We’re more and more at risk of losing our democracy. The executive, legislative, and judicial branches of our government are supposed to act as checks and balances on one another, but increasingly don’t. The First Amendment intended that a free press provide an additional level of checks and balances, but this too is increasingly failing.
As Bill Moyers and many others have noted, democracy can’t survive unless the press -- the print and broadcast media -- do their job. Democracy can’t survive unless citizens have access to honest information about the stories that really matter: stories about the real actions and policies of our government and corporations; about the validity of justifications offered for going to war; about what’s really happening in our economy and the environment; about the fairness and honesty of our elections. The list goes on and on.
So why aren’t the mainstream news media doing their job? There are at least seven broad and interrelated reasons.
One. News divisions are located within media conglomerates that are increasingly driven primarily by the bottom line. Readership and audience size is already decreasing for many in the traditional print and broadcast media. Such media don’t want to do anything that might offend or further reduce their audience and thus reduce advertising revenue. Such concerns lead to a reluctance to cover, sometimes an unwillingness to cover, stories viewed as sensitive or controversial.
Two. Post 9/11, and now with the ongoing “war on terror,” media consultants have explicitly encouraged outlets to brand themselves as patriotic in the flag-waving, unquestioned support, dissent is unacceptable, sense. This branding has increased audience share for conglomerates such as Fox and Clear Channel, and has encouraged other outlets to follow their lead. It’s also led to self-censorship, however, and an abridgement of the press’ obligation to provide citizens with accurate information for informed democratic participation.
Three. This patriotic branding works particularly well for conglomerates such as Fox, Clear Channel, and Sinclair which have a strong conservative bias to begin with. These outlets then market their bias in parts of the country that are leaning or moving to the right, resulting in an audience that becomes even more conservative and polarized. In order for other media to compete for this audience, they then have to move to the right, in which case the “news” drifts further and further to the right, and dissent becomes less and less acceptable.
Four. Another way to increase audience share is to package and deliver the news as entertainment. In news as entertainment, and as described by Elliot Cohen in News Incorporated, news is seen more as a commodity to increase market share than as a First Amendment citizen right or journalistic responsibility. In news as entertainment, news is evaluated more on appearance and impression than on substance or meaningful analysis, more on conforming to the status quo than on questioning the status quo.
Five. News as entertaining sound-bites, news as competing pundits, news as repackaged corporate and governmental news releases is cheaper to produce. More thoughtful news, probing news, news with contextual perspective and analysis requires more time, money, and staff to produce. For these and other reasons the number of real journalists in the mainstream media is getting smaller and smaller.
Six. News as entertainment requires a lot less audience attention and investment than news as extended analysis. Because it requires less attention and investment, news as entertainment, news as headlines, is a better fit in the narrow sense for the fast-paced, overloaded nature of many of our lives. This becomes self perpetuating, and the type of “news” people receive increasingly determines the type of “news” people expect to receive and prefer, i.e., news as entertainment.
Seven. The media and, by extension, the “news” is increasingly about ratings. To break the story first, to get the interviews, to be the recipient of “leaks,” you need access. Access may be reduced or denied altogether if you’re too critical of the official government or corporate line.
I’ve described seven reasons why the corporate-owned mainstream press isn’t doing its job. The press is also not doing its job, however, because the political parties and those in power want it that way. Both have become increasingly adept at information control -- at promoting their policies through controlling the information that the press, and thus the public, receives. This has been going on for a long time and has been true of both parties, and both Democratic and Republican occupants in the White House.
Conservatives have been particularly successful at information control. As described by David Brock, Don Hazen, and others, since the early 70s the right has created a powerful network of think-tanks, leadership groups, donors, and secular and religious media outlets and spokespeople to articulate, support and echo its message -- “to stay on message.”
Not only do conservatives stay on message, they’re very clever at “framing” the message and controlling the debate. Thus, when the President wanted to cut taxes primarily for the wealthy, he refocused and reframed the discussion from the ways that society benefits from taxes, and why those that benefit the most should pay the most, to taxes as an “affliction.” The linguist George Lakoff notes in a September, 2004, Boston Globe article that the term “tax relief” began
“appearing in White House press releases the day President Bush took office… For there to be “relief” there must be an affliction, an afflicted party harmed by the affliction, and a reliever who takes the affliction away and is therefore a hero. And if anybody tries to stop the reliever, he’s a villain wanting the suffering to go on. Add “tax” to the mix and you have a metaphorical frame: Taxation as an affliction, the taxpayer as the afflicted party, the president as the hero, and the Democrats as the villains.
Every time you hear the term, those subliminal meanings resonate. Once the campaign repeats the words day after day, they end up in every newspaper and on every TV and radio station, and the term becomes the way TV commentators and journalists talk about taxes. And pretty soon the Democrats are forced to talk about their own brand of “tax relief.”
Information control is also achieved by “information dominance.” Danny Schechter, Ken Herman, and others note that regardless of the area, the administration controls the narrative, the images, the access, and the outcomes depicted. Think about the political rallies prior to the election, or the “conversations,” “forums,” or “town hall meetings” currently being held to sell social security “reform.” All these events are held at tax-payer expense. All are heavily wrapped in the rhetoric of democracy, and yet all are ticketed events with tickets going only to supporters. Democracy and openness are precluded. Each of these events is designed to provide an extended set of words and images to the mainstream media that can be repeated over and over to project the controlled, managed, staged message the administration wants to plant.
Other information dominance strategies are also in use. For example, information that challenges administrative policies is denied to citizens by removing the information from websites, or classification as “secret.” Similarly, citizen requests for some types of constitutionally guaranteed information increasingly encounter delays, roadblocks, or complete non-compliance (i.e., stonewalling). Some types of threatening images (e.g., returning coffins) or information (e.g., civilian deaths in Afghanistan or Iraq) are just brazenly prohibited. Finally, if you’re a journalist and your questions are too threatening, too on-target, various forms of intimidation may be used to get you, and others who might see you as a model, to “back-off.”
Another form of information control is “fake news.” As documented by the Center for Media and Democracy, the use of public relations firms to achieve political objectives has a long history. The Bush Administration has raised such uses to new heights, however, spending more than $250 million during its first term to achieve additional information dominance.
Public relations firms have been used to create “fake news” in two ways. One way is to contract with PR firms to promote administration policies, and then have the firms contract with newspaper columnists or TV newspeople to work the promotions into the “news,” but without disclosing they’re doing a paid promotion. Thus, Diane Farsetta recently reported on alternet.org that conservative syndicated commentator Armstrong Williams recently lost his newspaper column when it was discovered that he was paid $240,000 as part of a one million dollar contract between the Ketchum public relations firm and the Education Department to promote the “No Child Left Behind” law.
While several cases of Williams-like “fake news” have been discovered, literally hundreds of cases of the second type of “fake news” -- government produced, pre-packaged TV news segments -- have recently received attention. Thus, on Sunday, March 13, The New York Times ran a front page story revealing that
“at least 20 federal agencies… have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments in the past four years…Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government’s role in their production.”
[The reports] “generally avoid overt ideological appeals. Instead the government’s news-making apparatus has produced a quiet drumbeat of broadcasts describing a vigilant and compassionate administration… [The reports] often feature ‘interviews’ with senior administration officials in which questions are scripted and answers rehearsed. Critics, though, are excluded, as are any hints of mismanagement, waste, or controversy.”
Think about what’s happening here. Hundreds of stories produced at taxpayer expense extolling the virtues of the administration’s domestic and foreign policies without any hint of criticism or controversy, and with no acknowledgement by the TV stations that the segments were produced by the government. This is really significant. It’s also against the law. As reported by Amy Goodman and John Stauber in a March 14th Democracy Now! interview, the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 prohibits government propaganda directed at its own population (see also “Stop News Fraud” at freepress.net).
I’ll describe just one additional case of “fake news” -- a truly outrageous case. The case I’m referring to, of course, is that of Jeff Gannon, an individual whom bloggers later established was really James Guckert. As described by Media Matters for America and others, Gannon/Guckert received a press pass for two years to attend White House briefings. While at such briefings, Gannon/Guckert’s role seems to have been to ask questions that either promoted the administration, or smeared its opponents. Investigations continue on why Gannon/Guckert was issued press credentials when the web site he worked for -- Talon News -- had little if any audience and why he was allowed to sign-in at the White House every day as James Guckert, but ask questions in news briefings as Jeff Gannon.
But enough focus on the negative -- on ways we’re losing our democracy and country. Let’s switch our focus, and talk about five things we can do to regain our democracy, our country.
One. Democracy is based upon informed citizen action. Many of us receive much of our information from the online alternative and independent media. We each need to identify the sites we view as responsible, reliable, and trustworthy. The following are but a few of the many excellent sites I would recommend: CommonDreams.org, AlterNet, Tom Paine.common sense, Truthout, Center for Media and Democracy, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, Democracy Now, Center for Public Integrity, MediaChannel, American Progress Action Fund, The Nation, The American Prospect, In These Times and Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures.
Two. The alternative and independent media need our support. We need to support them, ourselves, democracy, and media reform through subscriptions, memberships, purchases, and donations.
Three. We need to join with others and create forums where issues and actions can be discussed and planned. One such event is The National Conference for Media Reform sponsored by freepress.net in St. Louis, Missouri, on May 13-15.
Four. We need to join with others in every possible place -- homes, churches, libraries, colleges, etc. -- to view and discuss some of the excellent documentaries that are available. A few of the many I would recommend include: Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American Empire; Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War; Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties; Independent Media in a Time of War; and Weapons of Mass Deception. All of the preceding can be inexpensively purchased, or borrowed for free at thefilmconnection.org – a collaboration between YES! magazine and The Film Connection.
Five. As Jeffrey Chester and Gary Larson argue in the Spring, 2005 issue of YES! Magazine, we need to make certain that affordable high-speed Internet service is available to all citizens -- wealthy and non-wealthy, urban and rural. We also need to ensure that telephone and cable broadband carriers provide “open access” to all Internet service providers (ISPs) and all Internet content and services. Several important potential restrictions to open broadband Internet access are currently being considered by the Federal Communications Commission and many state legislatures, and one important type of restriction will soon be debated by the Supreme Court. Excellent coverage of these and other threats to media democracy -- and thus our democracy – is available at the websites of the Media Access Project and the Center for Digital Democracy.
The above comments appeared in the April/May edition of “Common Sense”, the Independent Monthly at the University of Notre Dame and Saint Mary's College. The comments are a revised and condensed version of comments presented at the Midwest Peace Summit at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis on March 18-20. Additional resources were also distributed and are available.
Joseph Miller is Chair of the Department of Psychology at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, IN. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.