertinent question, as we enter the new millennium, might be; was it always this bad? Does the 21st century herald a truly altered fourth estate so tainted as to be barely worthy of the name? It is certainly a puzzling paradox that in an era where the quantity of news and information is unprecedented, access to genuinely independent sources are ever harder to find and the public, as the survey suggests, seems more ignorant and uninformed than ever.
Follow the money
Like any business or social entity this loose conglomeration of information outlets that we like to call the media has evolved dramatically since its infancy in the 16th century, when the advent of the printing press made a star of one Martin Luther and helped provoke the biggest religious rumpus of the century. Today the media is, of course, a multimillion-dollar industry employing huge numbers around the world. To see what makes it tick we simply take a tip from our overpaid Premier League footballers and follow the money, to discover just who owns what in media-land.
In the U.S. and most other western democracies, where the term free press is still invoked without irony, ownership and control of the media industry have undergone a revolution in the last 50 years or so. At the end of the Second World War, the printed word and radio were the principal sources of information for the average citizen. For all its faults the mainstream media could be considered reasonably independent if only through its diversity of ownership. In the U.S, for example, while corporate chains absorbed an increasing number of dailies, 75% of newspapers were still independently owned, often by a single individual or run as a family business. The corporate invasion of radio broadcasting had certainly begun but had yet to extend its tentacles into local and provincial networks. This process accelerated startlingly in the fifties in all areas of the media and a fast-forward to the new millennium reveals a very different story.
At last count, courtesy of Ben Bagdikians The Media Monopoly, there were in the U.S. 1787 daily newspapers, 11000 magazines, 9000 radio stations, 1000 TV stations, 2500 book publishers and 7 major movie studios. About 25,000 thousand media entities in all. When the often labyrinthine task of tracing each individual newspaper, radio or TV station to its ultimate corporate parent is completed, a startling, not to say disturbing, fact emerges. About 16 or 17 supremely wealthy multinational corporations (give or take a corporate merger or two) own and ultimately control almost the entire media network in the most powerful country in the world. While the U.S. certainly represents the most extreme case, a similar pattern is discernable across the western democracies from Italy to Iceland.
Now call me an alarmist but surely this solitary fact alone has truly grave consequences for a genuine free press and the public’s right to know the full facts. To many readers, the idea that the mainstream media’s de facto role in society is often less the dissemination of unbiased information into the public domain and more the maintenance of the hegemony of dominant power groups, may not exactly be, if you’ll pardon the pun, news. However, as conservative media moguls and their highly paid anchormen and women, the likes of Dan Rather and Barbara Walters, would feign astonishment and indignation at the suggestion that their news output often better serves the corporate interests of their parent company than the public, a case must be made.
He who pays for advertising calls the tune
So how exactly does the corporate absorption of the news-media effect its ability to function as an instrument of free and unfettered expression? A central problem is that corporate ownership media inevitably creates insoluble conflicts of interest where the loser is often the public’s right to fair and accurate information.
Back in the mists of time when advertising was in its infancy, as hard as it may now be to believe, most newspapers actually covered a large portion of their costs through the cover price, leaving editors in the enviable position of being able to base investigative and editorial copy largely on the basic facts to hand. In the 21st century, ads constitute over 90% of a magazine or a newspaper’s revenue, mostly from large companies or their subsidiaries, many with bottomless marketing budgets. In the case of television this figure is 100%. In other words, the average media entity is part of a corporate giant, largely dependent on other corporate giants for its revenue and ultimately its survival. This state of affairs begs some important and, at least in the opinion of this correspondent, rhetorical questions. Can we really expect honest and balanced reporting on any issue from military spending and industrial relations to tax reform and poverty from media outlets whose owners and powerful clients have a vested interest in framing the debate on these very same issues? Who does the corporate media ultimately serve, its paymasters or the truth?
Of course it would be absurd to suggest that corporate kingpins from the likes of General Electric take a direct personal interest in the editorial line of the Wisconsin Sentinel or the Rhode Island Record. The process is a subtler and more tacit one. The ability to withdraw a big advertising order can act as an unspoken but powerful censor. A simple case of he who pays for advertising calls the tune. Under tacit pressure from corporate bosses and large advertisers, producers and editors quickly learn what to pursue and what to ignore. Take the issue of tobacco. In the U.S.A cigarettes kill on average about 500,000 people a year while crack cocaine takes about 3000 lives annually. While major networks never tire, it seems, of running sensationalist stories about the menace of illegal drugs, stories focusing on the considerably greater menace of a legal one are a rarity. A situation that suits Laurence Tisch, tobacco magnet and owner of C.B.S. just fine and one not entirely unrelated to the hundreds of millions of dollars the major networks receive from tobacco companies each year.
If it bleeds it leads
In the modern corporate media no aspect of output is sacred. The news has to pay its way in terms of ratings and ultimately advertising revenue just like Frasier, Friends and Monday night football. In recent years TV producers have found real life violence packaged as entertainment to be a ratings winner and dirt cheap to boot. Absurd and obscene series like Greatest Ever Police Chases or World’s Most Amazing Videos only increase the pressure to produce news as entertainment. In an atmosphere of such cutthroat competition, high-minded ideals about journalistic integrity and editorial responsibility are, as they say in Brooklyn, strictly for the birds.
The result is a news media often obsessed with violence, sex, celebrity and above all trivia. All of which ultimately leads to the Millie syndrome. Less a case of outright censorship and more what Jeff Cohen, founder of F.A.I.R., describes as “selective misinformation”. It produces a viewing public, almost 90% of whom can identify a dumb celebrity mutt but where less than two in ten recognised the politician who sold stolen arms to an oppressive fundamentalist Muslim state to fund a covert illegal terrorist war.
The archaic age, gender and racial profile of the industry plus a glaring absence of any mildly left of even centrist opinion in terms of representation on popular current affairs programmes, helps to muddy the journalistic water still further. Basic facts fed through these WASPish filters emerge on the other side in a form that often reinforces rather than questions the world-view as defined by the powerful establishment groups and upon whose hegemony the fourth estate could reasonably be expected to act as an important constraint.
Never reveal today what can be concealed until tomorrow
Were hoary old colonialist Napoleon alive today, he would be truly impressed by his prescience with regard to the workings of the modern corporate press. Bonaparte would have made a fine media guru or spin-doctor long before such terms were invented. In answer to a question regarding the prospect of hushing up some inconvenient facts from the French public, Napoleon once remarked that it was not always necessary to suppress the news, merely to delay it until it didn’t matter any more.
From the early days of Vietnam to the recently conducted Gulf conflict this tactic has, in collusion with governments and their militaries, been the corporate medias stock-in-trade. Manipulation of news output takes the form of distorting and delaying facts, suppressing information and sometimes, if needs be, telling plain old porkies. The full facts, or in the case of a complete fabrication, the real story, trickles out months or even years later. A supreme example of this tactic was the recently fought gulf war. Before the war the major TV networks, especially those whose parent company stood to gain directly from conflict, were happy to parrot the official but baseless Bush line, “That pesky Saddam I just know he’s got them there weapons hidden somewheres around here, I just know it,” or words to that effect. A genuinely combative and probing press might have gone to the trouble of investigating and reporting the wealth of evidence suggesting that Saddam, no longer at least, possessed MWDs. This our mainstream media with a few honourable exceptions conspicuously failed to do. Sensational evidence like the coalitions most prized defector, one of Hussein’s estranged sons-in-law, claim that Iraq’s biological weapons programme had been terminated was downplayed and ignored until after the war had begun. Equally scurrilous was the constant linking of Bin Laden and Hussein, transparent scare mongering by the bush administration eagerly lapped up by a compliant press when all available evidence showed they shared nothing but mutual hatred. In these and other deceptions, many so called respectable and recognised journalists willingly connived; for betrayal of journalistic integrity in the propaganda service of the military industrial complex is rewarded, not punished, in corporate media culture.
An excellent case in point is Dan Rather airing of phoney reports from Afghanistan in the eighties, appears not to have impeded his steady rise through the ranks of CBS. A successful career built largely on slavish adherence to the official line. On the other hand journalists who dare to buck that line can find it detrimental to their job prospects.
As part of their ongoing military and financial support of the Salvadorian death-squad dictatorship in the 80s, the U.S. military, as well as supplying money and arms, undertook training of local militias. In 1982 a massacre of hundreds of women and children by one of these U.S trained battalions was reported by Ray Bonner a New York Times reporter based in El Salvador. A familiar, oft repeated formula for sidelining journalists who persist in raising embarrassing facts was quickly employed. After angry denials from Washington and a smear campaign in the national press, the reporter was withdrawn from El Salvador. Bonners report was later fully confirmed by the U.N. Truth Commission who exhumed the mass graves. Throughout Reagan’s Latin American adventures, had news media spent less time slavishly cheerleading Washington and the Pentagon and more time actually investigating the full truth about Washington sponsored terror, many of the most brutal crimes against civilians, paid for by the U.S. taxpayer, might have been prevented.
Lies, damn lies and news media
In terms of sustained and deliberate manipulation of the facts, the 1991 Gulf War could well become the model for media complicity in government’s deception of the public, so successful was its practice. The first fully televised war and one that made a household name of CNN, it heralded the advent of the embedded journalists, round the clock coverage and satellite technology to ensure on the spot reporting and instant live feeds. Yet western medias portrayal of the war was one of the greatest works of jingoistic fiction since the memoirs of Henry Kissenger. The root cause brings us back to this insidious notion of conflict of interest. Take General Electric for instance, a U.S. owned, multi-national corporation and one of the largest companies in the world. Among its assets are two of America’s biggest news networks ABC and NBC.
To this conglomerates formidable portfolio we can also add a whole chain of arms factories, supplying parts for patriot missiles and other weapons used in Iraq. This all worked out quite neatly for ol’ G.E.; while one arm of this corporate giant was literally making a killing from the war through expensive contracts with the Pentagon, another arm of the same company was reporting the war on television. Needless to say, both networks were enthusiastic supporters of the slaughter, obediently accepting dubious official reports and even outright suppression of facts and events damaging to the popularity of a lucrative war. When NBC reporter Jon Alpert unearthed video footage of civilian devastation in Basra caused by massive bombing in residential areas, the NBC news president Michael Gartner promptly suppressed the footage and banned Alpert from ever working for NBC again. As ever the Allies’ deliberate campaign of disinformation and wholesale lies is now a matter of public record. It was exposed belatedly by the same news media who accepted it unquestioningly in the first place, but of course much too late to do any good. Such considerations mattered little to corporate news media and the allied governments whose agendas were mutually served. Bush and Thatcher, for domestic political reasons, wanted war, the likes of General Electric, profits. The human price? About 700,000 largely innocent lives, a statistic that you won’t be hearing on NBC, CBS or Sky News any time soon.
The public strikes back?
In the face of such corporate and official media domination, how can we reassert our right to independent, accurate news and reporting? How can the average citizen get behind the news and past the headlines to find the real story? Not simply the right or the left view but the 27 other angles any event worth investigating will surely have, A task that seasoned media watchers find difficult, never mind an average citizen, trying to hold down a job, raise a family and still find time the make sense of the world around him. This was one of the issues I raised with Robert Crenshaw, author of Media Watch, a comprehensive analysis of bias in mainstream broadcasting.
He responded that although the growing emasculation of diverse and fearless independence in reporting is a grave threat to our basic freedoms, the average citizen is still left with a choice, to lazily accept the official source or the corporately framed view or to strive to find those alternative and untainted sources that still exist. Crenshaw cites examples like the Internet, alternative bookshops, independent publishers and organisations like F.A.I.R., Oxfam and Human Rights Watch who avoid corporate and interest vested sponsorship.
Martin Luther King was just one of many great twentieth century leaders who considered full and frank reporting not only a right but also a duty in the sense that citizens cannot afford be passive agents but must struggle to assert this vital freedom. It is a clear if depressing example of Kings prescience that in the age of the military/industrial/Media Complex this responsibility has become an ever more onerous and daunting one.
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