Media Trends & Us


WHAT could be more symbolic of the disarray of the French press, as it faces an alarming fall in sales figures, than that the erstwhile Maoist daily Libération recently decided to cede a major shareholding to the banker Edouard de Rothschild? Last year the Socpresse group, publisher of some 70 major titles including Le Figaro, L’Express, L’Expansion and dozens of regional newspapers, was bought by an arms manufacturer, Serge Dassault. Another arms manufacturer, Arnaud Lagardère, already owns the Hachette group (1), with 47 magazines (including Elle and Première) besides dailies such as La Provence, Nice-Matin and Corse-Presse. If this decline in diversity continues, the independent press (2) risks being controlled by a few industrialists – Bouygues, Dassault, Lagardère, Pinault, Arnault, Bolloré and Bertelsmann – whose busy merger activities threaten plurality (3).

 

The fall in circulation is now affecting the quality press. For the first time in more than 15 years Le Monde diplomatique is also in the firing line. Since 1990 we have had a regular rise in sales. Between 2001 and 2003 we saw record sales, a cumulative rise of more than 25% (4). However, for 2004 (although the final results are not in yet) we expect a fall of about 12% (5). Most major dailies will also report falling sales, on top of already disappointing figures from 2003: Le Figaro -4.4%; Libèration -6.2%; Les Echos -6.4%; Le Monde -7.5%; and La Tribune -12.3%.

 

This is far from being a French phenomenon. Sales of the American daily, the International Herald Tribune, dropped by 4.16% in 2003; in Britain sales of the Financial Times have fallen by 6.6%; over the past five years, newspaper sales have fallen by 7.7% in Germany, 9.5% in Denmark, 9.9% in Austria and 6.9% in Belgium.

 

Even in Japan, with the highest purchase of newspapers in the world per head of population, sales have fallen by 2.2%. Over the past decade in the European Union the number of papers sold overall has fallen by a million a day. Worldwide, the distribution of purchased (rather than free) papers has been falling at an average of 2% a year. Some people are beginning to wonder whether the printed press is a thing of the past, a relic of the industrial era destined for extinction.

 

Titles are disappearing everywhere. In Hungary the daily Magyar Hirlap (owned by the Swiss Ringier group) closed on 5 November 2004. The previous day in Hong Kong, the prime reference weekly for Asian affairs, the Far Eastern Economic Review (owned by the US Dow Jones group), went out of business. In France, on 7 November 2004, the monthly magazine Nova suspended publication.

 

In the US, between 2000 and 2004, more than 2,000 press jobs were lost – 4% of the total workforce. The recession has also hit agencies that provide papers with information, with the industry giant, Reuters, recently announcing the lay-off of 4,500 staff.

 

 

Give-away dailies, and the internet

 

The external causes of this crisis are well-known. There is the devastating onslaught of give-away dailies. In France 20 Minutes leads the way with more than 2 million readers a day, with runners-up Le Parisien (1.7 million) and Metro (1.6 million). These free papers drain substantial advertising revenue from the traditional press, since advertisers do not care care whether readers pay for the papers.

 

As a way of countering this competition – which could kill dailies and already threatens weeklies – some titles, particularly in Italy, Spain, Greece and Turkey (although the phenomenon is spreading in France), are offering DVDs, CDs, cartoon strips, books, atlases and encyclopaedias, plus stamp collections, collectable banknotes, sets of glasses and chess games, all in return for a small increase in the cover price. This only worsens the confusion between information and commodification, with the danger that readers no longer know what they are buying. In adopting these tactics, newspapers lose their distinct identity, their status is downgraded and they venture on a slippery slope with an unpredictable outcome.

 

The other external cause is, of course, the internet, which continues to expand at an extraordinary rate. During the first quarter of 2004 more than 4.7m websites were created. The world currently has some 70m websites and the net more than 700 million users. In developed countries many people have given up reading newspapers, and even watching television, in favour of the computer screen. The arrival of ADSL (asymetric digital subscriber line) has changed things dramatically. For between 10 and 30 pounds a month people can enjoy broadband access. In France 5.5m households have already signed up, giving them high- speed downloads of online news (79% of the world’s newspapers have online editions) and a huge range of other information, email, photos, music, radio and television, films and video games.

 

There is also “blogging”, which exploded worldwide in 2004. “Blogs” are personal diaries that mix news and opinion, verified facts and rumours, documented analysis and personal impressions. They have proved so successful that most online newspapers now have them.

Their popularity suggests that many readers prefer the subjectivity and partiality of the bloggers to the hypocritical and false objectivity and impartiality of major papers. The growing possibility of connecting to the net through the new generation of mobile phones is likely to accelerate this process. Information is ever more mobile and nomadic. People can now access what is happening anywhere in the world at any moment of every day.

 

In India the Times Internet company, a multimedia subsidiary of the daily Times of India, has a service that every month sends to subscribers more than 30m messages via SMS, a technology that is rapid, concise and inexpensive. In Japan and South Korea a growing number of people now receive the day’s news via their mobile phones, which give continuous access to radio, plus television and 24-hour news channels. As a result, competition between non-net news sectors has now become so severe that all the providers are losing audiences (6).

 

 

The internal causes

 

But this crisis also has internal causes, which are mostly due to the loss of credibility of print media. One serious reason is that the press is being taken over by industrial groups that both run the economy and are in league with those who control politics. Another is that onesidedness, lack of objectivity, lies, manipulations and fraud are on the increase. We are under no illusion that there was ever a golden age of news, but such excesses now affect even the quality press. In the US the scandal of Jayson Blair – a journalist who falsified facts, plagiarised articles and invented stories – did huge damage to the New York Times, which had often put his stories on the front page (7). This newspaper of reference among the professional classes went through enormous structural changes afterwards: executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd were forced to resign, and for the first time a post of ombudsman was created – Daniel Okrent, opinion columnist and former editor-at- large of Time Inc.

 

A few months later came an even more shocking scandal at the leading daily, USA Today. Its readers were astonished to discover that its most celebrated journalist, Jack Kelley, a star who had interviewed 36 heads of state, covered a dozen wars and been a household name around the world for 20 years – was a compulsive fabricator of stories, a serial forger. Between 1993 and 2003 he had invented hundreds of sensational stories. By luck he always seemed to be on the spot when things happened, and readers would be treated to his graphic descriptions of them. He claimed to have witnessed a bombing in a pizza parlour in Jerusalem and described how three men next to him had been lifted up bodily by the explosion; they came down again with their heads blown off and rolling around in the street.

 

Another outrageous story was his article about Cuba. Kelley had photographed a worker in a hotel (“Jacqueline”) and reported on her clandestine flight aboard a makeshift boat, and how she drowned in the straits of Florida. In reality the woman (real name Yamilet Fernandez) is alive and well, and never endured any such dramatic events. Another USA Today journalist, Blake Morrison, met her and revealed that Kelley had made up the story (8). The Kelley frauds, now regarded as among the gravest scandals in the history of US journalism, cost the jobs of the USA Today editor, Karen Jurgensen, executive editor, Brian Gallagher, and news editor, Hal Ritter (9).

 

More recently, during the presidential election campaign, a new ethical storm hit the media. Dan Rather, star presenter of CBS’s television news programme and anchorman for the prestigious Sixty Minutes programme, admitted that he had made public, without checking, forged documents that cast doubt on President George Bush’s service in the Texas National Air Guard (10). Rather announced that he was stepping down from his job.

 

 

Agents of propaganda

 

Compounding these disasters we now have a situation in which major media, notably television’s Fox News (11), have been transformed into propaganda organs for White House lies about the war in Iraq. Newspapers failed either to check or challenge statements from the Bush administration. If they had, a documentary such as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 would not have enjoyed the success that it did. The information in the film had been around for a long time, but it had been kept under wraps by the media.

 

Even the Washington Post and the New York Times took part in this “brainwashing”, as was revealed in a recent article by John Pilger (12). He quoted headlines claiming that Iraq had secret arsenals of bacteriological, chemical and nuclear weapons and concluded that all these articles were propaganda. An internal email from New York Times star reporter Judith Miller (which was published in the Washington Post) admitted that her main source for such stories had been Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi exile known for his dubious statements. He was the leader of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), based in Washington and funded by the CIA. A US Congress inquiry later concluded that all the information supplied by Chalabi and other INC exiles had been worthless.

 

A CIA officer, Robert Baer, revealed how the system of disinformation worked. The INC took information from supposed defectors and passed it to the CIA. Then the INC would tell reporters, “If you don’t believe us, phone the CIA”, setting up a self-confirming loop. In this way, the New York Times could claim that it had two sources for its stories about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Washington Post likewise. Journalists didn’t bother to inquire further. Anyway their editors were asking them to support the government, out of patriotism (13).

 

The Washington Post’s editor, Steve Coll, was forced to resign on 25 August 2004, after an inquiry highlighted the lack of space given to articles that contested the government’s positions before the invasion of Iraq (14). The New York Times also offered a mea culpa in an editorial on 26 May 2004, in which it admitted a lack of rigour in its presentation of events leading up to the war, and publicly regretted having given “erroneous information”.

 

France has also had its share of media disasters, including the way major papers treated recent stories about the victimisation of an Algerian-born baggage handler at Orly airport, a paedophile ring in Outreau and a woman who falsely claimed to have been the victim of an anti-Semitic attack on the Paris underground.

 

Similar things have happened in other countries. In Spain, after the Madrid bombings of 11 March 2004, the media controlled by the government of José-Maria Aznar tried to manipulate the situation for electoral purposes by concealing the involvement of al-Qaida and blaming Eta, the Basque separatist organisation.

 

 

Journalism of compliancy

 

All these scandals, plus media cosying up to the economic and political powers-that-be, have done tremendous harm to press credibility. They reveal a disturbing democratic deficit. A journalism of compliance is in the ascendancy and critical journalism on the decline. We could be forgiven for thinking that, given the new realities of globalisation and media mega-groups, the idea of a free press is threatened with extinction.

 

Recent statements by Serge Dassault confirm the worst fears. When he took over Le Figaro, he told his editors: “I would hope that, where possible, the newspaper will devote more thought to our commercial interests. In my view, there are sometimes news items that require a lot of caution. For instance, articles that talk about contracts being negotiated. There is some news that does more harm than good. The risk is that it threatens the commercial or industrial interests of our country” (15). What he meant by “our country” was his arms manufacturing company, Dassault- Aviation. Presumably it was also to protect his company that he censored the story about the fraudulent sale of Mirage aircraft to Taiwan, and the story about discussions between Jacques Chirac and Abdelaziz Bouteflika on the planned sale of Rafale aircraft to Algeria (16).

 

He set off alarm bells for journalists when he expanded on his reasons for deciding to buy L’Express and Le Figaro (17). A newspaper, he said, “makes it possible to convey a certain number of healthy ideas . . .

Leftwing ideas are non-healthy ideas. Today we’re in a mess because of leftwing ideas that are still around” (18). We could put these remarks beside comments by Patrick Le Lay of French media giant TF1. Describing his company’s mission he said: “The job of TF1 is to help Coca-Cola to sell its product. What we sell to Coca-Cola is an availability of human brain-time” (19). Such statements express starkly the dangers inherent in the overlap of information and marketing. Obsessive commercialism directly contradicts the ethics of journalism.

 

Commercial interests can make substantial inroads into journalism without readers even realising it. Walter Wells, editor of the International Herald Tribune (which belongs to the New York Times, a company that is quoted on the stock exchange) recently warned of the dangers of press enterprises going public on the Stock Exchange. As he said, when people take an editorial decision they have to ask themselves whether it will raise or lower the value of their publishing company’s shares. This has become a major preoccupation. Editors constantly receive directives from a paper’s financial owners, which is something new in journalism (20).

 

On the net, manipulation and entrapment of readers can go even further. So the Forbes.com site, owned by US economics journal Forbes, creates new possibilities for advertising by including promotional links within the content of articles. Advertisers buy keywords, and when a reader’s mouse passes over them, a pop-up appears with an advertising message. Journalists are not told in advance which keywords have been bought, and some wonder if they will soon be asked to write articles containing keywords to keep advertisers happy and revenues rolling.

 

 

Public awareness

 

The public is increasingly aware of these new dangers and sensitive to media manipulation. Yet it also paradoxically believes that, despite the media saturation in our society, we live in a state of information insecurity. Information may proliferate but we have zero guarantee of its reliability. It may turn out to be false. Journalism today is characterised by speculation and spectacle, to the detriment of properly investigative journalism. Display and packaging have taken over from verification of facts.

 

Instead of functioning as a last bastion against standards declining because of the pressures of high- speed communication, newspapers are failing in their duty. By sometimes adopting a lazy police-style (21) approach to investigation they have helped discredit an institution that used to be regarded as the fourth estate. As Le Monde diplomatique’s founder, Hubert Beuve-Méry, always used to remark: “Comment is free; facts are sacred.” But current media attitudes take the opposite position – and editors seem to think that their opinions, rarely substantiated, are sacred, while facts can happily be distorted to fit those opinions.

 

In our current situation, in which enthusiasm for action is waning and people’s visions of the future are pessimistic, the editorial team of Le Monde diplomatique is making every effort to improve its content. For us, it is crucially important not to betray our readers’ trust. More than ever we rely on their activity and solidarity to defend our independence and the freedom that this guarantees for us. We would like to remind them gently that the best way to support us is to subscribe and to encourage friends and family to do the same.

 

We are the paper of a society in movement, of those with a critical view of society, of those who want the world to change. We intend to stay faithful to the fundamental principles of our way of making news. That means slowing down the acceleration of media; opting for journalism that can illuminate the darker areas of present reality; interesting ourselves in situations that are not in the media’s spotlight, but that can help us to a better understanding of the international context; offering even more complete, deep-ranging and better-documented supplements on major contemporary issues; going to the heart of those issues with rigour and seriousness; presenting news and information not often published, and, indeed, often concealed; and daring to go against the tide of the dominant media.

 

We remain convinced that the quality of public debate depends on the quality of available information, and that the quality of public discussion is the crucial factor in creating a rich democracy.

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