In a previous Eco-Logical, we discussed the "tastes great, less filling" nature of today's news talk shows and the increasing fluffiness of the stories we get from mainstream news organizations, particularly news talk shows. One aspect of the Big Bad-News Issue we need to talk more about is the increasing influence of "corporate media" on both national and local news.
In the past, the press has been called the fourth branch of government because its investigative reporting added to the checks and balances of the three branches of US government. But is much investigative journalism being done anymore? Let's take ten story types and divide them into two categories:
|Local house and apartment fires
||Policy issues related to multi-million-acre forest fires
|Unusual weather patterns that cause local or regional problems
||The underlying issues that relate to global warming and ozone depletion and the potential threats to life on the planet
|Personal screw-ups by politicians
||Political favoritism for heavy campaign contributors; campaign finance reform
|Murders involving celebrities or unusual circumstances
||Inadequate health and environmental regulations (or poor enforcement) that result in countless deaths per year
|The latest big corporate merger
||How global corporations and global trade agreements are massively shifting wealth and power from the grassroots to a powerful few
If you listen to, watch, or read the "normal" news outlets, you're surely getting a much larger dose of stories from Category A than Category B, even though the stories in Category B are much more important to our democracy and to our long-term personal health and prosperity. It doesn't matter much whether it's national or local news you're looking at—these days, both types of news outlets are overwhelmingly controlled by corporate media conglomerates. But why doesn't big corporate media want you to see certain stories? We'll get to that, but first, a few words about how we got here.
Corporate involvement in media is nothing new. After all, corporations were there during the early days of radio and television, and some of those same corporations are still in the game today. But during the 20th century, as newspapers, radio, and TV stations sprouted up in cities and towns across the burgeoning urban-suburban landscape of the United States, there were many media owners—some were corporate owners, some were private owners. But over time, there has been increasing consolidation in the media biz. In the last two decades especially, there has been a notable effort by a handful of media giants to buy up privately held media outlets and to themselves merge with other corporate media outfits. Media analyst Ben Bagdikian points out that in 1983, 50 corporate-media entities owned the majority of
US news-media outlets. Today, that number has shrunk to just five—AOL-Time Warner, Disney, News Corp, Bertelsmann, and Viacom/CBS. (You could call it six if you want to be generous and throw in the smaller General Electric/NBC operation.)
Skeptics might say that this number is still plenty high enough to ensure robust competition. But they would be assuming that the media outlets are arranged so that each geographic area has at least two competing newspapers, two competing TV stations, and two competing radio stations. Not only is that assumption wrong, corporations are lobbying very hard—and quite successfully—to wipe away the remaining barriers to "media monopoly" in cities and towns across the US.
But the real problem with this grand media consolidation is more subtle, and far worse.
As media outlets have moved from private ownership to corporate ownership—and into fewer hands at that—two effects have started to dominate the quality of the news put out by these organizations:
- The corporate bottom line has replaced journalistic ambition as the primary goal. Top-notch investigative journalists are expensive and their numbers have been greatly trimmed at most news operations. It's also worth noting that investigative journalists have the darndest habit of turning up embarrassing information about corporations. Which leads us to the next point.
- Corporate interests are not well served by the reporting of bad news—it depresses consumer sentiment and spending. They also don't like the reporting of corporate malfeasance, which, well, just makes them look bad as a group.
- As part of the general "corporatization" of formerly independent media outlets, many healthy newspapers and other media comapnies were saddled with unhealthy levels of debt. In these deals, Wall Street sharpies and top-tier investors typically walked away with their pockets stuffed full, leaving the companies to struggle under both the debt and the burden of meeting quarterly earnings expectations. Many of these companies are now failing.
So, what are some of the stories you're not seeing because corporate media would rather you remain complacent? Well, not surprisingly, the number one ignored story is the continued consolidation, corporatization, and monopolization of media outlets. This trend is a clear affront to the US constitution's stated intent of freedom of the press. Our founding fathers sought to prevent the ruling class from dominating the press or what it might print. Today's government-corporate elites are flouting these principles to increase their wealth and power.
Here are a few more easy-to-find-if-you're-looking news threads that corporate media outlets have not said much about:
- Most tuna is thought by most experts to be unsafe to eat because of high mercury levels. The US FDA bowed to pressure from the fishing industry to soften its proposed new guidelines for tuna consumption. In the 2000s, political appointees repeatedly tried to weaken mercury-pollution standards for coal-fired power plants, which are the #1 source of mercury in fish.
- We have likely reached a point of maximum global oil production ("Peak Oil"), or we will reach it soon. Declining global oil supplies will have dire consequences for the transportation-dependent food industry as well as car-dependent suburbanites. It's also likely that the war in Iraq is part of a grand but unspoken strategy to control access to the planet's remaining oil supplies.
- Multiple official reports, including one commissioned by the Bush Administration, have declared the planet's oceans to be in serious trouble. Almost all measures of ocean health are going in the wrong direction. Almost nothing is being done about it by our elected government.
Reporting stories like these might change consumer buying behavior or might foment protest and political change, and that's usually bad for business and bad for those in power. So corporate media generally ignore such issues.
A relatively recent and troubling trend is that some news and corporate media outlets are actually coordinating "talking points" with government agencies, or at a minimum giving unquestioning coverage to multiple government officials and/or politicos all spouting the same coordinated message du jour. Thus, the news-starved public becomes ever more misinformed and manipulated. Somewhere in Hell, Nazi spinmeister Joseph Goebbels is observing the propaganda trends in our media, and the subtle smirk on his face is growing into a giddy smile.
So what can you do about it? First, fight the efforts of corporate media to grow even stronger. You can follow the action and voice your support via FreePress.net.
As for unplugging your brain from the corporate-media propaganda machine, forget mainstream television and radio news—it's more misinformation than news. Major newspapers only rarely do better.
The good news is that investigative reporting does still exist and truly informative news programs can be found—on the internet. Grinning Planet has a number of good news sources—see below.
Now we sign off. But before we do, we feel obliged to report one of our deepest, darkest secrets: We at Grinning Planet have always been news junkies, and the occasional news reports on the professor's coconut-powered radio were our favorite part of "Gilligan's Island." See ya next time, little buddies.