If there is a crisis of democracy, it is not due only to the ignorant masses making poor decisions or being misinformed by politicians and quacks, as the media would have us believe. The media is itself implicated in what we think about why the masses are deceived, which is really rather ironic, given the undemocratic nature of commercially-driven journalism.
A free press was inscribed into the United States constitution from the start, as a check on government, that would also serve to expose and deter corruption and cronyism. Tom Paine’s (1737 – 1809) founding belief was that an informed American citizenry would be capable of self-government. Journalism is so important that it has been regarded as an integral part of the machinery of government itself. In 1841, Thomas Carlyle famously wrote, “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important by far than they all” (On Heroes and Hero Worship). Journalism was subsidised by the government without content-based discrimination. The abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements both owe much of their success to weeklies and pamphlets.
Media is our public discourse; the conversation we have about our society. Today, huge multinational media corporations spin public perceptions for profit. TimeWarner, Disney, Comcast or 21st Century Fox decide what is newsworthy and what isn’t. Conflicts of interest mean that journalists are unable to perform their vital function of holding the most powerful people accountable.
In 1933 approximately sixty million people tuned in to President Roosevelt’s national radio address. Mass media had connected an entire nation to a single message. The following year Congress passed the Communications Act, which gave corporate broadcasters monopoly rights to government airwaves. Once broadcasting became a commercial enterprise, government regulations were established to prevent corporate monopolies from seizing control of the discourse.
However, Ronald Reagan oversaw a massive dismantling of government regulations, giving giant corporations carte blanche to snap up ownership of the airwaves. He raised single-company ownership limits, scrapped license renewal for broadcasters, relaxed limits on advertising during children’s programming, and dumped the requirement that political candidates get equal airtime. Today, mass media conglomerates generate over $236 billion a year in advertising revenue. An estimated 40-70% of what we consider ‘news’ originated in a corporate public relations department.
Thomas Carlyle in The French Revolution (1837) commented: “A Fourth Estate, of Able Editors, springs up, increases and multiplies; irrepressible, incalculable.” But over time, the opposite occurred. The Fourth Estate has decreased and the numbers of editors reduced. Since 2008, over 166 U.S. newspapers have closed down or stopped publishing print editions and over 35,000 jobs have been cut from the news media sector. Media de-regulation has meant that an ever-larger proportion of ‘news’ is concentrated in ever fewer hands, with a homogenising effect on the public’s perception of what is real, important, or true. As the media giants have consolidated their power, they have wielded it to kill messengers bearing real news from Gary Webb to Julian Assange, Sibel Edmonds and Bradley Manning. “Sibel who? Meh, I ain’t got time for all this. Lemme scan the headlines.” Their counterparts from the mainstream media spin public perception of messengers critical of establishment power and official policy. These little citizen gadflies are swiftly discredited, their ‘leaks’ and revelations re-framed to suit the image of accused power-brokers: Webb was a ‘fraud’, Assange a ‘rapist,’ Manning a ‘treacherous coward.’ Along with the ostensible message, the public got the subtext: dissidents will pay.
Politicians are dependent upon big media for airtime. Meanwhile, the media depend upon politicians to de-regulate the industry. Between 1998 and 2005, $400,000,000 was spent by media corporations lobbying politicians and making political donations. Bill Clinton could be counted upon to sign the 1996 Telecoms Act into law, ushering in a rapid consolidation of major media companies owning everything from book publishing, music labels and television, to radio, outdoor advertising and film studios. As a result of these massive mergers, local media owners got squeezed out.
Despite its reputation for integrity, The New York Times has capitulated to the military-industrial complex. Nowadays, journalists’ access to Pentagon officials and the information (propaganda) they provide during wartime is contingent upon cooperation, which means embedding and not straying from the ‘talking points’ provided. Embedding insures that war reporters see who and what the U.S. military or their allies want them to see in conflict zones. It is like visiting Pyongyang except with American chaperones and fewer parades.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the U.S. body charged with regulating the media and preventing monopolies. While his Dad was busy trying to sell the war (invasion) in Iraq to Congress, Michael Powell was heading up the FCC, and working hard to disengage the last remaining brakes on media ownership. Millions protested against Powell’s plans, which would have allowed all media content (newspaper, radio and television) in one town to come from the same source. When Kevin Martin took over as head of the FCC in 2005, he held a series of public “consultations” on the question of cross-media ownership, and then completely ignored them. Despite huge public outcry at the prospect of lifting the cross-media ownership ban, Martin sided with media conglomerates and removed it anyway, in blatant dereliction of his FCC duty. On July 7, 2011, a Federal Appeals Court intervened and overturned Martin’s cross-ownership rule, on the grounds that Martin had breached the public interest.
Largely as a result of the corporate media’s focus on profits over journalism, “infotainment” now routinely replaces actual news. Political scandal? Corporate corruption? — Never mind that, look over there at the juicy scoop about some celebrity doing the ice-bucket challenge. The line between reporting and advertisement has also blurred. It is difficult to distinguish whether we are being sold a story or a product and many apparent ‘news’ items are little more than free publicity for a product, such as when a news story discusses a new drug ‘breakthrough’ you’ve never heard of but in reality it is a thinly veiled advertisement written in a style resembling editorial content.
So, the crisis of democracy does not rest exclusively on the shoulders of the unwashed working classes. If the masses are kept ignorant, this is largely in the hands of giant corporations who produce commercially driven journalism.
If you want to learn more, there are some excellent documentaries from alternative, non-corporate journalists who make it easy to become media savvy. Among them, I can recommend: Why We Fight, Project Censored: the Movie, Control Room, Shadows of Liberty, The War You Don’t See, Breaking the Mirror: the Murdoch Effect, OutFoxed and Manufacturing Consent.
(See, I just used this blog story to sell you some documentaries).