April 2, 2001
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"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be," Thomas Jefferson said more than 200 years ago.
Today the U.S. appears determined to prove that Jefferson knew what he was talking about. Americans are ignorant at the same time they embrace the illusion that they are the best informed nation on earth, shackled while they assume they are the world's freest people.
American ignorance is the direct result of a consolidation of the media that has given a handful of giant corporations a choke hold on the distribution of information. A half dozen corporations control most of the media - not only newspapers, radio and TV stations, and cable networks, but book publishers, music distributors, film studios, and to a lesser degree, the Internet.
The situation is even worse than it appears on the surface because those six corporations have interlocking relationships, making them more partners than competitors. "The power and influence of the dominant companies are understated by counting them as 'six'," says Ben Bagdikian in his book The Media Monopoly. "They are intertwined: They own stock in each other, they cooperate in joint media ventures, and among themselves, they divide profits from some of the most widely viewed programs on television, cable, and movies."
Five of the six corporate conglomerates own TV networks, the most visible face of their empires.
From news to infotainment
The result of this concentration is a flow of 'news' that consists almost entirely of 'infotainment.' We are told more than anyone needs to know about O.J., Elian, and Princess Di, where the president is vacationing, what celebrity got caught drunk driving. Our local media tells us about every murder and fire, sometimes stretching the concept of 'local' halfway around the world. If it bleeds, it leads.
What we don't hear is much of anything that costs money, effort and dedication to uncover.
It is far easier and cheaper to station a film crew permanently in the yard of a little Cuban boy in Miami, than to do an in-depth investigation of immigration policies.
It is easier and cheaper to give us saturation coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial than to probe crime and punishment in America, to explore the reasons that blacks and other minorities are imprisoned at vastly higher rates than whites.
It is easier and cheaper to give us endless coverage and speculation about hanging chads on Florida ballots than to examine in depth the disgraceful purging of eligible Florida voters, most of them minorities, on the basis of a report from a private firm with Republican ties.
And it is cheaper and easier to depend on government officials for information about major issues, than to seek out other sources and engage in investigative journalism.
Without news, democracy is lost.
All this leads to a public that is vastly under-informed about the issues that are essential to democracy. Without a steady flow of accurate information, real democracy can't even survive.
Take the issue of war and peace, for example.
The White House orders wars as casually and easily as any emperor or king, secure in the knowledge that Congress will rubberstamp them, and the media will toe the government line, no matter how ridiculous.
Reagan invades Granada and Bush invades Panama for obscure reasons, but there is no serious debate or coverage in the media, only the bare facts of the fighting. During the war on Iraq, the media was muzzled by restrictions that would have made a Stalin-era Soviet journalist blush with embarrassment. But the media accepted the muzzling without a whimper, and covered the war by sitting in air-conditioned comfort watching doctored videos of selected air strikes. Clinton leads NATO to an unwarranted attack on Yugoslavia, based on fraudulent information that journalists decline to examine.
A million or more Iraqis have died as a result of the Gulf War and continuing sanctions. But there are no major news reports exploring the legality and morality of such a policy. U.S. and British planes still patrol Iraqi air space and bomb at will. U.S. media reports are limited to a couple of paragraphs deep inside the paper, reporting that all planes returned safely. TV does even less. Is it any wonder that the average American is scarcely aware that the war against Iraq is still continuing?
The missing stories
It's not only serious consideration of war and peace that is missing from our 'news' shows. Labor news is non-existent; there is no labor page alongside the business page, and little coverage of the concerns of workers. News of the economy is limited to dot.com millionaires and the state of the stock market. The fact that the average American has lost ground financially over the past few decades is curiously absent from the corporate media, as is any discussion of the wisdom of allowing the consolidation of corporations into fewer and fewer giant conglomerates. And, of course, the media is a constant cheerleader for globalization.
And so it goes. No serious coverage of national health care, the dangers of the drug war, the growing gap between rich and poor, the corruption of government by the influence of massive bribes disguised as 'campaign contributions.' Global warming is treated as a day brightener. In the presidential election, third party candidates like Ralph Nader were virtually ignored; only the media-approved big two were given routine coverage. And even there, the coverage consisted primarily of sound bites from stock speeches. There was no serious reporting on issues.
There is little community news in local newspapers and virtually none in 'local' TV newscasts that focus on murders, fires and 'news you can use'-- trivial stories about how to grow a perfect rose bush or train your dog.
Serious news coverage would require serious financial resources devoted to news gathering. Before the consolidation of the media into a few conglomerates, this was what news organizations did. Profits were modest, but newspapers and even TV news staffs took pride in their work. When the conglomerates took over, a slavish devotion to the 'bottom line' was all that counted. News organizations were retrained to put the stockholders first.
Seeing the world through corporate filters
It is not only the excessive devotion to profits that has corrupted the once noble profession of news gathering. The corporate media sees the world through corporate eyes. The corporate-oriented news bias of the media gives us a very distorted picture of the nation and the world. Diversity is virtually non-existent; few other voices are ever heard.
Among other things, this corporate filter allows few stories that question corporation policies to slip out to the public. Stories that might hurt individual corporations or corporations in general are routinely spiked. Don't expect to see any serious examination of the fact that military spending is at near Cold War peaks from G.E.-owned NBC, for example. A cutback in weapons production is bad for the bottom line of many conglomerates.
When Congress debated a telecommunications bill a few years ago, no TV networks and few newspapers reported the fact that the new law would bring lessened competition, reward media mergers, and give billions of dollars worth of public airways to a few giant corporations. That was not information that the corporate media thought the people had any right to know.
The myth of the 'liberal' media
'The media is too liberal', the far right cries, a myth that the media itself treats with benign neglect. The myth serves the media well by helping to disguise the corporate bias of the news - and by helping disguise the fact that the media gets too much of the 'news' from right-wing think tanks such as The Manhattan Institute, the National Taxpayers Union, The Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and numerous others. Alternative, more liberal, voices are rarely heard.
The new media emphasis on shallow sensational infotainment via sound bites and anecdotes makes it easier for those with narrowly focused agendas, usually right-wing, to get attention. The conservative think tanks have mastered this, providing the media with pre-formatted, pre-digested packages that are presented to the public as unbiased news. It's cheap, easy and profitable for the media, but deludes the public into thinking they have the whole story.
Now and then someone tells a tale out of school and the public gets a very brief glimpse of the reality of the media. Jay T. Harris, publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, recently resigned to protest corporate ownership's profit targets. Harris, one of the highest-ranking black newspaper executives in the nation, was considered the heir apparent to Knight Ridder CEO Tony Rider.
"Much greater priority is given today to the business aspects of our enterprise than is given to fulfilling our public trust," Harris wrote in his letter of resignation to top executives at Knight Ridder, the corporate parent of the Mercury News. "I fear as well that we no longer sense the same level of `moral obligation' to `excel in all that we do' and that our founders' commitment to publishing `high-quality' newspapers' is no longer the powerful drive in the company that it once was."
Unfortunately, integrity like that is extremely, and increasingly, rare.
Internet to the rescue?
Some people believe that the solution to the problems and dangers of the corporate media is the Internet. It's an appealing theory. After all, anyone can put up a web site filled with their own version of the news.
Unfortunately, the reality is less rosy. Few individuals can afford to put up the kind of web site that can compete against the already established media. The New York Times, CNN, or MSNBC can spend, and lose, millions of dollars on their web sites, secure in the knowledge that other divisions of their companies can pick up the slack.
Nevertheless, sites like Swans and other small but fully independent pulications *can* help keep the public informed about the real issues.
Beyond that, I don't have any magic bullet solution. I wish I did. I spent 20 years in the newspaper business and was proud of my papers and the service they provided to their readers. But that was 20 years ago, before the worst of the merger mania had turned the media into a caricature of itself.
"... were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter," Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to Edward Carrington on January 16, 1787.
He would probably be astonished at how much the two institutions have become one.
[Ed. Note: Here is an instructive quote that illustrates Deckert's article: "There is not one of you who would dare to write his honest opinion." John Swainton of the New York Times told colleagues at his retirement party circa 1870. "The business of a journalist now is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, fall at the feet of Mammon and sell himself for his daily bread. We are tools, vessels of rich men behind the scenes, we are jumping jacks. They pull the strings; we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are the properties of these men. We are intellectual prostitutes."
-- quoted in INDEX on Censorship, Vol. 30, No. 1, January 2001, p. 10.
Deck Deckert has spent nearly two decades as copy editor, wire editor and news editor at several metropolitan newspapers, including the Miami Herald and Miami News, before becoming a freelance writer. His articles and stories on everything from alligator farming to UFOs have appeared in numerous U.S. publications. He has written two young adult novels under a pen name, and co-authored a novel about the NATO war on Yugoslavia, Letters from the Fire, with Alma Hromic, a woman he had met in an Internet discussion group. Deckert and Hromic were married six months ago and are writing a book about their experience with Internet romance, Cyberdance.
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