Broadcast journalism has never been this awful. If you’ve ever watched a few minutes of Fox News, CNN, or even Springfield’s own WICS (Channel 20) news and wondered how such programming could be aired, the answer is simple: Most of the major broadcast outlets have been gobbled up by a handful of companies in recent years. And it would not be an exaggeration to say that this consolidation of media is the single greatest contributor to the slow death of our democracy.
Media scholar Robert McChesney, professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, writes that the purpose of journalism is to perform three tasks: to monitor the powerful, to winnow the truth from the lies, and to present a range of informed positions on important issues. But the journalism produced by media conglomerates does the opposite. The junk news they broadcast is intended to protect the wealthy and idiotize the masses while trivializing crucially important issues.
The holdings of just five of the big media owners — General Electric, Walt Disney Co., Viacom, Time Warner, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. — show that little of the mass media has escaped the corporate Moloch. Disney’s media properties include ABC, ESPN, A&E, the History Channel, and several motion-picture studios. General Electric owns NBC, Universal Pictures, and the Spanish-language Telemundo. News Corp.’s holdings include Fox, DirecTV, the New York Post, and HarperCollins Publishers. Viacom owns CBS, Simon & Schuster, Paramount Pictures, and Blockbuster. Time Warner’s properties include CNN, America Online, HBO, and New Line Cinema. The people who run these companies and decide what we need to know are some of the wealthiest men on earth. As CEOs of enormous businesses, their job is sell a journalism that is the cheapest to produce, appeals to the largest market, and brings in the most profit. These values are not compatible with good journalism. Instead of thoughtful reports on global warming or the link between military spending and the national deficit, the news they give us is dominated by Michael Jackson or whoever the freak du jour happens to be.
Many people have complained that during the lead-up to the most recent war in Iraq, the media failed to do its job. As Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist Noam Chomsky has noted, the truth is that the corporate media did their job perfectly: The media’s assignment was to sell a criminal war to a naďve public — and that they did, with great success. In the months before the war, it was difficult to flip through the channels without being harangued by a series of store-bought senators and military gasbags debating just how truly superior our fighting force was and just how enthusiastically we would be greeted by the Iraqis. Like bumpkins at a county fair, Americans bought their snake oil. An unfortunate side effect of this sales job has been the deaths of some 100,000 Iraqis and more than 1,500 Americans.
We have learned nothing from this. The powers that control the media and put George W. Bush in office continue to manipulate and lie with impunity. It was recently revealed that television commentator Armstrong Williams was paid $240,000 to promote Bush’s education policies, and syndicated columnists Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus were paid $21,500 and $10,000, respectively, to advocate Bush’s marriage initiatives. This money was provided by U.S. taxpayers, and all of it was completely illegal. The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 forbids the domestic dissemination of government propaganda designed to sway public policy. Materials that serve “a solely partisan purpose” are expressly prohibited.
Williams, McManus, and Gallagher were caught being paid directly by the Bush administration, but it’s hard to imagine any journalist employed by the corporations listed above not performing essentially the same service. Those who do not present stories in a manner acceptable to the wealthy soon find themselves out of a job. He who pays the piper calls the tune, or, as New York Times columnist Russell Baker has written: “Journalists who have made it are those who have had the capacity for outrage bred out of them.”
As long as a handful of extremely wealthy individuals are allowed to control and filter the flow of information in this country, toothless trash journalism will be the standard and issues critical to our future will not be addressed.