can’t see the forest

Shut Off the Telescreen, It Can See You: The Role of Big Media in the US

Posted in business, mass media, Social and Politics by Curtis on 8/24/06

Television Antenna
Television is such a huge part of American life, one wonders whether these birds might not have adapted the ability to pick up broadcast signals through their feet just to stay informed. Perhaps they did, only to find their progress made moot by the increasing popularity of cable and satellite television.

“Cheep-cheep,” one says to the other.

“Shhhhhh!” the other one replies.

It can be argued that radio and television broadcasting are inventions whose developments have changed life for the better overall. Certainly television, in parallel with telephony, has made the world a smaller place. There have been definite benefits to society. Unfortunately, whether or not the medium is used to its full potential for the benefits to all is not determined so much by innate and inert qualities as by the dynamics of who controls the medium, how it is used, and why.

The explosion of the Information Age, as it is called, was centered in the United States in the decades just before and just after the Second World War. In the US, media publishers from newspapers to television and cable stations and the mass media of the web are controlled by profit-hungry corporations. Public, non-profit broadcasting plays a very small role in the industry, funded mostly through charitable donations. In Europe and elsewhere, the reverse is true: state and public sector broadcasting are the most important sources of news information and the role of private enterprise in the media is largely relegated to syndicated entertainment.

What’s wrong with news for profit? To begin with, the market viability of a media source is judged most fundamentally on its viewership. It doesn’t matter what viewers think, whether they love or detest the programming, so long as they tune in to watch. Raw numbers are everything: in the media market, the one with the most “hits” always wins. Why is this? Because media for profit is paid for by advertising, and the companies which advertise their brands and products do not care about what viewers think of the “filler”—meaning the actual programming—so long as they see the commercials, which are the only substantive content in the view of the industry.

The problem with this is that media companies try to achieve the broadest viewer base possible by sticking to neutral viewpoints and issues of low significance. The idea is not to offend anyone so as to be attractive to the most people as possible. Political and economic commentators may appear to be engaged in lively debate about health care reform or the “war on terror” or any number of issues, but close inspection practically always reveals that the range of opinions expressed is really quite narrow. Like the crowd at a high school football game, the idea is to be involved in the immediate black-and-white struggle between the teams rather than to dissect larger issues such as whether the money spent on the enormous new stadium might have better been appropriated for new textbooks and science equipment.

The result is that the major media outlets, especially, tend to place profit potential in pole position when outlining strategy. This does not necessarily mean that they censor or misreport information, although it certainly has been known to happen. The strategy takes place at a higher level, at the level of making determinations not about how stories will be reported but about which stories will be reported at all, and when.

disaster signFor example, the overwhelming majority of news stories concerning the disaster in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are human interest stories which center on the individual lives of people affected by war. Most usually this coverage is centered on the troops involved, with less attention devoted to civilians caught in the middle. Coverage of the troops is not in and of itself a bad thing, because the troops as individuals certainly need to feel appreciated and remembered. The problem is that the troops probably place more value on being brought home as soon as possible than on being praised for their courage and dedication, but the media cannot fairly present arguments to this end without polarizing its audience and losing viewers, and, thence, money. This is why messages like “Support Our Troops” tend to dominate broadcasts, which is not to say that supporting the troops isn’t important, but that there are specific reasons for which the media will tend to ignore larger and more crucial issues in favor of soft messages which make people smile, and that these reasons serve the good of the media corporations as profitable enterprises rather than the public interest of being well informed and able to make responsible and impactful choices. News agencies counter with slogans like “fair and balanced,” or “the news you care about” but, as anyone with experience of human nature will agree, an upfront claim of moral equanimity usually indicates that such qualities are in fact lacking beneath the shiny surface.

Murder, apparently, is one of the more tried-and-true ways to attract viewership in large and steady numbers. Thus, while urban murder rates in the United States were in steady decline through the late 1990s and the early part of this decade, media coverage of murders soared disproportionately. Generally any issue which can be expected to reach the audience primarily on an emotional rather than an intellectual level can be counted on to solidify subscribership and to generate loyalty. This is a truism masterfully explored in Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

An additional and perhaps more sinister problem is that corporate conglomeratization and globalization continue to reduce the number of independent media enterprises, bringing ever-growing numbers of outlets under the executive control of an ever-shrinking number of people. Many Americans do not realize that all four major network broadcasters, most of the largest cable stations, hundreds of individual television and radio stations, many of the largest newspapers and magazines, and several major internet service and content providers are all controlled ultimately by a group of executives that would have trouble filling out a large dinner table. Why is this worse for news accuracy and fairness? If I own steel mills in thirty towns, I once would have had to have called up perhaps twenty or thirty different media outlets to give them my two cents, and possibly much more, about why my choking black smoke and its nasty effects ought not to be featured. If those outlets start to buy each other, then the number of phone calls I must make and the number of advertisements I must pay for in order to get my way will decrease. Concentrated ownership of media makes it more vulnerable to external influence.

FOX News once suppressed a story by investigative reporters for one of its Florida stations. The story was about bovine growth hormone, a chemical which is administered to about one quarter of America’s dairy cows in order to stimulate increased milk production but which has serious adverse affects on the health of cows and may lead to an increase in milk contaminents such as pus. The chemical has been conclusively linked to cancer in laboratory studies. FOX received a letter from Monsanto, producer of the hormone, promising “dire consequences” if the story were aired, particularly since the station’s broadcast area was a strong milk producing region. FOX attorneys ordered the story to be rewritten in order to negate its most serious implications, and when the reporters couldn’t seem to “get it right” after more than 80 rewrites, they were eventually fired. A court ruling decided that the reporters had been fired in order to be silenced, which is unconstitutional, but a later appeal reversed this ruling in favor of FOX, saying that the company had done nothing unethical. Monsanto is also the company which ruthlessly pushes genetically modified seeds, particularly in the third world. These seeds are genetically modified to produce healthier, more efficient crops, but they are also modified to self-terminate so that the seeds cannot be harvested and replanted—the crops are often sterile so that farmers will have to buy new seed each season, seed which Monsanto has patented, and whose price it continues to increase as a result of increasing demand. The devastation this ruthlessness is wreacking on third world agricultural economies is scarcely covered in the major media. Debates on genetic engineering are centered on moral and ethical issues rather than on the very real and immediate adverse effects many genetically modified products are exerting and whether or not these are adequately balanced by more superficial benefits.

Recent polls indicate that only about 20% of Americans firmly believe that the media cannot be fundamentally trusted to deliver fair and accurate information in the appropriate context. Most Americans are at least partially skeptical of the neutrality of media coverage. The connection that is made far too infrequently is the urgent importance of fair media, because the media, to an unprecedented degree in our society, has the power to explicitly shape political agendas. It is the media which is responsible for making the public aware of issues of importance, particularly at election time, and the priority given to different issues and types of issues as well as the range of discussion presented inevitably determine the priorities and opinion ranges of the public. Because media corporations are primarily concerned with profit from high viewership, the issues most generally covered tend to be ones of lesser importance since, as a rule, more crucial issues produce a more divided range of passionate opinion rather than a general and narrowly constricted consensus. Thus less concrete issues of little real significance, such as the fiery debate over homosexual marriage or whether or not creationism is a valid scientific theory, produce stark contrasts of opinion whereas the range of debate on issues like military intervention abroad and the imposition of “free market economies” on client states is quite narrow and restricted solely to symptomatic rather than generative aspects of the issues. The illusion is that we are talking about important things, but we are really only discussing the sensational to the virtual exclusion of the practical.

the boardroom, ladies and gentlemenIf corporate and political influence are rife in our media, we have interests in asking ourselves what it is these influences hope to gain through manipulating the media we count on for crucial information. The answer is simple: like the media corporations themselves, the corporations which pay for the existence of media are after profits, preferably steadily increasing profits. By manipulating public opinion to coincide with corporate goals, one arrives at quite the opposite of a State-regulated economy; we have a market-regulated State. Issues and points of view which might affect the profitability of some of the larger, more destructive, and more questionable business enterprises are filtered out to an alarming degree.

The solution is to demand a media—at least a news media, if not also an entertainment sector—that is not primarily motivated by profit from advertisers with their own agendas. A common assumption is that the only alternative is a State-controlled media, in which case, capitalism enthusiasts and Republicans are especially fond of claiming, the State will eventually be able to exert much more direct and harmful influence on the media than the private sector did, as in communist States. Well, there is some truth to this. But political parties both “liberal” and “conservative” primarily serve the interests of big business, and historically always have, so a media controlled by any political party would simply cut out the middle-man with no real change in the net effect. The reality is that, particularly with the unbelievable growth of the internet as an interactive medium through which people can exchange and discuss ideas and opinions, a media “by the people, for the people” is now more plausible and imminent than ever. The fact that you are reading this blog and that I, as a human being, value your comments more than the number of times you hit my page, is the best evidence of this I could devise. Little is more feared by big business than the ability of a public to inform itself without corporate influence. Little is more important to our well-being and our democratic empowerment.


5 Responses

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  1. nycity said, on 8/26/06 at 4:43 am

    I’m not familiar with the media landscape in the US. I’ve heard stories about Rupert Murdoch though, and that doesn’t sound encouraging, I admit.

    Seems to me that the more diverse, the better. Free market economy doesn’t care about diversity, so it’s the duty of the government to regulate (~antitrust). The job of the people is then to remain critical and is it too much to ask of the corporations to grow a sense of ethics?

  2. tellitlikeitis said, on 8/26/06 at 10:22 am

    Unfortunately, it appears to be far too much to ask for corporations to grow a sense of ethics—with very few exceptions (see my post on Ray Anderson.)

    When the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed after the Civil War, the purpose behind it was to guarantee that neither the federal government nor any state within it had the right to deny basic rights to African-Americans. The way it was phrased was not with specific reference to African-Americans, just, roughly, that “no born or naturalized citizen” shall be denied rights to life, liberty, and property.

    Up until this time, corporations existed only by carefully controlled charters from a sovereign government. Corporations were seen as a gift from the public, whereby a group of businessmen might come together to pool resources and to share risks in order to accomplish things like colonization, or building railroads, or bridges, et cetera. Corporate charters were very specific about what corporations could and could not do. They could not own one another, and they could not own property except as mandated by the state. They could serve only the original purposes for which they were chartered, and nothing further. Their profits and expenditures were also closely regulated.

    Between 1890 and 1910, a little over 300 Fourteenth Amendment cases were brought before the federal judiciary. About 20 of them were brought on behalf of African-Americans. The remaining two hundred eighty-something were brought on behalf of corporations.

    Corporate lawyers argued that, since the risk-reducing benefits of a corporation were contained in that a corporation maintained a separate identity apart from those of its members, a corporation must be considered a person—in constitutional terms, a naturalized citizen—under the law. As a person and a citizen, they said, a corporation has the same right to pursue life, liberty, and property as any other citizen. The judges went along with this, and this is how, through a series of legal decisions—not just one or two—corporations became structured so that, by law—not just by choice—a corporation must place its profits ahead of all other considerations.

    Therefore, if we are to ask a corporation to pay more attention to ethical concerns, we must be able to prove that it will increase short-term profit. This is the psychopathic beauty of the structure of the modern corporation.

    The main problem with the legal structure of the modern corporation is that it is allowed to move and to behave as an ordinary citizen, but is not required to accept commensurate responsibilities. In other words, you can’t put a corporation in jail. You can put its leadership in jail, or all of its shareholders, for that matter, but the corporation continues to exist in these cases. If you or I infringe on the rights of someone else in our pursuit of life, liberty, and property, we can be held accountable for our infringements. This is not necessarily true of corporations.

    In regards to the media—I agree, diverse is certainly better. But no matter how diverse the media might be—eighteen hundred news channels, if you want—as long as the primary motivation for news sources is profit from external advertisers with their own agendas, the media will not be fair and balanced. The diversity of the media must come from you and from me, if the government will not, as you suggested, step in and demand regulation. I agree that, in a vaguely utopian sense, it should be the duty of the government to regulate the media, particularly the news media. But in a capitalist society, and particularly in a large-scale corporate capitalist society, I think the real-world effects of state regulation of the media might be even more horrible than in Stalinist Russia.

    I think the simplest answer is to read more blogs and watch less news. And, when you do watch the news, pay very close attention to who’s advertising. That’s Daddy.

  3. nycity said, on 8/26/06 at 11:13 am

    I read that (and your blog in general) with great interest. Very informative, I guess I should start reading more too ;)

  4. Mary Castellaneta said, on 1/18/07 at 1:43 am

    Google is the best search engine

  5. Jim Stoltz said, on 1/18/07 at 1:46 am

    Google is the best search engine

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