Sometimes the corporate media does an exposé on a part of itself, “critically” examining some tiny aspect of the way it functions. By drawing our attention to a specific behavior or occurrence, perhaps the media hopes we will see it as self-monitoring and self-correcting. We shouldn’t be fooled, however. The corporate media’s main mission is not to inform or elucidate – even when it appears to be shining a spotlight on its own questionable behavior. The corporate media’s main mission is to make ever greater profits. They may be getting increasingly creative in how they do this, but the changes are just variations on the original model.
When the Media Reports on Itself
The Boston Globe recently held up the self-scrutinizing mirror and took a peek at how the corporate media functions in a May 30, 2015 article titled, “On TV news, lines blur between journalism, ads.” The story goes something like this: a local Boston TV station is giving air time to Boston-based marketer, Allen & Gerritson, to run “interviews” with celebrities and entrepreneurs. This little segment of “sponsored content” blends just so with the news, looking not quite like a commercial and not quite like the news. On May 28, for example, Joel Idelson, executive vice president of Allen & Gerritson interviewed the co-founder of an online shaving supply store called Harry’s. According to the Globe reporter, what helps differentiate “sponsored” content from real “news” content is that the interview was congenial, not as hard-hitting as “normal” news interviews are. Also, the interviewer is casually dressed, and at the end, the segment has its own credits and is identified as an “A&G Entertainment presentation.”
You might think, upon reading this article, that the Boston Globe is on the prowl for the ways that the corporate media skirts dangerously close to overlapping with the interests of its corporate sponsors. This article even confesses in one of those “full disclosure” moments that the Globe itself just hired a “director of content marketing to oversee the creation of sponsored content” and that the New York Times recently “launched T Brand Studio, which produces stories, graphics, and videos that promote corporate interests and appear on the Times’s website.” A good example of this is a web page that appears to be investigating female incarceration. Complete with captivating infographics, high quality videos, and stunning photography, the page is actually an ad for the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.”
Aside #1: I don’t mean to send more hits to the NYT’s “paid post” website, but if you want to see what happens when a corporate media giant teams up with a technology giant or bank giant or a car manufacturing giant to create slick new content that seamlessly promotes a brand and provides “informs the public,” look up the New York Times’s “ideas lab.”
Aside #2: Nor do I mean to send more traffic to Harry’s, the online shaving store whose founder was interviewed in the pseudo news interview/commercial/sponsored content piece mentioned above. But there’s an interesting thing on their website – a “magazine” called “Five O’Clock.” (Get it?) It features manly men doing manly things like inventing things, fixing things, climbing mountains, carrying brief cases, being dads, and of course shaving.
It looks like these two supposedly distinct things – the mainstream media, which are supposed to be delivering news, and the Madison Ave. marketers, which are supposed to be selling us stuff – are more and more meeting in the middle. They are merging into one boundary-less mass of “content.” Is it an ad? Is it an article? Is it a news show or a commercial? It’s hard to say, and it almost doesn’t matter. The “information” and the pitch-to-buy are seamlessly blended into one.
This is Nothing New
On the one hand, this seems like a scary new development, a breaking down of objectivity, an infiltration of corporate interests into our “news.” But on the other hand, this is nothing new.
The mainstream media has always acted as a conduit that delivers consumers to its corporate sponsors. It has always aimed to be the best possible, most well-greased conduit it can be, and it accomplishes this in obvious and some not-so-obvious ways.
Obvious: The media make direct and indirect pitches to us to buy something. For example, The Boston Globe publishes every Saturday an automotive section of the newspaper dedicated to “news” about cars, car parts, and car manufacturing. To get the reader in a car-buying frame of mind, the newspaper might run stories all week that address the issues a car owner or potential car owner might be thinking about such as how to finance your car purchase, interesting driving destinations, how to find parking in the city, how to buy the best car seats, and ways to keep your kids happy on long car rides. These stories might be “balanced” in the sense that experts may disagree on the best way to keep your kids happy on long car rides or what the best driving destinations are and why. But the take-away message is: everyone should have a car; cars are great; they’re like your own private, climate-controlled palace; they’re how you will be a successful parent, a dependable worker, a fun-loving individual who has a blast buying groceries; they’re what make you a real person who does normal things.
Not-so-obvious: On a more subtle level, the media go beyond pitching products. They coach us to see ourselves as consumers – as individuals who realize our fullest selves via the stuff we buy. Whether it is cars or mortgages or college educations or gadgets, buying things is the key way we act on the world. It is one of the only ways we have an impact or exercise choice. Next time you read the mainstream media, take note of how rarely you see ordinary people having an effect on anything important happening in the world. Most of the news appears to just happen all by itself. The economy crashes, the wars continue, real wages go down, and confederate flags fly. The mechanism for how these things happen is unclear, and no ordinary human beings appear to have anything to do with it. In today’s Globe (6-23-15), ordinary people are portrayed as doing things like dying in heat waves, getting addicted to opiates, and experiencing storm damage. You might be so used to this that you don’t even notice it anymore. But it is quite breathtaking how hard the media work to make sure human beings are not portrayed more realistically – that is, as we know ourselves to be and as we know most of the people in our circles to be: hardworking people who care about our families and our communities, who seek connection with others, who volunteer and help out in all sorts of ways, and who often join with others in big ways and small ways to try to make a difference in our communities.
Corporate Introspection Promotes Corporate Values
The mainstream media is an elaborate arena that employs thousands of talented writers, artists, designers, photographers, videographers, and salespeople. Their task is to deliver the purchasing power of the largest possible segment of the population to companies with products to sell. The real investigative question about this system is: is it possible for a for-profit entity driven by advertising revenue to provide the public with the news and analysis it needs to be active and engaged members of society? The answer of course would be no.
So the media are not going to ask that question. Instead the media occasionally ask a narrower investigative question (such as the Globe pondering the new way that local TV stations are trying out “sponsored content”). This narrowing of our focus is in itself a method for propping up the corporate system, for it reinforces the idea that the system as a whole is inviolable – not something that should be scrutinized or even thought about, let alone replaced. By directing the consumer’s focus on to some specific function or outcome of the corporate model, the media distracts us from the whole elaborate system. Add this strategy to the obvious and not-so-obvious strategies mentioned above, and you’ve got a pretty hard-working machine that apparently can never rest.
And that’s the good news: Look how hard they have to work, how many resources they have to waste, how much human creativity they have to throw down the drain in this great effort to keep us all in line. Apparently, it’s an uphill battle to turn people into isolated shopping pawns.