February 26, 2007

Why is Mainstream American Journalism Failing?

"The problem with the MSM is that they don't want to educate they want to sell." That suscinctly sums up the mainstream media, which is why I call it the corporate media.

With the help of commentary by journalism professor, Bob Jensen, lets exlpore the question, "Why is the American corporate media failing to provide independent and critical journalism?"

1) Commercial, for profit, enterprises have a structure that constrains their capacity to operate.

2) Journalistic practices have evolved to foster the notion that they must rely on official sources.

3) American journalists are socialized to believe that the United States acts with benevolence in domestic and world affairs. This is based on the mythology that the US, as an early democracy, is a break with history and thus unique in its benevolence.

Another question is the paradox of so-called "liberal journalism." How is it that statistics can show individual members of the media trend toward describing themselves as moderate or liberal while the media is so conservative? First, the definition of moderate has shifted significantly to the right since the 1980s, so what might seem moderate today was less so in years past.

Second, those who are "liberal" towards gay rights and other liberal social norms aren't necessarily economic liberals.

Third, liberal reporters answer to editors who in turn answer to management who in turn answer to owners and advertisers; the commercial pressure in a concentrating market imposes a conservatism toward questioning the status quo along the chain of command down to the reports. At the apex of the chain are now huge transnational corporations. The primary US media has consolidated from about 50 outlets in the mid-1980s to about six today:

Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation (FOX, HarperCollins, New York Post, Weekly Standard, TV Guide, DirecTV and 35 TV stations),

General Electric (NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, Telemundo, Bravo, Universal Pictures and 28 TV stations),

Time Warner (AOL, CNN, Warner Bros., Time and its 130-plus magazines),

Disney (ABC, Disney Channel, ESPN, 10 TV and 72 radio stations),

Viacom (CBS, MTV, Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures, Simon & Schuster and 183 U.S. radio stations), and

(Random House and its more than 120 imprints worldwide, and Gruner + Jahr and its more than 110 magazines in 10 countries).

These giant corporations, almost by definition, are conservative institutions that answer to investors and commercial culture.

That status quo is one of corporate globalization, and deregulation that includes the telecommunications industry. The result includes concentrated wealth among the executives and many media figures who, as celebrities, are part of the wealthy elite. If they want to maintain their status, they cannot rock the boat. Even the lowly media research assistant faces job security pressures that lead to risk averse (conservative) behavior; getting a job in main stream media is competative to begin with. Then, you have to toe the corporate line to move up the chain. And if you're lucky enough to advance, you become an insider who doesn't want to blow it by challenging the dominant corporate structure. There simply aren't a bunch of liberals at the top questioning why they're getting disproportionate benefits from recent tax cuts, why the US has an imperialistic foreign policy, why bankruptcy laws were written to favor large financial institutions rather than common people, why campaign finance laws are failing our democracy while funneling huge profits to television outlets in the form of campaign advertizing revenue.

So, these huge multinational media corporations are conservative, not liberal. But what of the first three points? We've dealt with the first one; corporate rule is not liberal and it dominates mainstream media.

The second point is actually a symptom of the first point, and we've alluded to it in reference to celebrity media figures. The Scooter Libby trial pulled back the curtain on this to some degree. Mainstream journalists are not pressured by their editors to get controversial stories about US fostering death squads in Iraq; they didn't cover it in Central America in the 1980s, and it's not being covered now. The editor isn't pushing for investigative reporting, in part because the budgets have been cut as part of the media consolidation process (news isn't a huge revenue generator and investigative journalism costs money). It's easier to report what the government officials say at their press conferences or (wow) private conversations!! It's also safer to one's career; you can't make mistakes by simply reporting what you're told by "government officials". And, to maintain this comfort zone, it's important for reporters to maintain good relations with their sources. As a consequence, there is pressure to avoid being too critical of government official sources that reporters have invested time cultivating. The bottom line is that the vast majority of mainstream reporters and producers don't want to rock the boat... this how the media works, and it is a conservative mode of operation, not liberal.

The third point, about the Amarican mythology that "we're the good guys," also points to conservatism. The mainstream media didn't spend much time describing the cozy US relationship with Saddam Hussein in the 1980s when reporting on his recent hanging (little mention that the US allowed sales of pesticide base ingredients the were ultimately used on Kurdish villages). In fact, you rarely ever hear about the pattern of such relationships: The US creation of Osama bin Laden during the Afghan war, nor the fact that the US helped engineer that war (the "Bear Trap" designed to create a Vietnam for the USSR according to Zbigniew Brzezinski), Manuel Noriega in Panama, Diem in South Vietnam and support of dictators like Marcos in the Phillipines and the Shah of Iran, not to mention the current monarchy of Saudi Arabia and dictatorship in Pakistan.

The contradition of the US supporting these bad guys isn't questioned by the mainstream media. The US government routinely supports brutal dictators who in turn allow US corporations to exploit their resources (oil, minerals, agricultural plantation products, cheap labor); the dictators and corporations get rich, and the US government officials are treated well by the corporate elite, often rotatng through jobs in the private sector, while the peasants of these countries and US middle class are squeezed. The mainstream media doesn't report on this to any appreciable degree, why? In part because it doesn't fit the American mythology, "We're the good guys."


1. Media Matters, with Bob McChesney, Interview with Bob Jensen, Professor of Journalism, University of Texas at Austin, February 25, 2007.

2. Why Media Ownership Matters, April 3, 2005 by the Seattle Times by Amy Goodman and David Goodman.

1 comment:

dagNABbit said...

I must disagree on the issue of media consolidation. I consult on this issue for the NAB in DC, and if anything, media ownership should be relaxed.

Why? If no other reason, then to save local broadcasting.

The current rules are outdated, which preserve an uneven playing field -- free broadcasters now has to compete against the nibler cable and satellite providers, and advertising dollars aren't infinite.

Unless something changes -- like the FCC rules -- broadcasters are not going to be fully competitive. And I think that means the future of free local programming is at risk.