Who Elected the Media?

In response to Edward Snowden’s leaks, corporate journalists have often been keen to ask:

“Who elected Snowden to decide what government secrets the public should know?

Who elected the journalists to whom Snowden passed along those secrets?”

Glenn Greenwald has always responded by citing the US constitution’s explicit protection of press freedom in the First Amendment. It appears to recognize the importance of any unelected citizen being able to challenge authorities about what the public is allowed to know.

However, for so-called “conservatives” who say they believe in the “free market”, the answer to these questions should be much more direct. They should simply say

“The free-market elected those journalists. Readers and advertisers voted with their wallets to support various newspapers. If those newspapers were seen to be working against their interests – to the point of actually putting them in significant danger – then surely they would be driven out of business.”

On the “libertarian” right of the U.S. political spectrum, this idea that the “free market” is the infallible provider of everything people need, want and deserve is taken the most seriously – way more than Adam Smith ever did. But does the publication of Greenwald’s work in private outlets like the Guardian, and now First Look Media, show that the market, putting aside any other failures, can “elect” the kind of media the public needs to keep both public and private power accountable?

The way that Snowden’s revelations are discussed quite dramatically illustrates that it can’t. Greenwald, as I noted in a previous article, has to defend himself against the allegation that he has not done enough to keep U.S. spies safe from the risk of assassination. U.S. spies have contributed to the murder and torture of hundreds of thousands of people – in the Western Hemisphere alone – over the past 50 years.  The media has imposed such widespread ignorance about that fact on the public that the safety of U.S. spies from a very far-fetched and hypothetical risk can be made a priority for discussion, not their prosecution and the prosecution of their bosses, for the gravest of crimes.

A similar point applies to the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. The corporate media congratulated itself for driving Richard Nixon to resign for trampling on the rights of very privileged people at home. Meanwhile, the U.S. public grossly underestimated how many Vietnamese were killed in a war of aggression perpetrated by Nixon and his immediate predecessors. In an essay published by Media Lens, Noam Chomsky was quoted as follows:

“I’m sure you’ve seen Sut Jhally’s study of estimates of Vietnam War deaths at the elite university where he teaches. Median 100,000, about 5% of the official figure, probably 2% of the actual figure. Astonishing – unless one bears in mind that for the US at least, many people don’t even have a clue where France is.”

The Media Lens editors had asked Chomsky to comment on a poll done in the UK in May of 2013. It found that 59% of UK citizens thought 10,000 or fewer Iraqis died as a consequence of the war that began in 2003. The most recent peer-reviewed scientific study estimated 500,000 deaths by 2011, and earlier studies show that much higher estimates are also credible.

The corporate media keeps the public ignorant in precisely the manner required to sell wars of aggression and bloated military budgets. Imposed ignorance also shields officials from legal consequences for their crimes abroad. It’s not hard to see how the media also facilitates abuses and injustice at home. It all stems from very powerful people evading scrutiny and controlling discussion.

In the USA, the total cost of assistance programs for the poor (“welfare”, food stamps, and housing subsidies) is a miniscule 4% of the government budget, yet polls have found up to 40% of the US public believing they are among the most expensive programs. In the UK, a poll released last year showed that the public massively overestimates (by a factor of 34) the cost of fraud in assistance programs for the poor.

The example of the UK is very important because it shows that having a large government owned media outlet – the BBC – offers no challenge to the corporate media when the rich also dominate the political process.  John Pilger wrote of the propaganda build-up leading to the Iraq War in 2003:

“According to Media Tenor, a mere two per cent of BBC news in the build-up to the invasion permitted anti-war voices to be heard. Compared with the main American [sic] networks, only CBS was more pro-war.”

It highlights the power of establishment propaganda that scholarly studies and polls are even required to argue something so obvious: an elite owned media will constrain public debate in ways that serve elite interests.

Global climate change induced by human activity is a threat everyone’s survival, but as the U.S. based group FAIR has pointed out, the U.S. media’s “debates” about this problem “elevate a marginal, industry-backed viewpoint to more or less equal standing with the overwhelming scientific consensus.” A very similar kind of “debate” is hosted by the government owned BBC in the UK.

In a country like Venezuela, where the rich have seen their influence over the political process severely weakened, government media can do a lot to widen public debate. As I discussed here, the Venezuelan government’s media reforms have provoked incredibly dishonest attacks from international press outlets and establishment-friendly NGOs.  The Venezuelan government has expanded government media (including community based media) and used regulatory measures to break the stranglehold that far right media barons have over public debate. However the approach has only weakened the power of private media barons. The unelected super-rich still have influence over public debate that nobody who takes democracy seriously should want. But what if the Venezuelan government went much farther than it has? What if it simply nationalized the largest private outlets?

Some valid objections are obvious if, and this is crucial, that was all the government did. To keep their elected governments accountable, the public needs media to be significantly independent of elected officials. However, relying on unelected billionaires to provide that required independence is absurd. Judging by the state of public ignorance in the USA and UK, the idea that barely funded, internet-based “citizen journalists” will effectively counter the establishment media has proven fanciful.

What should be done? I’d suggest greatly expanding publicly owned media but also implementing measures that ensure independence. Have the public directly elect the top managers of government owned outlets rather than have them be appointed by the government of the day. Allow each voter direct control over an equal portion of the government’s media budget which, every year, they can direct to any outlets they choose which are non-profit and non-advertising.

The second suggestion is basically what John Nichols and Robert McChesney have proposed as a way to ensure that government media subsidies support political diversity and are directly controlled by the public. It is important to stress that their suggestion is a not tax break which would empower people according to how much tax they pay which in turn depends on how rich they are. The proposal allows each voter an equal and direct say in who gets government funds for media.

Of course, a great deal of political reform is required to get radical media reform – and vice versa – but any government that implemented these kinds of measures could drastically increase the democratic legitimacy and appeal of public media. That would do a lot to abolish, once for all, the insanity of allowing unelected tycoons and corporate advertisers to control public debate.

*Joe Emersberger can be reached at  joeemersberger AT gmail DOT com

Leave a comment