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News Incorporated


Reviewing

News Incorporated: Corporate Media Ownership and Its Threat to Democracy
Edited by Elliot D. Cohen
Prometheus Books, 2005

You don’t have to be an information junkie or a policy expert to get the sense that there is something awry with the American mass media today. On the major networks, news coverage wavers between superficial sound bites and sensationalism. Corporate behemoths meanwhile blast cookie-cutter programming over public airwaves. Even the Internet, often seen as the last frontier of media democracy, is capitulating to commercial interests as monopolies on broadband services mushroom. Starved of financial and political resources, independent public-interest media outlets are all but voiceless.

You could say that we should have seen it coming. Long before the days of broadcast licenses and ownership rules, James Madison reflected on the necessity of maintaining a vital and diverse public discourse at the helm of a democratic society: “the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.” He also warned that “power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.” Since the days the media was run by men in tights, there has been a growing divergence between the principles of plurality and openness at the core of the First Amendment and the rise of corporate power.

Today, however, a movement to revitalize free expression ideals in the media’s content and practice is finally beginning to crystallize as a growing community of activists, legal advocates, policymakers, and artists organize to oppose corporate domination of news, information, and creativity. In News Incorporated, ethicist Elliot D. Cohen has compiled insightful essays that take on the many facets of what he terms the corporate media’s “threat to democracy.” The book brings together scholarly and grassroots voices to illuminate the concepts and challenges within the media democracy movement.

Cohen introduces the book with a media manifesto, declaring that “colossal, corporate media empires have cooperatively joined ranks with government offices and agencies at the highest federal levels, spinning off an intricate, seamless politico-corporate media web of deception.” (15) Mainstream media have abandoned their obligation to serve the public good; the objectivity, diversity and independence that form the basis for a well-informed, open society have been trumped by the bottom line. Not only does this undermine basic journalistic ethics; it robs the citizenry of the power of self-rule, which is founded on people’s “opportunity to see, hear and judge for themselves” in every debate. (20) He cites coverage of the Iraq War as a textbook example of the conflicts of interest that enmesh major media organizations like Clear Channel and Fox, whose pro-Republican biases have led to distorted portrayals of the government’s policies and actions.

Each chapter of the book details an aspect of the expanding movement for  more democratic media, beginning with the basics—print and broadcast news journalism—to more abstract concepts of open access community networks and regulatory policy for emerging information technologies like broadband and satellite TV.

Peter Philips, media scholar and director of Project Censored, calls for a regime change in mainstream journalism based on the idea of “Real News”—which “speaks truth to power and challenges the hegemonic top-down corporate entertainment news systems.” (47) One of the greatest threats to news journalism today is the de facto “new censorship” of individual reporters stemming from an ingrained corporate culture: “It is not yet the deliberate killing of stories by official censors,” he writes, “but a rather subtle system of information suppression in the name of corporate profit and self-interest.”(37)

Norman Solomon, founder of the Institute for Public Accuracy, explains media corruption in terms of the oft-hidden infiltration of political money into the media industries, noting that in the 2000 election, campaign coffers accumulated “more than $5.5 million from the corporate owners of five powerhouse networks—Time Warner (CNN), Walt Disney (ABC), News Corp (Fox), Viacom (CBS) and General Electric (NBC).” He adds, “Free speech is of limited value when freedom to be heard requires big bucks.” (55) Moreover, writes Solomon, while business and political leaders manipulate the media,  media companies in turn use hype and spin to manipulate the news and by extension, the dynamics of the economy. The Silicon Valley bubble, he points out, was inflated in large part by mainstream news outlets, and our supposedly “free” press routinely curries favor among corporate sponsors by going soft on issues like the health hazards of cigarettes and air pollution.

According to another contributor, Mother Jones Publisher Jay Harris, corporate mass media’s strategy is more akin to brainwashing than informing the public. Countering the image of the “liberal media” touted by conservative pundits,  Harris comments, “to feed the content needs of a 24/7 news world, the right has created a formidable and prolific spin machine.” (84) Similarly, Danny Schechter, executive director of Mediachannel.org, details how news producers routinely twist words, parry criticism, and coddle friendly elected officials by “framing” the issues to influence public perception. Referring to media deregulation under the 1996 Telecommunications Act, MSNBC blogger Eric Alterman reflects, “Where, one might ask, were the [So-Called Liberal Media] when their corporate owners were rewriting the rules of democratic debate to increase their own profits?” (115)

Other authors in the book call for a more progressive media through different conduits of reform.

Charyl Leanza and Harold Feld of the Media Access Project outline the limitations as well as the potential of government regulation to protect the public’s interest in media diversity  while at the same time preserving the autonomy of private media producers. The tension lies between the “free market” concept of deregulation that has fueled recent FCC policies and the political and financial realities  that may stifle the speech of communities and independent outlets. While government institutions cannot wholly be trusted to protect free expression, they argue, sound regulatory policies are necessary to hold the media accountable as “public trustees.”

Mark Cooper, director of research of the Consumer Federation of America, contends that media policy must catch up with “the convergence of all media into a single, digital information platform in the new millennium.” (157) The emergence of the Internet, and more recently, high-speed wireless communications networks, he says, are actually not as unprecedented  the politically sluggish Federal Communications Commission might have you believe. The efflorescence of public discourse through a flexible and open medium like the Internet is just an extension of the tenet espoused by the Supreme Court in 1945 in Associated Press v. United States: that the “widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public.” (157) The courts, the FCC, activists, and elected officials, argues Cooper, must all work to promote diversity and localism in media, fight the rollback of restrictions on broadband Internet access monopolization, unlock the electromagnetic spectrum for public broadcast and wireless use, and foster nonprofit media entities.

Yet the solution begins neither with policy nor with corporate responsibility, but  with a broad, grassroots movement for a more just, ethical and open communications system. Cohen’s book, though often repetitive in its explication of key issues, offers a fairly comprehensive round-up of the main principles guiding media activists today. However, it falls just short of providing readers with perhaps the most crucial component of a media revolution: a unified strategy for both consumers and producers of media to reclaim the public information system on which our democracy depends. Such a plan, of course, is not within the scope of this volume, which serves mainly as a primer for the budding media activist. In a sense, it fills an even more basic role by combating a lack of awareness among the consumers of media. Madison got it right when he declared, “a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

As Schechter points out, progressives may do well to learn from the example of the Right, which unlike the Left these days, was not content just to criticize the media from the margins and instead, gearing up for a comeback in the Reagan Era, became “determined to take it over.” (136)

The commentators in News Incorporated succeed in that they merely punctuate the start of what will hopefully be a rebirth of free expression activism. If more people start to listen up, these ideas will help seed a more informed, more active public—the foundation for a new conversation in society about how to change the ways the media inform and inspire us.

 

This review originally appeared in truncated form on the website of the Free Expression Policy Project: www.fepproject.org

 

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