Corporate and state ownership, dependency on advertising money, careerism, group think, staffing cuts, hyper-concision, syndication bastardization and non-democratic hierarchical power structures: need we say more?
The majority of people are now highly sceptical of the mass media, as well as corporate and political elites and all of our major social institutions, as global polls show repeatedly - and with good reason. Readers, listeners and viewers of the mass media are leaving in droves, as the major media networks are keenly aware, and those who stay are both highly sceptical, and are supplementing their “news” and “analysis” with a diversity of other, more independent sources. Why is it that there is a crisis of legitimacy among the major media, with the media elite, we could say, as well as with regards to the reigning economic and political elite and structures of power? The answer in large part is that the quality of the mass media is generally abysmal, by any serious standards of journalism, as can be easily shown, and has been shown repeatedly, and the people know this. We must then ask why the mass media are, with only rare exceptions, essentially pure rubbish. There are a number of factors, aside from the obvious, which is ownership by the corporate elite, and dependency upon the corporate elite for advertising money to stay afloat.
The single biggest reason why the mass media are trash, is that they are by and large owned by a narrow concentration of corporate elites, and these corporate or economic elites are not particularly interested in truth or good journalism, because that would further expose facts, information, views and ideas that would run counter to their economic interests. As Chomsky put it: How do the corporate elite control the mass media? They own them. How does General Motors control its factories? Nobody asks that question, because the answer is obvious: they own them. The same is true with media, even if we systematically deny the obvious. The emperor has no clothes, and everybody knows it. Only the wilfully ignorant, the habitually servile and the deceitful deny what is clearly self-evident to all.
The second biggest reason why the mass media is nearly always trash is that, even when the major media networks are not owned directly by the corporate elite, as in the case of the CBC, BBC, TVO, PBS and others, these media networks are dependent upon corporate advertising dollars to stay on the air and to keep afloat. They are loath to bite the hand that feeds them, and you can see this in their journalistic (sic) record of action - or obfuscation, silence and spin, to be more precise. Does money buy loyalty? Of course it does, in the media as well as in politics.
The third major reason why the mass media have abysmal standards of journalism - so low that you really cannot in all honesty or sensibility call it journalism - is because the major media outlets and networks that are not directly corporate owned, or even dependent upon corporate advertising money to survive, are generally controlled by the second major concentration of power in contemporary society, after the corporate elite, which is state power, or government ownership. Now, while government-owned media could theoretically be open, transparent, inclusive, diverse, democratic and vibrant, we would be foolish to expect this to be the norm, and should in fact expect the opposite from state-owned media: state-owned media reflect the interests and bias of those who control the state, and not the truth, when the latter conflicts with the former, as it does more often than not. And in case anyone hadn’t noticed, the nation-state, across most of the Western world, and all around the world, has been co-opted or simply high-jacked by the globally dominant corporate elite - hence, again, the mass media that are state-owned in the Western world tend to reflect the interests of the same hegemonic, ruling corporate elite that own the majority of the mass media.
As the street-wise saying goes, you have all the freedom of the press you can afford to buy. Media outlets and networks that are owned by state and corporate powers cannot be expected to provide good journalism, or even serious journalism. As Chomsky showed so clearly and undeniably, the obvious is in fact true: the mass media function overwhelmingly, and with only rare exceptions, not as a free and democratic press, but as a propaganda system which reinforces “necessary illusions,” and spins, conceals, distracts, obfuscates or distorts information and ideas so that the people will remain compliant and obedient consumers, cogs and spectators of powers they have yielded up, so that the ruling elite can continue to rule without the nasty interference of actual functioning democracy or the people’s involvement in the decisions that affect their lives and communities. Most people now know this to be true. Only the servants of the elite deny the undeniable fact. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to make a man understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Everyone else can see clearly that which is before their nose.
Wage slavery and economic dependence breeds denial, cowardice and wilful ignorance: and the media is no exception. This can be summed up as careerism: the human weakness of placing one’s career, one’s bread and butter, one’s own personal material interests or social position, above the truth or any human, environmental or moral concern.
Those with courage and moral integrity will work to find holes in the system, where the range of discussion can be broadened and different perspectives, ideas, views and information can be brought to light, or else leave their narrow confines of purchased obedience, and strike a bold path in the realm of a more independent and authentic, honest form of journalism. The majority however, tuck their tails between their legs, and say, “Yes massah - anything you say massah program director / editor / publisher / advertiser / corporate or state owner.” Such spineless souls do not deserve the title of journalist, but only of lap dog, courtier, or something worse.
Journalists of integrity, such as Bill Moyers, Greg Palast, Jeremy Scahill, Chris Hedges, Naomi Klein and David Sirota, to name a few of the many courageous souls in the field, are the exceptions to the rule. The majority have sold their integrity and their powers for a few crumbs and a life of servitude and complicity to lies and deceit.
There are structural problems with the mass media, revolving primarily around power and money, but there is also a level of personal responsibility in a system that is almost wholly corrupt and in service to anti-democratic, unjust, unaccountable and anti-ecological, pervasively deceitful imperial powers. To say, “I was just doing my job, was not a valid excuse in the past, and is not a valid excuse now.
By the time we have covered the three or four biggest reasons for the abysmal failure and appalling behaviour of the mass media, as we now have, there is little left to explain; but to this list we can add more paralyzing or corrupting factors that affect the quality of the “news” and the mass media in general. Group-think is a fifth paralytic or actively degenerative, corrupting factor in the mass media, as it is elsewhere. The sheeple don’t like to think - thinking is dangerous, and may lead to censure, ostracization, exile, banishment, excommunication, loss of income, status, friends or other relationships; and while the people of the world are beginning to awaken, the tendency toward a passive and unquestioning group-think is still strong within us.
God help us if we were to step out of line! Or speak out of line! The sky might fall! Or worse! We may be forced to stand up on our feet as an individual, and cease to be a bleating member of the herd only! Yes, we are deeply inclined to be social animals, and this is our greatest strength as well as our greatest weakness. If only we could learn the values of cooperation, solidarity, mutual aid and compassion, and dispense with the group think and the herd mentality – but that is coming, and it unfolding now. This is our greatest hour, and also our greatest time of challenge.
The terror of ostracization and loss of community support is a deep-seated feature in the human psyche, going back in part to our nearly absolute dependency on the tribe for our well-being and also our survival. Ostracization from the group meant not only loneliness and loss, but also, near-certain death. Hence, our instinct to cooperation and solidarity, which is our greatest strength, finds its mirror in our dark side in sheepish and servile, mealy-mouthed and spineless group-think, and blind, unquestioning obedience to the stampeding crowd of our peers. We need more Thoreau, Robert Frost and others like them, and less time in TV land or the malls, to recover our sanity, our hearts, our inner strength and our spines, even our identity as unique human beings, capable of our own thought, feeling and action.
Yes, group-think drives much of what happens in the mass media, as it does elsewhere, and this herd mentality is only second in its corrupting or paralyzing influence to economic dependency, advertising dependency, and state or corporate ownership.
To paraphrase Socrates, who said an unreflective life is not worth living: a life of unthinking obedience to social conformity and group-think is no life at all, but merely the shell of a life, and the hollowness will eat them alive slowly if they do not correct their error, and return to their own true nature and thereby their senses. In the meantime, all of us suffer for the habitual and widely pervasive error of unthinking conformity.
Staffing cuts, which are blamed and bemoaned across the media industry, are simply the final nail in the coffin to a journalism that was and is, with only few exceptions, long dead. When news rooms are axed and staffing cuts are severe, the already existing pressures to simply conform, obey, follow the party line or the standard recipe for interpretation or presentation of a subject, intensifies, for there is simply no time to think or even to investigate. When you are told at noon that you are to cover a story that airs at four, or sooner, and this is just one of your many assignments, there is no time to investigate or come to any serious understanding of the subject. You give it a quick gloss, relying on the cues you get from others in the same mass media as to how to report the story, and journalism never has a chance to be born, let alone live and breathe and take wing.
As Chomsky pointed out, hyper-concision prevents any serious discussion of the issues, or any new or divergent perspectives from being presented: for it takes no argument or evidence to repeat the party line of what everyone assumes to be true, or what everyone is saying; but when you diverge from the chant of unthinking drones and say something different, people reasonably want to hear an argument or evidence, or both, for what you are saying, and that cannot be done within the bounds of hyper-concision, with a 700 word newspaper article or a two-minute or thirty-second TV or radio “news” story that functions through sound-bites.
What is not widely known is that hyper-concision functions behind the scenes as well as within the structure of presenting “the news.” In general, journalists and media workers have too little time and too many assignments to do any serious journalism: their time is so constricted that all they can do, essentially, is little more than to read the wire services - all of which are owned by the same few corporate media giants - and take their cues from the same major media that are dominated and controlled by the same corporate and state powers. Journalism? There is no time for such lofty aspirations as journalism. What we have, in lieu of real journalism, is media churn and burn. Churn out the stories, and if the truth is burned, well, that’s unfortunate, but we’ve got a deadline.
Of course, if we were seriously concerned with the truth, with serious journalism, then we’d cover fewer stories, be selective as to what we focus on, leaving off the myriad stories of drivel and dross and tripe that is passed off as “news,” and spend some serious time investigating and examining the major stories that are affecting our lives, communities and world. But that would happen only if we had a sane media, and we cannot have a sane media when the media serves vested interests and narrow pecuniary concerns over truth and democratic debate, as it does now, and has for a long time.
As an aside, we must also mention the fact that the extraordinarily hypocritical and flatly corrupt structural framework of syndication policies further severely damages and hinders any serious efforts at journalistic integrity. While the major newsrooms are awash in syndicated stories blithely, unthinkingly and irresponsibly reproduced from corporate newswires and “leading” media sources, and the echo chamber of self-replicating stories with nearly identical “reporting” is almost nauseating, like a house of mirrors in an amusement park, and while journalists and media personalities from major networks and media outlets can have their faces, voices or written articles reproduced across a national or global network of broadcast and syndication, a small independent media outlet or single journalist, researcher or writer cannot publish an article on more than one website - having already been shut out of the major media networks - without the internet watchdog known alternately as Cerberus or Google pulling the article, and possibly also the hosting independent media outlet or website from the search engine machine, and thus from public view and discourse. In other words, a handful of voices are replicated ad nauseum, all across the airwaves, internet and print media globally, while other voices are systematically shut out. This only serves to maintain the power of the dominant media players, thus both preventing a full diversity of democratic views and discussion, and also feeding back into the tendency of the major media to bow to existing pressures and repeat the same abysmal standards of faux journalism.
Among other things, Google must be stopped. Already this juggernaut, which cooperates willingly with China’s desire to censor the internet, and with the National Security Agency’s systematic and all-pervasive big brother surveillance state, has far too much power over the realm of the internet. Google does not control the internet, thankfully, but its power is becoming hegemonic, and it’s allegiances are nefarious to say the least (long forgotten is the unofficial internal company motto of “do no evil”): and its presence is disruptive and hindering to any real democratic forum of free discourse and free speech.
But this is really looking more at the abysmal state of journalism in general, despite the myriad small glowing exceptions that are emerging and growing at an exponential rate, through the detritus of the media hegemons. The core problems with the major media networks and outlets are as mentioned. The extraordinarily one-sided and hypocritical syndication framework is simply a bolster to the corrupt and failed mass media, and an obstacle to serious journalism and democratic media emerging more rapidly. But the change is happening nonetheless. The pen is truly mightier than the sword, and mightier also than any form of monolopistic or hegemonic, oligarchical powers or seemingly invincible vested interests.
Lastly - as if all of that were not enough to convince anyone of sound mind to switch off the mass media immediately, and consider it a write-off or a bad and terrible joke, a crime or a tragedy - we come to hierarchical power structures in the mass media.
When you work for the mass media, unless you own it, you are a wage slave, as any of the democratic theorists of the Enlightenment would describe it. In short, unless you own the media network or outlet, you do what you’re told, or you’re fired. The obvious is amazingly overlooked, and overlooked chronically and systematically. As the famous movie line said, “Never underestimate the power of denial.”
Of course, hierarchical power structures, like those in the mass media, make certain limited attempts to make their serfs and chattel feel like they are human beings and not mere pawns, cogs or slaves - or at least they do if they are intelligent, if only to keep the cattle pacified, compliant and demure. But as everyone knows who’s ever worked for a government agency, corporation or any other hierarchical organization, you ultimately do as you’re told, or you leave or are forced to leave. Power flows from the top down in power structures that are hierarchically structured, as most are today, and have been for millennia. When power flows from the top down, there is no democracy; and when there is no democracy, there is no real room for a diversity of views or any major divergences of perspective: debate and discussion is within the bounds set by those at the top, and the final word comes from above, and from nowhere else. You either accept that you are ultimately a peon, a tool of those in power, no matter how well paid you may be or how big an office you may have, or you leave.
Hierarchical power structures are by and large, if not essentially, antithetical to real democracy, just as they are antithetical to serious journalism and to democratic debate and discourse. We keep wishing to have our cake and eat it too: we can be serfs, and not be confined by the highly limited parameters that serfdom entails. We are deluding ourselves. There is democracy or there is serfdom. Choose your option. You cannot have both.
A little reality-tolerance or basic self-honesty would be good here. If we want serious journalism, then we need to have it controlled by democratic communities and democratic media, and not by powerful nation states, corporate empires, advertising dollars or somebody’s personal fiefdom.
The writing is on the wall. Serious journalism is dead - in the major media at least: but it is alive and well in the streets, and it is reviving itself, and coming back to life, because it is addressing the systematic core problems of the mass media, and restructuring itself to accommodate a form and a structure that is compatible with real journalism.
Journalists and media workers should think carefully and deeply about the issues and the picture presented here; and ask themselves very probing, often difficult questions with regard to these. The “consumers” of journalism and the media - that is, we the people - should think long and hard about what kinds of media and “journalism” or “news” we are willing to swallow or consume. What we ingest mentally is far more significant than even what we ingest physically. While everybody is concerned with what they eat, nobody is concerned with what they watch or read. This must change, and fortunately, it is beginning to change, and change rapidly. Jefferson and Thoreau, among others, could guide us here - if we are willing to listen. Happily, we are finding our ears.
There is a sea change taking place in the way we relate to, select, choose and ingest - and create and participate in the media. A shift is taking place, and it is from hegemony and media empires of concentrated power and unidirectional information flow, to distributed, diverse, decentralized and democratic, participatory media; and this will benefit, as well as be furthered, by the second wave of democratic revolutions which is arising now.
Power to the people. Let democracy live. And let the media become democratized as well: it is a must, a necessity, and it is a fact that this is exactly what is arising and happening now. Democracy cannot function or even exist without a vibrant, open and diverse democratic media. We now need a second wave of democratic revolutions, and we also urgently need to democratize the media, and end the dominance of the media empires. And this is just what is beginning to happen.
Feed the revolution. Change the channel. And let us democratize the media now. The people will make their own.
J. Todd Ring,
October 29, 2011
For two of the best books on media analysis (audio and digital versions are available online as well as hard copy) see:
Necessary Illusions and Manufacturing Consent, both by Noam Chomsky
For serious journalism and real news, here are a few resources - many more could be listed, but we’ll keep it short, and focus on a few of the best: dial it up, plug it in, and turn off the noise
The Real News Network
The Centre for Research On Globalization
Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting
Your own mind a few good books – always the best source.