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Such as it is, the press has become the greatest power within the Western World, more powerful than the legislature, the executive and judiciary. One would like to ask; by whom has it been elected and to whom is it responsible? ó Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
By Norman Solomon
MoveOn strives to "help create a culture of civic engagement." Such goals are crucial. But the big obstacles include the major news media of the United States.
These days, in theory, just about everyone in the country has freedom to speak. But freedom to be heard is another matter.
Varied sources of information and genuine diversity of viewpoints should reach the public on an ongoing basis. But they donít.
The planned war on Iraq is a case in point. All kinds of claims take hold in U.S. mass media while rarely undergoing direct challenge. Newsrooms and studios, filled with hot-air balloons, are apt to harmonize with the pronouncements of official Washington as long as sharp pins donít get through the door.
The huge gap between freedom of speech and freedom to be heard also helps to explain how fervent belief in Uncle Samís intended benevolence remains so widespread among Americans. Laid on thick by the dominant voices of mass communication, the latest conventional wisdom swiftly hardens and calcifies.
Along with heavy doses of Pentagon Correctness, the mainstream media are saturated with corporate sensibilities. The effects are so routine that we usually donít give them a second thought.
At networks owned by multibillion-dollar conglomerates like General Electric, Viacom and Disney, the news divisions solemnly report every uptick or downturn of the markets. In contrast, when was the last time you heard Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather or Peter Jennings report the latest rates of on-the-job injuries or the average wait times at hospital emergency rooms?
While many viewers assume that coverage reflects the considered judgment of journalistic pros, those journalists are enmeshed in a media industry dominated by corporate institutions with enough financial sway to redefine the meaning of functional professionalism.
In theory, noncommercial TV and radio outlets are insulated from the inordinate power of money. But across the country, each year, "public broadcasting" relies on hundreds of millions of dollars from corporations that are pleased to provide underwriting to burnish their images among upscale viewers and listeners. Whatever other benefits accrue, those firms buy some valuable PR with their de facto commercials, known euphemistically in the trade as "enhanced underwriter credits."
Along with the politically appointed board of the nonprofit Corporation for Public Broadcasting, corporate donors exert hefty influence on programs by "underwriting" -- and, in some cases, literally making possible -- specific shows. Private money is a big determinant of whatís on "public" broadcasting.
Without corporate funding for specific programs, many current shows would not exist. Public television airs the "Nightly Business Report," but viewers can search in vain for a regular show devoted to assessing the fortunes of working people. At PBS, no less than at avowedly commercial networks, the operative assumption seems to be that wealth creates all labor, not the other way around. Back in the 1770s, Adam Smith articulated a more progressive outlook, writing: "It was not by gold or by silver, but by labor, that all the wealth of the world was originally purchased."
Years ago, National Public Radio initiated "NPR business updates" to supplement newscasts many times each day on stations nationwide. Listeners will be disappointed if they wait for an "NPR labor update." Various public radio stations feature the daily national program "Marketplace" and the weekly "Sound Money" show, but there is no comparable broadcast such as "Workplace" or "Sound Labor."
At the same time, big money tilts reporting and punditry. On major networks, we rarely hear a strong voice speaking against the outsized power of large corporations.
Overall, the main problems with media are profoundly structural. The airwaves are supposed to belong to the public, but theyíve been hijacked by huge companies. With the government assisting the monopolization process, all the major forms of media -- such as broadcasting, cable, newspapers, magazines, books, movies, the music industry and, increasingly, the Web -- are now dominated by the interests of capital, devoted to maximizing private profit. Some investors benefit; the public gets shafted.
Any successful movement for basic progressive change will need to push big money off the windpipe of the First Amendment. For democratic discourse to thrive, freedom to speak must be accompanied by freedom to be heard.
Norman Solomonís weekly syndicated column -- posted and archived at www.fair.org/media-beat -- focuses on media and politics. He is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy (http://www.accuracy.org).
This is a wide-ranging and valuable invective against the current state of the mainstream US media. Some issues that are highlighted include the decline of foreign news bureaus, the focus of news programs on entertainment issues such as movie profits, and the outright subservience of the media to the interests of corporations and the US government. Several organizations that are working to explain and fight media concentration are also specifically mentioned. http://www.counterpunch.org/madsen0425.html/
WHO OWNS THE MEDIA?
Media concentration, also known as media convergence or media consolidation, basically comes down to the fact that fewer and fewer companies own the media.
Mediachannel.org has created a comprehensive chart of exactly who owns what.
Colombia Journalism Review provides a clickable list of the major media companies and their holdings. This web guide demonstrates the exceedingly far reach of these companies.
This is a clickable chart of the ten largest media companies in the world, current as of Dec. 20, 2001 (it is important to note that media concentration is not only an American problem). It includes US companies such as the Walt Disney Company and AOL Time Warner, as well as international giants Bertelsmann and Vivendi Universal.
A graph of media ownership shows the number of corporations in control of US media plunging from 50 in 1983 to only six now. It is followed by a really useful list of links, which includes the major media reform advocacy groups.
As FAIR explains, "Almost all media that reach a large audience in the United States are owned by for-profit corporations--institutions that by law are obligated to put the profits of their investors ahead of all other considerations. The goal of maximizing profits is often in conflict with the practice of responsible journalism."
This brief introduction to corporate ownership of the media is followed by a number of links to resources on the topic, including Norman Solomon's columns.
EXAMPLES OF A DECLINE IN MEDIA QUALITY
Michael Massing of the Columbia Journalism Review evaluates the press coverage immediately after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Print and broadcast media in the US have severely cut back foreign news coverage, leading to a poorly educated American public. This may be one of the reasons that Americans were so shocked by the events of Sept. 11--they have little to no knowledge of politics, ideology, and religion in the rest of the world. Meanwhile, coverage of crime, violence, sex and scandals has greatly increased.
FAIR answers the question "What's Wrong With the News?" with a clickable list of very short introductions to the following issues:
- corporate ownership
- advertiser influence
- official agendas
- telecommunications policy
- the narrow range of debate
- the PR industry
- pressure groups
DEREGULATION SPEEDS CONCENTRATION
This is an excellent and brief summary of the new push for deregulation of the media industry by the FCC. Generally, a source like this might be expected to take a sympathetic view toward any efforts to deregulate, but this article is surprisingly skeptical. It is particularly useful in briefly critiquing the almost utopian hopes of web advocates. Websites may be relatively cheap, but good (or at least flashy) content costs money, and the big media companies have used this fact to insert themselves as the dominant presence on the web. http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/01_40/b3751045.htm
This article discusses the FCC's move towards deregulation in more detail. Deregulation is based on the perspective that the media is a product only, a "toaster with pictures." There seems to be little or no recognition of any need for policies that maintain a diversity of opinion, thus serving the interests of the public as citizens; rather, the public is regarded only as a group of consumers. The results of this deregulation will most likely be an even more acute concentration of the media into the hands of a few big corporations. However, there is still time to fight it, and the article includes information on writing to the FCC. http://www.democraticmedia.org/issues/mediaownership
FCC Chairman Michael Powell is currently the driving force behind the continuing trend of media concentration. Nor does he seem very concerned about the creation of media monopolies. According to Powell, "Monopoly is not illegal by itself in the United States. People tend to forget this. There is something healthy about letting innovators try to capture markets." And what about diversity? Well, Powell believes that "[d]iversity and all that stuff is very important, but it's hard to get a consensus on what it is, other than that the goals are worthy." http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/10.03/mergers.html
This excellent article makes the case for media reform and gives some examples of what must be done to institute such reform. According to the author:
"For democrats, this concentration of media power and attendant commercialization of public discourse are a disaster. An informed, participating citizenry depends on media that play a public service function. As James Madison once put it, 'A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.' But these democratic functions lie beyond the reach of the current American media system. If we are serious about democracy, then, we need to work aggressively for reform."
So what kind of reform is needed? Some suggestions from the article:
- reduce the current degree of media concentration
- create special incentives for nonprofits
- maintain and enforce broadcast regulation
- make public broadcasting public
- enforce antitrust laws
This excellent article outlines a "12-Step Program for Media Democracy." http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20020805&s=larson20020723&c=1
Granny D, an activist, gives some practical suggestions for media activism in this earthy speech, in which she says that alternative media sources "are like the secret short wave transmissions that an occupied people can turn to for the truth and for hope." She also critiques the current state of journalism very effectively. According to Granny, "The news is not something that comes into a city like a parade and can be reported by simple observation and description. Oh, traffic wrecks, house fires, bankruptcies and murders are lovely distractions and can fill some pages. But such items, compared to the more highly evolved stories of real journalism, are like the stooped-over half-man, half-ape precursors on the evolution scale. A self-governing people require the more highly evolved arts of journalism."
As a public draft registration resister, a long-term member of the War Resisters League National Committee, a former staff person at the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, and a current counselor on the GI Rights Hotline, I congratulate you for drawing attention to this very important issue.
I want to correct a minor inaccuracy I noticed (although I know you got the information from what is, usually, a reliable source), and then raise some wider issues.
Your alert says that those born, "after Jan. 1, 1963" are required to register under current Selective Service Law. Actually, those born on or after January 1st, 1960 are required to register. In practice, this is a distinction almost without a difference since all those born between 1960 and 1963 could no longer register if they did not do so, because they are beyond the age 26 time limit. However, it could matter for men born between those years who did not register or refused to register, as they are still denied Federal student loans, Federal job training, and most Federal jobs.
I wish your alert had mentioned that the Selective Service System continues to try to convince state legislatures to add additional penalties to draft non-registrants (http://www.comdsd.org/alerts_archive.htm#defeat7-02), as the struggles to stop the increase in state penalties are on-going and directly impact young people deciding whether to register or not now. And it would have been great if you would have mentioned the Fund for Education and Training, http://www.nisbco.org/FEAT.htm, because people wishing to help aid non-registrants can contribute to this fund to help provide student loans to those deprived of them by the government's coercive response to their conscience.
At the international level, the alert did not mention The Right to Refuse to Kill Project, the only list-serve and web-site that I know of which sends alerts to people world-wide on how to send letters of support for conscientious objectors world-wide. This project operates out of the War Resisters International office in London at http://www.wri-irg.org/en/index.html
A larger issue I want to raise with you is the cursory treatment of military conscientious objectors. They are currently the only ones in the United States who can currently apply for C.O. status, and so any alert focusing on these issues, I believe, should really focus on their needs, as well as the concerns of those facing a potential future draft. Unfortunately, from my point of view, this alert only tangentially mentioned their needs. When it did so, the website it referred folks to contains outdated addresses and phone numbers for the nodes of the GI Rights Hotline, which can be reached directly through www.girights.org."I personally am currently working with four conscientious objector applicants or potential applicants, and each of their stories is poignant, powerful, and inspiring.
Perhaps you could put out a future alert regarding the violations of the rights of members of the military, starting with the poverty draft which amounts to economic conscription in this country, continuing through widespread military recruiting fraud (see the countering military recruitment sections at www.objector.org, (among others) which I'm glad you did provide a link to in a different context), and then into the military itself where brutality, discrimination, harassment, rape, battering, racism, sexism, homophobia, and general abuse of military personnel are still so ubiquitous as to constitute standard operating procedure. As a result of these abuses, the GI Rights Hotline continues to expand exponentially, receiving 15,000 calls on the hotline last year. Bringing attention to these neglected issues would be gratefully appreciated.
Thanks Again For All Your Work,
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